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Carousel Original Broadway Cast, 1945
Allegro Original Broadway Cast, 1947
Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Shortly after the opening of Oklahoma!,Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn phonedRichard Rodgers with a piece of advice.
'Oklahoma! is such a wonderful show. Youknow what you should do next? Shoot yourself.'Beneath the typical Goldwyn tactlessness,there was a germ of truth. Oklahoma! hadbecome the kind of smash hit never seen beforein the musical theatre. How could Rodgers andHammerstein possibly follow it?The answer was simple: they wouldn'tfollow it. Their next two works for the stagewere radically varied in style and created adistinctive pair of shows.
Carousel is arguably one of the greatest ofall American musicals, and Allegro, while aprofoundly flawed piece, contained theatricalelements that would come to fruition decadeslater in shows like Cabaret,Company andFollies.
The actual idea for Carousel originated withThe Theatre Guild, the producing organizationwho had been saved from financial insolvencyby the success of Oklahoma! Theresa Helburnand Lawrence Langner, the heads of the Guild,met once a week with Rodgers and Hammersteinfor a lunch where they discussed issues of casting,production etc related to their current hit.
About eight months after Oklahoma! hadopened, Helburn asked Rodgers and Hammersteinif they would be interested in turningFerenc Molnar's Liliom, a show they had firstproduced in 1921, into their next project.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's immediatereaction was negative. They had seen the recent1940 revival starring Burgess Meredith and IngridBergman in the story of an ill-starred Hungariancarnival barker with a tragic life. They couldn'tvisualize it as a musical, both because of its drabsetting and its relentlessly downbeat story.
But Helburn persisted and suggested theymove it to New Orleans. Hammerstein resisted,not wanting to create ersatz Cajun dialogue, buthe started to investigate the story morethoroughly.
It was the realization he could turn Liliom'ssoliloquy where he learns his wife is pregnantand wonders what kind of a father he'll makeinto a substantial musical theatre aria that madeHammerstein change his mind about the project.
And when Rodgers suggested shifting thelocale to a New England fishing village,everything seemed to fall into place. The showwas now set on the coast on Maine in 1873 andLiliom became Billy Bigelow, although hisprofession as a carnival barker remained thesame. The central attraction of his carnival, acarousel, gave the musical its new title.
Anxious to duplicate the triumph they hadknown with Oklahoma!,The Theatre Guildassembled as many of the same creativepersonnel as possible. Director RoubenMamoulian and choreographer Agnes De Milleheaded the list, although the two of them hadcordially detested each other working on theearlier show and had to both vow to be on theirbest behavior this time around.
Miles White remained on as CostumeDesigner, but Jo Mielziner replaced Lemuel Ayersas set and lighting designer.
During rehearsals, the atmosphere wasjoyous and everyone thought they were assuredof a hit when Molnar himself watched a finalrun-through in New York and loved it, even thenew upbeat ending that Hammerstein hadadded to replace his original tragic one.
But when the show opened in New Havenon 22 March 1945, it was generally agreed to bea disappointment. The second act, which dealswith Billy's journey to the 'other side' after hisdeath proved to be particularly hard for theaudience to take.
Instead of resting on their laurels, Rodgers &Hammerstein worked as hard as if they hadnever had a hit with Oklahoma! Theyrestructured the entire second act overnight.
The major change involved turning the dourcharacters of 'Mr and Mrs God' (played as aminister and his wife) into the more benevolentfigure of The Starkeeper. Ballets and songs werecut as well, and when it opened in Boston thenext week, reviews were better but still not raves.
The night before the New York opening,after an unhappy dress rehearsal, Rodgers andHammerstein contemplated the possibility offailure and decided that it didn't matter. 'Weloved what we had written', said Hammerstein,'and that was what was important to us'.
The opening night response on 19 April waswildly enthusiastic and although some of thecritics spent their time cataloguing the reasonsthat 'this was no Oklahoma!', the majorityagreed with John Chapman of the New York.
Daily News that it was 'one of the finest musicalplays I have ever seen'.
Ultimately, Carousel only ran 890performances, as opposed to the 2,248 rackedup by Oklahoma!, but time has proven it to bean equally enduring work. It is constantly beingproduced around the world and the brilliantrevisionist production by Nicholas Hytner forthe Royal National Theatre in 1992 (transferredto Broadway in 1994) allowed a whole newgeneration to sample its power.
This recording features the original cast,most notably John Raitt, who was only 28 whenhe shot to stardom as Billy Bigelow. Hefrequently played the role throughout his 60year career, dying in February of 2005.
Jan Clayton, his romantic lead, Julie Jordan,only returned to Broadway twice after herdebut, spending her time in films and on TV,most notably as the original Mother on thepopular Lassie television series.
With two hits under their belt, Rodgers andHammerstein felt they could try something evenmore radically different.
Hammerstein had tired of adaptations andwanted to create an original musical on atheme which would haunt him all of his life: thestruggle between idealism and success. InHammerstein's view, the city was the source ofall corruption and it was only in a small townsetting that truth and honesty could flourish.
A cynic might observe that Hammerstein hadspent all of his life in the big city, except for hisweekend home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania,but his passion for the topic was heartfelt.
He created a story about one Joseph Taylor,Jr. He was the son of a beloved rural doctor whoplanned to follow in his father's footsteps, onlyto succumb to the temptations of urban life.
The theme may not have been all thatoriginal, but what distinguished Allegro was theway it was structured. Hammerstein saw itmoving with a fluidity which we now take forgranted, but was totally unknown to themusical theatre at the time.
He treated time and space with a freedomthat was breathtaking,moving where his storytook him. A Chorus of observers, taken fromthe classical Greek theatre, commented on theaction, stepping in or out of it as the authordemanded.
Rodgers responded to his partner's workwith a score that is difficult to grasp from itsoriginal recording. All we hear are the themesand leitmotifs that Rodgers was to weavecontinuously throughout the piece, but wedon't get a sense of how they were used, oftento great theatrical effect.
Judged strictly as a collection of songs,Allegro is not one of Rodgers and Hammerstein'sstrongest works. There are charming balladslike A Fellow Needs A Girl and So Far as wellas killer character comedy numbers such asThe Gentlemen Is A Dope, but a lot of therest lacks the 'punch' audiences had come toexpect from this songwriting team.
It's little wonder that it met with bewildermenton the road (where Hammerstein had totake over the direction from Agnes De Mille) aswell as on Broadway (where the word 'disappointment'occurred in many of the reviews).
The initial run of the show was only 315performances and it has seldom been revived.
This recording features the original cast (exceptfor understudy Robert Reeves, subbing for Jo