Great art always makes me feel like the bottom has dropped out of my stomach. Those occasions where I’ve gone “Jesus Christ,” after a curtain call, or been shocked still in a gallery, or those occasions I’ve found myself swallowing unusually hard listening to a certain song. Great art doesn’t have to elicit this kind of response of course, but the things that stick in my mind tend to have physically struck me in this way
One of those moments was the first time I heard You’ll Never Walk Alone sung in full voice, stood on the Kop with my Dad, when I was probably nine years old. Seemingly every Scouser – at least every Liverpool supporter – knows the words by heart, without context, just via an emotional response and association. It wasn’t until years later I discovered You’ll Never Walk Alone was from Carousel, a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. I was dismissive, those musicals seemed stuffy and the movies went on for hours. No thanks. I’ll stick with the Gerry and the Pacemakers version for now, I thought.
It wasn’t until I became aware of Kelli O’Hara and her glorious vocal chords that I took R+H seriously; I listened to the Lincoln Center recording of South Pacific to hear her sing Ensign Nellie Forbush. The overture began to play, and I had one of those bottom-dropped-out-of-my-stomach moments. It’s an absolute stunning piece of music, one that needs to be played by a full orchestra to have maximum impact. I subsequently discovered that South Pacific is not only the greatest musical ever written, it’s one of the most significant pieces of American drama in the canon. Lacerating in its examination of race during the Second World War, parts were deemed too controversial for staging in 1949; the word ‘coloured’ was excised, for instance, as was a song that lamented the transmission of racism down the generations: ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.’
The prospect then of hearing the first seven minutes of Carousel, the Prologue/Carousel Waltz, played by the orchestra of the English National Opera was a thrilling one, let alone the rest of the score. Carousel is an earlier, less-perfect R+H work, but one which nevertheless massively challenged contemporary musical convention, most notably with the 10-minute-long bench scene, ‘If I Loved You,’ which intertwines the text and music so tightly they become completely inseparable. It also has Alfie Boe in it, which meant my Grandmother could come down to London for an afternoon and see it with me, it being her fault I’m hooked on the theatre in the first place (but that’s another blog post.) We hadn’t been to the theatre together in years.
We duly took our seats in the gods of the London Coliseum – as far as I’m aware the only theatre in London with sculptures of gladiators either side of the proscenium. I’m used to being the youngest in a theatre by a considerable margin, but it’s never normally so severe. There was at least 30 years between me and the next youngest patron in the balcony. But I digress.
The moment the music sweeps into the auditorium is a gorgeous one. There really is nothing like the noise of a 40-piece orchestra, and the sound they make is physically overwhelming. The Carousel Waltz is stunningly played, as is the whole score, and yes, the moment when the carousel begins to spin took my breath away. (It perhaps didn’t get a reaction like this production’s, the opening 7 minutes of which are legendary and thankfully preserved on Youtube.) The staging that accompanies the music is essentially the show in reverse; the curtain rises on Billy (Boe) at the graduation ceremony of his daughter, then we are flung back through the notable moments of the play, including a part of the ballet played backwards. While this is a fascinating approach, it does rather distract from the trajectory of the music, and it is only when the timelines are restored that the production feels assured of itself.
Musically then, the show is sound. A gorgeous orchestra playing R+H’s favourite of their scores, with an ensemble and a chorus that match them in full voice. Boe and Katherine Jenkins (as Billy’s love interest, Julie Jordan,) are vocally completely in command. This being an opera house, this is the priority and rightly so.
Carousel is a musical that tells the story of Billy Bigelow, a carousel-barker, who turns to crime to support his relationship with Julie. He is a brute, and a thug. He beats her, and she will not leave him, despite the pleadings of her best friend, Carrie (Alex Young.) Julie is so smitten, and probably terrified, that she takes whatever treatment Billy throws at her. One of the final lines of the show, spoken by Julie, is, “It’s possible, dear – for someone to hit you – hit you hard and not hurt at all.” Now, I don’t for a second believe that this is a line meant to excuse Billy’s behaviour. I don’t think it’s a particularly great line, which is why both Julie and Billy need to be brilliantly acted; we need to know why we should care about Billy (largely facilitated by his Soliloquy,) and we need to know why Julie is saying what she says. It just doesn’t wash with a modern audience. I honestly believe there is a way to rehabilitate Carousel without changing a word. Have Billy show some remorse, for God’s sake. It needs to be acted. The piece is too full of pitfalls to be done on a purely aesthetic basis.
Soliloquy, Billy’s song upon discovering Julie is pregnant, is a feat of writing. It’s 8 minutes without let-up, with an arc worthy of a play itself. He goes from imagining his escapades with his son, to mourning his child possibly being a girl, to resolving himself to doing whatever is necessary to provide for his family – including murder. It’s the first time we can sympathise with him truly. Boe sings it with all due gravitas, but the staging gets in the way. James Noone’s set is a giant turntable with various small staircases and ramps wheeled onto it, that Boe clambers over during the first part of the song, removing the focus from the lyrics, pushing the piece further away from political reconciliation. If anything, it’s over-staged. The website may well say ‘semi-staged’ but what is on stage at the Coliseum is a bona-fide, fully staged musical, in the traditional sense. Spotlights, lots of pauses for applause, tap dancing chorus boys… the works. The trappings of a traditional musical.
I’d love to see it properly stripped back, exposing the bones of what R+H wrote. There’s a strong skeleton in there. I’ve come to recognise my issue with modern musicals is that they very rarely stimulate the cerebral as well as the emotional, but R+H can and do, but their work is hidden behind sentiment and a conflation of the production and the material. Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific in 2008 is to my knowledge the only recent production that tried to get rid of the dust. I hope someone does the same to the rest of the musicals canon soon.
Carousel is an excellent musical. Musicals may well be unfashionable, but so much of that is to do with conflation of historical productions and the material. There is no reason to not do a perfectly serviceable version with vocally solid stars to put the ENO in the black, but it feels like there is an artistic opportuning dangling here, waiting for someone to snatch it. Not every musical can be treated radically, they’d fall apart. But these ones can, and so they should.
And yes, You’ll Never Walk Alone still gives me goosebumps.
Photo by Tristram Kenton.