About this Recording
8.120780 - RODGERS: Carousel (Original Broadway Cast) (1945) / Allegro (Original Broadway Cast) (1947)

Carousel Original Broadway Cast, 1945
Allegro Original Broadway Cast, 1947
Music by Richard Rodgers • Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Shortly after the opening of Oklahoma!, Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn phoned Richard Rodgers with a piece of advice.

‘Oklahoma! is such a wonderful show. You know what you should do next? Shoot yourself.’

Beneath the typical Goldwyn tactlessness, there was a germ of truth. Oklahoma! had become the kind of smash hit never seen before in the musical theatre. How could Rodgers and Hammerstein possibly follow it?

The answer was simple: they wouldn’t follow it. Their next two works for the stage were radically varied in style and created a distinctive pair of shows.

Carousel is arguably one of the greatest of all American musicals, and Allegro, while a profoundly flawed piece, contained theatrical elements that would come to fruition decades later in shows like Cabaret,Company and Follies.

The actual idea for Carousel originated with The Theatre Guild, the producing organization who had been saved from financial insolvency by the success of Oklahoma! Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, the heads of the Guild, met once a week with Rodgers and Hammerstein for a lunch where they discussed issues of casting, production etc related to their current hit.

About eight months after Oklahoma! had opened, Helburn asked Rodgers and Hammerstein if they would be interested in turning Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom, a show they had first produced in 1921, into their next project.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immediate reaction was negative. They had seen the recent 1940 revival starring Burgess Meredith and Ingrid Bergman in the story of an ill-starred Hungarian carnival barker with a tragic life. They couldn’t visualize it as a musical, both because of its drab setting and its relentlessly downbeat story.

But Helburn persisted and suggested they move it to New Orleans. Hammerstein resisted, not wanting to create ersatz Cajun dialogue, but he started to investigate the story more thoroughly.

It was the realization he could turn Liliom’s soliloquy where he learns his wife is pregnant and wonders what kind of a father he’ll make into a substantial musical theatre aria that made Hammerstein change his mind about the project.

And when Rodgers suggested shifting the locale to a New England fishing village, everything seemed to fall into place. The show was now set on the coast on Maine in 1873 and Liliom became Billy Bigelow, although his profession as a carnival barker remained the same. The central attraction of his carnival, a carousel, gave the musical its new title.

Anxious to duplicate the triumph they had known with Oklahoma!,The Theatre Guild assembled as many of the same creative personnel as possible. Director Rouben Mamoulian and choreographer Agnes De Mille headed the list, although the two of them had cordially detested each other working on the earlier show and had to both vow to be on their best behavior this time around.

Miles White remained on as Costume Designer, but Jo Mielziner replaced Lemuel Ayers as set and lighting designer.

During rehearsals, the atmosphere was joyous and everyone thought they were assured of a hit when Molnar himself watched a final run-through in New York and loved it, even the new upbeat ending that Hammerstein had added to replace his original tragic one.

But when the show opened in New Haven on 22 March 1945, it was generally agreed to be a disappointment. The second act, which deals with Billy’s journey to the ‘other side’ after his death proved to be particularly hard for the audience to take.

Instead of resting on their laurels, Rodgers & Hammerstein worked as hard as if they had never had a hit with Oklahoma! They restructured the entire second act overnight.

The major change involved turning the dour characters of ‘Mr and Mrs God’ (played as a minister and his wife) into the more benevolent figure of The Starkeeper. Ballets and songs were cut as well, and when it opened in Boston the next week, reviews were better but still not raves.

The night before the New York opening, after an unhappy dress rehearsal, Rodgers and Hammerstein contemplated the possibility of failure and decided that it didn’t matter. ‘We loved what we had written’, said Hammerstein, ‘and that was what was important to us’.

The opening night response on 19 April was wildly enthusiastic and although some of the critics spent their time cataloguing the reasons that ‘this was no Oklahoma!’, the majority agreed with John Chapman of the New York. Daily News that it was ‘one of the finest musical plays I have ever seen’.

Ultimately, Carousel only ran 890 performances, as opposed to the 2,248 racked up by Oklahoma!, but time has proven it to be an equally enduring work. It is constantly being produced around the world and the brilliant revisionist production by Nicholas Hytner for the Royal National Theatre in 1992 (transferred to Broadway in 1994) allowed a whole new generation to sample its power.

This recording features the original cast, most notably John Raitt, who was only 28 when he shot to stardom as Billy Bigelow. He frequently played the role throughout his 60 year career, dying in February of 2005.

Jan Clayton, his romantic lead, Julie Jordan, only returned to Broadway twice after her debut, spending her time in films and on TV, most notably as the original Mother on the popular Lassie television series.

With two hits under their belt, Rodgers and Hammerstein felt they could try something even more radically different.

Hammerstein had tired of adaptations and wanted to create an original musical on a theme which would haunt him all of his life: the struggle between idealism and success. In Hammerstein’s view, the city was the source of all corruption and it was only in a small town setting that truth and honesty could flourish.

A cynic might observe that Hammerstein had spent all of his life in the big city, except for his weekend home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but his passion for the topic was heartfelt.

He created a story about one Joseph Taylor, Jr. He was the son of a beloved rural doctor who planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, only to succumb to the temptations of urban life.

The theme may not have been all that original, but what distinguished Allegro was the way it was structured. Hammerstein saw it moving with a fluidity which we now take for granted, but was totally unknown to the musical theatre at the time.

He treated time and space with a freedom that was breathtaking,moving where his story took him. A Chorus of observers, taken from the classical Greek theatre, commented on the action, stepping in or out of it as the author demanded.

Rodgers responded to his partner’s work with a score that is difficult to grasp from its original recording. All we hear are the themes and leitmotifs that Rodgers was to weave continuously throughout the piece, but we don’t get a sense of how they were used, often to great theatrical effect.

Judged strictly as a collection of songs, Allegro is not one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s strongest works. There are charming ballads like A Fellow Needs A Girl and So Far as well as killer character comedy numbers such as The Gentlemen Is A Dope, but a lot of the rest lacks the ‘punch’ audiences had come to expect from this songwriting team.

It’s little wonder that it met with bewilderment on the road (where Hammerstein had to take over the direction from Agnes De Mille) as well as on Broadway (where the word ‘disappointment’ occurred in many of the reviews).

The initial run of the show was only 315 performances and it has seldom been revived. This recording features the original cast (except for understudy Robert Reeves, subbing for John Conte in the role of Charlie), who were all workmanlike performers of the period. Unlike the first two Rodgers and Hammerstein shows which helped to make the likes of Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, John Raitt and Jan Clayton into stars, the only Allegro cast member to break through later was the saucy Lisa Kirk.

In fact, her rendition of The Gentleman Is a Dope could be taken as a warm-up for her more famous turn in Kiss Me Kate, where she introduced “Always True To You In My Fashion”.

Carousel and Allegro are two very different shows that serve as a fine illustration of one of Hammerstein’s most quoted comments about how he and Rodgers worked: ‘We only have one formula:we don’t have a formula’.

Richard Ouzounian

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