First performed in 1945, Carousel was a phenomenal hit, running for almost 900 performances. Critics hail it as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work. Time magazine named it the best musical of the 20th century. Composer Richard Rodgers declared that Carousel was his personal favorite. While there’s a lot to admire, such as an interesting story line and inspiring ballads, I don’t believe Carousel ranks as highly as other musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Rogers and Hammerstein’s Ol’ Song and Dance
For me, the show is too long. I’m usually distrustful of musicals with a dream ballet slapped into the middle of a show. They rarely add to the storyline, and almost always induce yawns from the audience. (I apologize to all ballet enthusiasts reading this review!)
Carousel features too many pretty songs, many of which are a bit slow, in comparison to their more energetic musicals Oklahoma, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. There are beautiful melodies throughout Carousel. The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most spiritually stirring numbers. But there’s also a song dedicated to clambakes that borders on the ridiculous (“This Was a Real Nice Clambake” – even the title makes me smirk).
“Soliloquy” is by far the longest ballad in the show, running over seven minutes and filled with complex melodies and tempo changes. This song would be a lot more enjoyable if it wasn’t being sung by the obnoxious main character – the central flaw of this musical.
Here’s the Deal Breaker:
focuses on one of the most annoying protagonists in musical history: Billy Bigelow. Billy is brash, gruff, and who consistently makes bad choices. Upon hearing the news that he is going to be a father, he decides the best way to make money for his child is to commit robbery. But before committing the crime he gambles away his share of the stolen goods. And then he stabs himself when the police catch him!
Billy Bigelow is even an idiot in the after-life. In Act Two, he journeys up to the Pearly Gates and demands to talk to God. He is sent back to Earth to do one good deed to earn his place in Heaven. But instead of doing a good deed, he slaps his teen-age daughter! And for some disturbing reason, the girl says it feels like a kiss.
The Original Story
Carousel is based upon Lilliom, a play by Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar. In his original script, the protagonist fails to get into Heaven at the end. In Carousel, Billy’s ghost whispers a few kind words into his widow’s ear, and then he gets to float on up to Paradise. Call me judgmental, but I prefer my anti-hero characters to undergo a lot more struggle before they attain redemption.
By tacking on a happy ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein pleased millions of musical lovers. But they also obliterated the lesson of Molnar’s original story.