|Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel.|
It is said that of all Richard Rodger's collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein, Carousel contained the composer's favorite score. The classic musical certainly has an abundance of soaring melodies, and it greatly develops the now ubiquitous concept of the extended musical scene, something that didn't really exist prior to the famed duo's groundbreaking work. And while the show certainly has artistic and historical merit, the extremely well done revival now on Broadway also fully unmasks the inherent problems in the script, the most glaring of which is the domestic violence issue embedded in the central romance.
*Note: If you aren't familiar with Carousel - I'd never seen it prior to this production - there are spoilers coming. There's no way to discuss the show in the context of 2018 without getting into them.*
There's no way around it: Carousel as written is inherently problematic. Carnival barker Billy Bigelow falls in love with and marries a young mill worker named Julie Jordan, who abandons her job just to get the chance to know Billy better (the mill Julie works at insists their workers maintain a "good girl" image which doesn't allow for late night talks with strange men). Then, in a scene we never see, Billy hits Julie; the town characterizes it as continual abuse, although Billy insists that it was just one time. But the frequency of the abuse doesn't really matter, because either way Julie insists there's nothing wrong with it despite the protestations of literally everyone she knows.
Note Julie never *denies* being hit. She claims people don't know Billy like she does, and that she understands why he hit her. But Julie - and by extension, Rodgers and Hammerstein - never verbalizes those reasons to the other characters or to the audience. In fact, her second act solo "What's the Use of Wond'rin," the song specifically designed to address this concern, essentially boils down to Julie saying she loves him, so what else can she do but accept the situation? And late in the show, when a now dead Billy is asked by a heavenly character called The Starkeeper if he regrets hitting Julie, Billy defiantly responds, "I regret nothing."
Now, obviously Carousel was written during a different time that had different attitudes about what was and wasn't acceptable behavior in a marriage. So while it is disappointing that the fairly progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein - who wrote the anti-racism creed "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" for South Pacific and centered The King & I around a strong, capable female protagonist - created such a problematic portrayal of the abused-but-we-don't-know-how-much Julie, it isn't entirely surprising.
What is surprising is that Tony-winner Jessie Mueller, who can pack a wealth of conflicting emotions into the space between her lines, isn't able to find some way to give more insight or depth to Julie and help us better understand her actions. Given that her last Broadway outing Waitress focused on a character in a similar situation, but with much more complexity and agency, it is downright baffling that Mueller chose this as her immediate follow-up.
Perhaps this disconnect explains why Mueller, normally a firebrand who you cannot take your eyes off of, feels oddly subdued throughout. She sings the role beautifully - is there nothing her mercurial voice cannot do? - and acts it as well as anyone can be expected to, which leaves no choice but to conclude the problem is with the material and not the performer. Put bluntly, Julie just isn't a very compelling character, especially contrasted with the other women in the show.
Julie's best friend Carrie Pipperidge manages to do what society expects of her in a way that makes it clear she's making a choice and not just resigned to whatever comes her way, and she is the first to express concern about Julie's home life. Lindsey Mendez is a delight in the role, beautifully adapting her vocal pyrotechnics to the more legit stylings of Carousel's score and landing the evening's biggest laughs. And opera superstar Renee Fleming is a revelation as the matronly Nettie Fowler; her rendition of the show's big anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a masterclass in dramatic song interpretation, musically impeccable while still feeling spontaneous and unforced.
And despite the problems with his character, it's undeniable that two-time Tony-nominee Joshua Henry has never been better than as carnival barker Billy Bigelow. His natural charisma makes it easy to see why Julie or anyone else would be drawn to him, and his performance makes it clear that his gruff exterior is masking a deep seated inner pain and self loathing. He also sings like a dream, making a famously taxing role seem easy and imbuing every song with a freshness that makes the show's well worn ballads sound new. His "Soliloquy," the seven minute monologue in song that ends the first act, is positively thrilling, his rendition easily among the best there's ever been. Henry's performance is the stuff Tony wins are made of, and a strong argument for the merits of color conscious casting. (The production never overtly references Henry's race, but it subtly informs his interactions.)
Director Jack O'Brien's thoughtful staging and direction is exactly what you hope for when one of these Golden Age musicals is revived. The show feels fresh and alive, almost like new, honoring the material without ever holding it so sacred that it feels like a museum piece. O'Brien wisely avoids any impulse to dress the material up with modern bells and whistles, letting the actors and musicians carry the day. The producers have also wisely employed NY City Ballet choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck to handle the musical's abundant dance numbers, including the patented Rodgers and Hammerstein dream ballet in the second act. Peck's choreography has a complexity and artistic maturity rarely seen on the Broadway stage, and is danced to perfection by the nimble men and women of the ensemble (who also sound fantastic during the group choral numbers).
From a physical standpoint, this Carousel is often breathtaking thanks to the lavish yet unfussy design work. Ann Roth's costumes have an attention to detail and carefully considered color palette that make them look like a million bucks, even though they are largely everyday casual wear. Santo Loquasto's stunning set wonderfully evokes a sleepy seaside town, with his stellar backdrops and multilayered sets giving the production an astonishing amount of visual depth. His take on the titular carousel is particularly striking, an image that will stay with you long after the final curtain falls. Both sets and costumes are gorgeously lit by Brian MacDevitt, whose sophisticated work greatly helps in the evocation of the story's many different moods.
All of the talent and care that has gone into this Carousel makes the show's dubious worldview that much more upsetting. These are clearly smart artists who are doing their absolute best to do justice to this show, but they have not been able to solve the central conundrum of getting us to understand and empathize with such a problematic relationship. The lead female role is basically a doormat, accepting and excusing any negative behavior that comes her way in the name of love, and putting that kind of message into the world in 2018 seems questionable at best. Rather than "fixing" Carousel for future generations, this production may have killed it once and for all by exposing it as inexorably linked to a bygone and now unacceptable social attitude. If O'Brien and company aren't able to satisfactorily address Carousel's problems, then who can?