What a misleadingly titled musical Carousel is.
The unsuspecting might see it was created by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and imagine a riot of hoop skirts, lush musical numbers, fairground lights, and laughter at the coconut shy. Forget it: Think a doomed romance, domestic violence, thieving, suicide, and only glancing redemption instead, with the only salve being that “you’ll never walk alone.”
The current Broadway production, which opens Thursday night directed by Jack O’Brien, does not stint on the darkness of the source material, and it doesn’t resolve or make easy for a modern audience one of its most pronounced storylines—the violence Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry, who will surely be Tony-nominated for a third time for his excellently sung performance) shows to his wife, Julie Jordan (the Tony-winning Jessie Mueller), and his repeated lack of repentance for it.
The musical, written in 1945 and adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Maine—and so a time when domestic violence was not known as such, and when women were seen as the possession of their husbands.
But it’s 2018 now, and without any qualification the storyline stands, and Bigelow, so beautifully and richly sung by Henry, remains the show’s antihero. The show features color-blind casting; we are intended to take the characters as characters, detached from their time.
Near me, there were restless sighs of shock, tuts, and even one “No, come on,” first when the revelation that Billy had hit Julie comes—only once, he keeps saying, which even if it were true, makes little difference when it comes to acknowledging what he has done—and then with each subsequent mention of it. We never see him hit her, though Mueller’s Julie flinches to his touch and is physically wary around him.
Their relationship is a puzzle. It progresses from simple giddiness—accompanied by co-mill worker and best friend Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez), Julie sees Billy, a carnival barker, at work—to marriage in the blink of an eye. The carnival’s sneering, baiting owner (Margaret Colin) is the couple’s first cloud. When it comes to the domestic violence, Mueller unshowily emphasizes Julie’s anguish and tightly wound fear.
We only see the carousel, slickly designed by Santo Loquasto, at the beginning of the show. It appears like a happy, shining ghost of pleasure, a totem of gaiety, and its absence for the duration of the show is meaningful. The sets are modest, and the supposed sea backdrop particularly basic.
Billy and Julie’s famous duet, “If I Loved You,” isn’t a love song. It’s a song of two incompatible people singing about reasons to be together and reasons not to be together. Blossoms fall around them, which should be an enchanting blanket, but they feel more mournful.
He sings to her: “I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody helpin’ me. / Well, I got it figured out for myself. / We’re not important. What are we? / A couple o’ specks with nothin’.” To Billy, Julie is a “funny kid,” and the relationship is a mystery—as it turns out, for both of them—of how and why they are together. Billy’s desperation grows when Julie reveals she is pregnant, as he is tempted, fatefully, into criminality by the handsome and dangerous Jigger (Amar Ramasar, in his Broadway debut).
Carrie’s love, Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani), is a pious, pompous bore, full of plans for the future and the family being just so. Carrie stands her ground—and Mendez has a witty earthiness to her that is a refreshing energy around Mueller’s sadness—but hers is another imperfect relationship, played here for laughs.
Carousel is like a bitter pill coated in fleeting caramel. There are lilting, joyful songs like “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” and Carrie’s “Mister Snow.” There are meandering, sweet ones like “A Real Nice Clambake,” accompanying the cookout the Maine townsfolk have one night.
The opera star Renée Fleming, as Julie’s spa owner cousin, Nettie, commandingly leads the familiar booster-shot of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” In the all-men high-kicking and bouncing “Blow High, Blow Low” and then in a separate sequence featuring Billy’s now-15-year-old daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack in her Broadway debut), and a fairground boy (Andrei Chagas), Justin Peck’s brilliant choreography tells a story of ill-fated first love without words and music.
But these well-known, uplifting songs and energetic ballet are short-lived punctuation marks of the musical’s darker mission. They ring so very differently from Billy’s decline and terrible fall they feel as if they are from another show. When Nettie and Julie sing “What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” it is a beautiful lament of romantic doubt, of what we ignore and look beyond to maintain a relationship; a tragic song of willed compromise.
Billy’s road to ruin laid and then graphically played out, Carousel takes its definitive dark turn when Nettie sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Fleming sings the show’s standout song with swelling, operatic power, Mueller nestled, weeping in her bosom. It is strange to see a song now more familiarly heard in soccer stadiums (it is the official anthem of Liverpool FC, sung before the beginning of every match), sung here as one to a grieving woman, trying to instill in her as much strength as she will need to endure. It is Carrie who says to Julie the thing that may be in the minds of many in the audience: You may find that you’re better off without him.
This grittiness in the face of soul-killing sadness, in the face of loss, just doing all you can to face the day and carry on, is the nearest Carousel gets to a rallying call. The opportunity of redemption for Billy emerges, as the musical heads toward the spiritual realm—with the Tony-nominated John Douglas Thompson as a white-clad heavenly guide (Brian McDevitt’s lighting comes into its shimmering own in these scenes).
The damage he has done to Louise—rather than Julie’s well-being—is Billy’s concern when it is all too late, but perhaps not with celestial intervention. When he sings “If I Loved You” again, it is tempered by regret. By the end, a reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” emphasizes that suffering is collective, and the endurance of suffering part of common humanity.
Behind its high-kicking, swaggering choreography, beyond its June busting out all over and that glittering, long-absent fairground ride, Carousel really has its weary head in its hands.
Carousel is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York City. Book tickets, to Sept. 2, here.