Billy Bigelow: Still a Wife-Beater. ‘Carousel’: Still a Miracle

The first 20 or so minutes are the absolute best of any musical ever written.

Jesse Mueller and Joshua Henry in "Carousel." Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

According to Something Wonderful, Todd S. Purdum’s just-published book on the brilliant collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist and book-writer Oscar Hammerstein II, Carousel was Rodgers’ favorite of the team’s nine musicals. Everyone watching the Jack O’Brien-directed Broadway revival is certain to agree with Rodgers. Who wouldn’t, even if at other moments some might feel inclined to prefer Oklahoma! or South Pacific or The King and I or The Sound of Music — or Allegro or Pipe Dream or Me and Juliet or Flower Drum Song?

But the original production of South Pacific was my first Broadway show, so that will remain my favorite. Yet as I fell under this latest Carousel spell, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t revise my opinion. Then again, to spin a certain song title, what’s the use of wond’rin’? It’s the irresistible power of the whole succession of Rodgers melodies, and of Hammerstein’s lyrics and book. Despite my inclination towards South Pacific, the first 20 or so minutes of Carousel are the absolute best 20 or so minutes of any musical ever written.

There’s the “Carousel Waltz” prelude, followed by Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge leaving their jobs at the mill only to encounter Billy Bigelow, a transplanted Coney Island carnival barker who quickly has eyes for Julie, and she for him. How Hammerstein plots the scene, with dialogue transmuting into song transmuting into dialogue transmuting into song, is a master class in musical theater writing. Anyone tempted to dismiss Hammerstein as too dated a sentimentalist for the 21st century had better think again.

So the opportunity to see and hear Carousel once again on Broadway is an opportunity that tuner lovers must seize. Not just for what Rodgers-Hammerstein team contributed, but just as much for all of the others involved.

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For those new to the work, Carousel is adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s play Liliom, as it was translated from the Hungarian by Benjamin F. Glazer. In it, Billy romances and weds Julie, only to physically abuse her and then die when he takes his life following a bungled robbery and receives a second chance to make good by a character called The Starkeeper.

Joshua Henry as Billy and Jesse Mueller as Julie sing the breathtaking score triumphantly — along with Renée Fleming as Nettie Fowler, Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge and Alexander Gemignani as Enoch Snow. At the very top of their vocal form, they do Rodgers and Hammerstein proud, nailing every last one of the show’s beloved numbers. Henry does the magnificent “Soliloquy” as well as it’s ever been sung, and acts it to a fare-thee-well, too. Mueller and Henry trade “If I Loved You” with melting skill. Mueller’s notes on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” are rising, luminescent bubbles. Mendez is innocent and sly on “When I Marry Mister Snow.” And she and Gemignani make “When the Children Are Asleep” a touching highlight. Fleming, in her Broadway musical bow, lifts the ceiling on “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Margaret Colin is a wonderfully tart-tongue carnival owner and John Douglas Thompson a charmingly avuncular Starkeeper.

And Andy Einhorn conducts the properly large orchestra — Robert Russell Bennett the original orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick now — with absolute sensitivity. (Question: why isn’t Gemignani singing “Geraniums in the Winder”? And what’s become of ”Stonecutters Cut It on Stone”?)

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And, of course, there’s everything else on view, which forces us to confront elements that are now considered traditional and others that are not. Perhaps the most traditional aspect is the look of Carousel. Set designer Santo Loquasto has created a glossier version of what it could have looked like when it originally opened in 1945. Though when these characters in 1873 Maine go off for their clambake, the sand dunes around which they gather seem to be mighty strange lumps of grey-white.

Interesting liberties have been taken with other elements. The most conspicuous is the choreography, which has been turned over to Justin Peck, the extraordinary Resident Choreographer of the New York City Ballet, whose name among the program credits is, for good reason, the same size as that of director O’Brien’s. Peck has this cast dancing much more than did Carousel‘s original choreographer, the seminal Agnes de Mille. Fleetly, he establishes the characters’ relationships during “The Carousel Waltz,” and he stages the Act II ballet — where Billy and Julie’s now 15-year-old daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack), reveals her troubled heart — with grit and grace.

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Those turns are to be expected, though. What is not expected is Peck transforming Jigger Craigin (Amar Ramasar) — the troublemaker who lures Billy into the ill-fated hold-up — into a dancing role. Before Jigger gets to that, he and the male dancers make the forceful “Blow High, Blow Low” (with dance arrangements by David Chase) into something to behold. Peck also has a curious urge to literalize lyrics. The movements he devises for “May was full of promises/But she didn’t keep ‘em quick enough fer some” is laughably on the nose.

Another element, of course, is what we might call the Carousel problem. There’s no way around Billy being a wife-beater. But there are different ways to strike out. In a pivotal moment, an unrestrained slap across another character’s face would lose all sympathy for Billy. But this is Carousel, where that would understandably damage the play for current audiences. So O’Brien finds an action takes the onus off. It’s may be a bit too easy. It’s may be a gesture that some wouldn’t classify as abuse. See it, and you decide.

For this is Carousel, one of the most miraculous musicals ever written, and for that reason there’s nothing wrong with it. Not this time. Perhaps not ever.