In their greatest work, Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein boldly melded the American musical comedy with the European tragic opera, crafting something serious and sad that wasn’t meant to play a house fancier than any on Broadway. Last week, it made it to Lincoln Center, though, Avery Fisher to be exact, where the New York Philharmonic performed a semi-staged production filled with some of the top singers of opera and musical theater—it was, I would wager, the definitive Carousel, featuring the kind of orchestral performance that elicited howling ovations, the sort of singing that floods your body and tries to bust back out through every pore.
Rodgers’s pretty melodies and the Hammerstein’s characters’s fusty attitudes work together to depict a simpler time, but it wouldn’t be fair to call the show naive or even nostalgic for its 19th-century New England. Its good times are tempered by bad; for every clambake there’s an instance of domestic abuse. Fairer to say the show is sentimental: like any self-respecting American musical, it has a belief in the power of love above all. But even this curdles, and Carousel‘s ideas about romantic love become cynical and resigned. Love hurts, does a woman in; as Julie sings: “what’s the use of wond’ring if the ending will be sad?/He’s your feller and you love him, there’s nothing more to say.”
What Carousel truly champions is the transformative power of parenthood. (Billy Bigelow’s lengthy solo number, “Soliloquy,” makes this point effectively, as the ne’er-do-well effuses for eight minutes about the kind of father he would be.) The love between men and women is heartbreaking and hard, but we’re redeemed by the love we feel for the children we make. This is what makes the show so American; it could easily end in the middle of Act II, when Billy Bigelow shoves a knife into his gut, abandoning his wife and unborn child, but instead it lets Billy try to make amends. Carousel believes that we can build better futures; it believes in progress—it Americanizes tragedy with hope. [photo]
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