April 19, 1945—In integrating all the elements of musical theater into a seamless whole, Oklahoma
made possible its follow-up, Carousel
. But in gambling on extended characterization to win audience sympathy—and especially in presenting dark situations and themes—Carousel
, which premiered on Broadway at the Majestic Theater on this date, was a riskier proposition for Richard Rodgers
and Oscar Hammerstein II
Rodgers was forced to watch the show from a hospital stretcher from an upper-tier box because he had injured his back while carrying his luggage from an out-of-town performance. Morphine might have helped some with the pain, but only marginally with opening-night jitters.
This, after all, was only his second of 16 pairings with Hammerstein, the two were not yet locked in as the most successful songwriting partnership in Broadway history—and, most important of all, their leading male character was a troubled lout who would test audience sympathy like no musical had since Rodgers’ collaboration five years earlier with Lorenz Hart, Pal Joey
"So fortified was I against pain,” recalled the composer years later in his autobiography, Musical Stages
, “that I was also unaware of the laughter and applause, and was convinced that the show was a dismal failure. It was only afterward, when people came over to me - making me feel like an Egyptian mummy on display - that I realized that Carousel
had been enthusiastically received."
Oklahoma might have dispensed with the usual chorus-girl opening number and made Agnes de Mille’s choreography a key element of the plot, but its ending was optimistic, and—at a moment when the United States was engaged in a two-front war against the Axis powers—its view of Western expansion and American exceptionalism was, in keeping with the time, decidedly sunlit. But the source material for that show, Green Grow the Lilacs, was nowhere near as dark and pessimistic as the play they were adapting this time, Ferenc Molnar's 1909 play Liliom—a drama that featured domestic abuse and suicide.
The duo switched the localE from Budapest to coastal New England, but, aside from changing the suicide to a death during a robbery attempt and nixing a crisis pregnancy, they made few other attempts to sugarcoat the tragic source material.
The score featured the kind of crowd-pleasing tunes that the songwriting team were becoming famous for (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), but the two men—and particularly Hammerstein, who doubled as librettist as well as lyric writer—really stretched the limits of the Broadway musical with “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy.”
Both songs were lengthy pieces (clocking in at eight to 11 minutes long) that exemplified the Rodgers and Hammerstein belief that a lovely tune couldn’t simply be shoehorned into any old plot—it had to evolve organically.
“If I Loved You” is, like Oklahoma’s “People Will Say We’re in Love,” a conditional love song—one in which the characters don’t come out and express their feelings outright, but give vent to them supposing they were true. In this case, the audience watches full-of-himself carnival barker Billy Bigelow and innocent Julie Jordan fall in love right before its eyes.
Rodgers and Hammerstein took their time with this sequence not because they came from a less ADD-driven culture than ours, but because the show required that theatergoers come to care about the two characters. Once they’re married, when Billy strikes her, that audience faith will be sorely tested.
Domestic-abuse victims who feel that Carousel glides lightly over Billy’s mistreatment of Julie have every right to feel disturbed and squeamish. The burden of “If I Loved You”—and, even more so, “Soliloquy”—however, rests on the notion that there remains a spark of something else that makes us human and worth redeeming.
“Soliloquy” is, if anything, trickier than “If I Loved You.” When people say that Carousel is “semi-operatic,” this song is probably what they have in mind. There’s no refrain to make it easy to remember, so it resembles an opera recitative.
And yet, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that there isn’t another extended song in the whole rich history of American musical theater more powerful than this one. We watch a man at the crossroads of his life, wanting to be responsible for the sake of his unborn child.
Then, suddenly, all his best instincts turn tragically awry when he imagines the fetus to be female rather than male. “What can I do for her—a bum with no money?” he wonders. How can he protect her from guys like himself?
All of a sudden, the change is as inevitable as Greek tragedy:
“She's got to be sheltered
In a fair hand dressed
In the best that money can buy!
I never knew how to get money,
But, I'll try, I'll try! I'll try!
I'll go out and make it or steal it
Or take it or die!”
I first came across this gut-wrenching song in the 1956 film adaptation of Carousel. Henry King, a competent craftsman, didn’t bring the kind of visual rethinking that Tim Burton, for instance, brought to Sweeney Todd.
But the “Soliloquy” sequence is very fine indeed, with lead Gordon MacRae
performing with a voice as big as all outdoors—lending itself all the more, in this case, to filming by the shore, where the hard coastal rocks act as a nice stand-in for the fate impervious to Billy’s eager but foolish strivings.
MacRae wasn’t supposed to be in the picture at all. The original star is someone you can probably guess. Think—perhaps the biggest star, in recordings and in musical films, of the mid-1950s. The Voice.
Yes, Frank Sinatra
. At first glance, it might be a bit hard to imagine Sinatra, an ethnic, streetsmart product of New York and its environs (in this case, of course, Hoboken, N.J.), in the role of rural, all-too-simple Billy.
But, not long after the start of his solo career, in 1946—the year after the show came out, mind you—Sinatra was also recording songs from it. Four decades later, near the close of his concert career, he was still singing it.
Dig a little deeper and I think it becomes plain why he felt such a deep, abiding affinity for not just Rodgers and Hammerstein but also “Soliloquy.” Sinatra’s roving eye made him impossible husband material, but from all accounts he was a loving, dutiful, even doting father. In 1946, he was already a two-time parent, with a third coming in two years.
All the joys that Billy felt, he experienced, too. And, I would venture to say, much of the self-recrimination that led to Billy’s downfall was present in Sinatra, too. He was, after all, a self-described “24-karat manic depressive.”
So, a decade after Carousel opened on Broadway, Sinatra had his dream project. He was all set to start when he found out, on the first day of shooting, that all the movie’s scenes would be filmed twice—first for CinemaScope, then for CinemaScope 55.
This was what might be termed a massive failure to communicate on the part of the film’s producers. Following his comeback in From Here to Eternity, producers had to decide whether Sinatra’s box-office clout and reasonable amount of skill as an actor were enough to compensate for a) his high salary demands, and b) his shoot-fast-‘cause-I’m-outta here attitude.
Two prime examples of the latter, but from later in the decade, suffice to explain b):
1) While shooting A Hole in the Head, director Frank Capra was in a real bind—trying to extract the best out of two actors with decidedly different tendencies: Sinatra and co-star Edward G. Robinson. The “Little Caesar” star, methodologically burrowing into a character, would try out different things in the first few takes, finally hitting his stride after several more. This was exactly opposite to Sinatra, a more spontaneous performer whose best take was the first or second. While Robinson was just warming up, Sinatra was already mentally checking out.
2) For Ocean’s 11, director Lewis Milestone had to cope with the fact that Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack would be up each night, performing onstage in Las Vegas. After Sinatra decided it was Ring-a-Ding-Ding time the first few instances when Milestone went beyond two takes, the director realized he’d have to get the shot right the first time.
If Sinatra would act this way toward two veteran directors with peerless filmographies, just think how he would act because of a film process. One day on the Carousel set and he was gone, once he discovered he’d have to shoot each sequence twice.
An emergency SOS went out to MacRae—with Sinatra gone, could he come to the set in a hurry? He could, and did.
Yes fans of film and theater are still, like Billy Bigelow, likely to express regret over what might have been—a Rodgers and Hammerstein film that would have been excellently served by the greatest singer in mid-century America.