Theater Shelf: Philharmonic’s Staged Concert of Carousel On Line For Very Limited Time

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.

By Brad Hathaway

Act quickly – you only have a few days to view one of the greatest concert presentations of a musical that I’ve ever seen … the New York Philharmonic’s staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

I apologize for not giving you more warning. The program aired on PBS stations last week, and you could have viewed it on your home TV. But I don’t have live TV – I’m too busy with non-commercial forms of entertainment to spend time in front of a box that is often dominated by advertisements. All too often that does keep me from sampling public television. Instead, I try to keep up with what PBS is offering by visiting their website from time to time and taking advantage of their streaming videos.

It is a good thing I visited during the all-too-short viewing time for the Live from Lincoln Center presentation of a concert version of Carousel which will only be available for viewing until May 3. That is this Friday, so don’t delay. Crank up your internet connection, open your browser, enter and sit back for two and a half engrossing, enchanting, memorable hours.

It isn’t as if Carousel has never had a fine production before, or that those fine productions haven’t produced fine recordings. The second collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II has had Broadway and London premieres, Broadway and London revivals and a first-class film, all of which have had recordings released. There’s also been a “re-orchestrated” studio cast recording, with Barbara Cook, no less.

But none of the recordings have given you the chance to experience the score in the context of the musical play. The film, as good as it was, struck me as very much like a movie and not like a theatrical piece.

Now – at least for the balance of this week – there is the chance to witness Carousel’s grandeur as a unified piece of art: music, lyrics and drama. Each element works with the others and they become something more than they are alone.

The musical version of Ferenc Molnar’s play Lilliom was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s follow-up to the phenomenally successful (and incredibly influential) Oklahoma! They had broken with traditions in that first collaboration so they decided to go even farther. Oklahoma! may have been the first successful musical to have a character die on stage. But with Carousel they took on a story that has the leading man die! What is more, he’s a failure – not the kind of person Broadway audiences were in the habit of rooting for.

In Lilliom, however, they found a story that allowed an examination of the power of love – if they only could let the audience see humanity underneath the hard exterior of the hero who trades on charm. He’s a man-child who never reached a moral maturity despite a chronological adulthood. Hammerstein changed the locale from Eastern Europe to Northern New England and altered the ending to give the audiences something to hold on to at the end of the story.

The real key to making the story work, however, came when he and Rodgers set the leading man’s thought process to song in “Soliloquy,” an internal monologue set to music during which the character – an unemployed carnival barker by the name of Billy Bigelow – comes to understand the reality of his young wife’s pregnancy.

Just as Ragtime wouldn’t work if Ahrens and Flaherty hadn’t found a way to make  Sarah’s attempt at infanticide understandable as a tragedy for both mother and child, so Carousel wouldn’t have succeeded if Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t given us the chance to witness Billy Bigelow’s own realization that becoming a father carried responsibilities and not just rewards. When he transitions from singing about having fun with a son to wondering what he can do to be a father to a daughter, Carousel becomes a work about humanity.

Billy’s “Soliloquy” is but one wonderful piece in the score that Rodgers always said he was most proud of. His pride isn’t misplaced, as this performance will convince anyone who sees it before the video is taken down from the PBS website on Friday.

This performance, taped live in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, has the players of the New York Philharmonic on stage – all 107 of them. There are 64 just playing strings! (Compare that with the 39 players in the pit of the Majestic Theater on Broadway in 1945.)

Here they are led by Rob Fisher, one of the finest music directors/conductors who bring Broadway’s legacy to life. (He was the founding music director of the Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert series.)

Their sound here is captured with impressive clarity in the audio design of Peter Fitzgerald – as are the vocal performances of a marvelous cast.

That cast is headed by Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara – – a touching Julie Jordan who loves Billy with an acceptance that she makes you understand. Her Billy is opera lyric baritone Nathan Gunn who, in the words of Fisher “was born to play Billy Bigelow.” That’s high praise that approaches hyperbole, but having watched and listened to Gunn’s performance, I can’t argue with him.

As Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge, Jessie Mueller is simply superb and she’s paired with the wonderful Jason Danieley as Mr. Snow. Shuler Hensley is, as he always is, impressive as the criminally inclined Jigger Craigin, while the Philharmonic reaches again into the world of opera to have Stephanie Blythe bring her huge voice to both “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The orchestra handles the opening sequence as a “prologue” rather than the fully choreographed “Carousel Waltz” that Agnes DeMille created for the original production. I missed the magic of that dance, but found it freed me to concentrate on the glorious music.

Later, the Act II ballet is given a danced performance of note. The New York City Ballet contributes two members to the cast – Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. Peck has the lead in the ballet as she portrays Billy and Julie’s daughter. Rather than attempt to recreate DeMille’s full-stage ballet in the limited space allowed on the concert hall’s stage (remember, there are 107 orchestra members up there as well as the actors in the play) new choreography by Warren Carlyle reduces it to a pas-de-deux, but it is a thrilling one that clearly communicates the essential plot points and emotions that set up the touching finale. Peck is not just a fine dancer, by the way, she is a fine actress, turning in a lovely performance in the graduation scene.

Hurry up and see this one. And do make sure you have a handkerchief handy.

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