Nick Hytner directs Carousel 1992

The National Theatre mounted a highly acclaimed production of Carousel as part of its 1992 season, directed by Nicholas Hytner, who recently retired as Artistic Director of the NT. The New York Times’ critic, Frank Rich, had sumptuous praise for the production in this review:

Surely this is the first staging of the piece in which the curtain does not rise to reveal a carousel. Instead the sinister opening bars of Rodgers’s waltz are set in the grim late-19th-century New England mill where the heroine, Julie Jordan, works absent-mindedly at her loom. The stage is at first dominated by a large Victorian clock that ticks off the minutes until the closing time of 6, at which point the clock flies away, the abruptly liberated mill laborers twirl out of the forbidding factory gates in mad abandon and a full moon sweeps one and all to the fairground. There the drab colors of industrial servitude briefly give way to bright lights and raucous carnival sideshows while the carousel is slowly erected by roustabouts before the audience’s eyes. Familiar as the music may be, it has never sounded so urgent or so troubling as it does when illustrated by this bittersweet cinematic panorama of oppression and release.

Without making a British fetish of class conflict, the National’s “Carousel” is always conscious of the lowly economic status of its major characters. When Julie (Joanna Riding) and Billy (Michael Hayden) get together in “If I Loved You,” the song’s indirect expression of feeling comes across not as coy musical-comedy flirtation but as inarticulate, self-protective wariness. These incipient young lovers, aged by drudgery and snubbed by respectable society, are old and achingly lonely before their time, a mere “couple of specks” in the scheme of things, as Billy sadly puts it. The duet’s sexual crescendo, so titillatingly elongated and then consummated in the tidal music, becomes Billy and Julie’s thrilling defiance of both their own sense of defeat and their community’s Puritan propriety.

The Hytner/NT production of Carousel was mounted in New York in 1994 at Lincoln Center, and this video (though its hand-held cinematography is less than idea) still manages to convey the brilliant effectiveness of the Carousel Waltz, the opening of the musical, a seamless fusion of dramatic staging, choreography and inventive scenic and costume design.

Michael Hayden earned considerable acclaim for his portrayal of Billy Bigelow in this production. He recreated his performance in the “Bench Scene” as part of the 1995 Oscar Hammerstein tribute “Some Enchanted Evening,” broadcast on PBS. The video only includes the first half of the scene, after which he and Sally Murphy exit and the video segues to the pas de deux that Kenneth MacMillan choreographed for young Louise and the Dream Barker in Act II to the same musical theme.

It is fascinating to contrast the high-strung twitchy acting style of Hayden and Murphy with the original actors, John Raitt and Jan Clayton, who recreated their performances in the Bench Scene for a televised performance in the 1950’s. Even making allowances for the formal circumstances of this telecast, the difference in acting styles – not to mention the sexual temperature of the scene – is immediately apparent.