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Carousel: 75 Years of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Masterpiece

By Keith Mason, Ph.D

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Carousel, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s second Broadway musical, opened 75 years ago on April 19, 1945 at the Majestic Theater. Time Magazine named Carousel the best stage musical of the 20th century. This article commemorates the 75th anniversary of Carousel tracing back to its origins and musical score and offering learning scenarios.

Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild identified another guild show for Rodgers and Hammerstein to adapt as a musical after Oklahoma’s great success: Ferenc Molnár’s 1901 book Liliom adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer into English. It was staged by the Theatre Guild in 1921 as a play. Different from Oklahoma!, Liliom was a major play by a major European playwright. The story was of shady carnival barker in Budapest, Hungary who marries a shy factory worker. He commits suicide in a holdup attempt so as not to be captured by police. Rodgers suggested New England as the setting for Carousel and Hammerstein liked the idea. Maine would be the setting for Carousel. The ensemble would be sailors, fisherman, and female millworkers.

Carousel represents a sort of hybrid form, a combination of musical play and opera as a musical-comedy opera. More than half of Carousel’s score is embedded in extended musical scenes of dialogue and song. Carousel is a musical with extra music, an opera with book scenes. Carousel was both Rodgers and Hammerstein’s favorite of all their shows.  Many theatre experts maintain with conviction that Carousel is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece.

The opening of Carousel has no overture. Instead, “The Carousel Waltz” served as an instrumental prologue during which we are introduced to the characters and relationships through mime. The lack of an overture and acting in tempo bring the audience immediately into the show and the characters. Rodgers’ waltzes sound contemporary whereas waltzes by other composers such as Herbert, Romberg, Friml, and Kern sound Viennese.

One of Carousel’s musical highlights is referred to as the “bench scene.” It is the scene in which “If I Loved You” is sung and lasts over 12 minutes. Another song renowned in Carousel is Billy’s “Soliloquy.” Lasting more than seven minutes, it addresses Billy as a father to a boy and then father to a girl. The inspirational “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is also an important song.
The Carousel score immediately became popular as a whole, not just a small set of big tunes.

Activities tied to Carousel

The following areas can serve as a guide for Carousel lessons within the music curriculum:

  • The Bench Scene Analyze the “If I Loved You” sequence on film or album. How are dialog and song treated?
  • Soliloquy How does the first part of “Soliloquy” differ from the second part? What does this reveal about Billy Bigelow?
  • The Carousel Waltz How is “The Carousel Waltz” used to start off the musical Carousel?
  • Character songs How are song lyrics in Carousel used to develop the characters of Billy Bigelow, Julie Jordon, Carrie Pipperidge, Mr. Enoch Snow, Jigger, and Cousin Nettie Fowler?
  • Dance Which musical numbers in Carousel feature dancing? What types of dances are found and what song tempos are associated with the various types of dances?
  • Ballet Consider the use of ballet within well-known musical theatre pieces similar to Carousel. Look at these ballets in the movie versions of the following: Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, The King and I, Babes in Arms, Flower Drum Song, and Can-Can. Who choreographed the original stage versions of these ballets? And the movie versions?
  • Agnes de Mille Agnes de Mille choreographed Carousel. Find out more about her, her famous relative and other works she did, especially for Rodgers and Hammerstein.
  • Song Analysis Choose one favorite song from the Carousel score and write an interpretation of the lyrics and orchestration.

The Carousel musical score can definitely enhance the performing arts curriculum. Carousel has much to offer students of music as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

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