I was first exposed to Carousel through its 1956 film adaptation back in middle school. I was on a major Rodgers and Hammerstein kick from having seen the special Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a two hour retrospective on A&E hosted by Shirley Jones. I liked the film well enough, but truth be told I’ve only seen it once in the last ten years since I did the show at my high school. Reading the stage libretto and hearing the entire stage score and orchestrations throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, I realized that the show was darker, more substantial and ultimately more effective in its stage incarnation.
We felt inordinately proud of our production. As a cast we were very much aware of the show’s legacy and the difficulties in performing the material (especially in a high school setting). It marked the second time I ever appeared onstage in a musical. I was a sailor in the first act and Enoch Snow, Jr in the second. Even though I had really wanted to be Enoch Sr. (I sang “Geraniums in the Winder” for my audition… anyone? anyone?), I took a great deal of pride in what I did onstage in this show. It was the one and only time I completely costumed my own character, without any assistance (borrowing heavily from my father’s wardrobe).
Even after performing the show, I had never seen Carousel from an audience perspective. I pounced on the news that there would be a concert at Carnegie Hall starring Hugh Jackman in his New York musical theater debut. The concert was months and months away, almost a year if I recall it correctly, so I kept on the lookout for ticket information. When it came time for tickets to go on sale, I set my alarm and spent about an hour on the phone getting busy signals from the Carnegie Hall box office. Eventually I got through and got the seats. The concert was June 6, 2002 and it was my first time inside the legendary venue.
The day of the concert, I got up and the skies were cloudy and threatening. As soon as I left the house, a downpour like none other started to fall and didn’t let up until the next day. Two high school friends (also in the show, one was our Nettie, the other our Heavenly Friend) went with me and we enjoyed an adventurous – if wet – day in Manhattan. I stopped at the Virgin Megastore, as per my old custom, and picked up a few cast recordings. We then dined at the TGIFridays in Times Square before we made the trek up to Carnegie Hall.
Now if we had been functioning like real adults instead of fresh-faced college kids, we would have taken the subway and/or been fully prepared for the inclement weather. But no, so we walked and walked in the rain – and in what was a first, I walked directly into the side of a moving cab. Amazingly enough, I wasn’t hurt. But oh, did we laugh.
Settling into our seats, the house was buzz with excitement. Carousel was last seen in NY in the acclaimed Tony-winning 1994 revival at Lincoln Center. The cast they had gathered together with Jackman was nothing short of exceptional. Audra McDonald, who won her first Tony as Carrie in the previous revival, was moving into the role of Julie. Lauren Ward was Carrie, Jason Danieley was Enoch, Norbert Leo Butz was Jigger, Judy Kaye played Nettie. But it didn’t stop there: Blythe Danner was Mrs. Mullin, Philip Bosco was the Starkeeper and original Billy Bigelow John Raitt made a brief appearance to introduce the concert; his entrance brought down the house with a lengthy ovation.
Directed by Walter Bobbie, the conceit of the evening was to really showcase the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers, as well as the orchestrations of Don Walker and dance arrangements of the brilliant Trude Rittmann. Bobbie and John Weidman adapted the book for concert, similar to Encores!, only it was even more spare than anything you find at City Center. There was absolutely no scenery, and very subtle but effective costume coordination by John Lee Beatty. Leonard Slatkin directed the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the principals were assisted by the Concert Chorale of New York.
I doubt you could ask for more perfect casting, particularly in the two leads. With McDonald and Jackman, the chemistry was palpable and the famed bench scene was not only superbly sung and acted, it was also incredibly sexy. When the two kissed at the end of it, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. McDonald’s crystalline soprano was perfect for Julie, with heavenly renditions of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” The two leads were ably supported by the others, particularly Kaye, who was and is ideal casting as Cousin Nettie, who brought a great sense of fun to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and a stirring warmth to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The evening, though, belonged to Jackman. He was more than ideal, and was probably as close to perfection as one could get for the part. At the time, he was only starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood but had previously scored raves for his portrayal of Curly in Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn’s West End reincarnation of Oklahoma!
His “Soliloquy” was so impassioned, so thrilling, it brought sporadic bursts of applause mid-song. A year and a half later he would carry The Boy From Oz in one of the great male star turns in recent memory. But his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen pales in comparison. He sang the role with gusto, and delved deeply into Billy’s psychology, giving a performance that was ready for a Broadway opening. There was talk of him starring in a second film version of the property. I don’t know if that is still in the cards, but it would be wondrous to have the star revisit the property, especially for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there that night. It was one of the greatest musical theatre performances I’ve ever seen in my life.
The finale brought the sold out house at Carnegie Hall to its feet almost instantly, in a warm ovation. That ovation increased as Mr. Raitt returned to the stage where he proceeded to embrace Jackman, in a spontaneous display of mutual admiration. Though Mr. Raitt didn’t sing a note that evening, just his mere presence made the evening that more perfect. I don’t know for certain but I believe it was one of his last public appearances in NY.
My friends and I hoped that there would be a recording of the evening, and were so generous in starting applause that we wondered if we’d be able to hear ourselves if there was one. But unfortunately, the powers that be hadn’t the foresight to consider such an enterprise. Three years later when they presented South Pacific in concert, they made it available on CD and DVD and even aired the presentation on PBS. I’d like to think this was in part to missing the boat the first time around. For as much fun as that South Pacific concert was – it wasn’t nearly as special nor as memorable as Carousel.
Numerous albums of Carousel have been made throughout the years, but there is no complete recording of the score, in its original orchestration and with all of Trude Rittman’s brilliant dance arrangements intact. Even when we performed the show, the musical directors made some splices and edits within the dance music of the score: which includes a rarely performed “Hornpipe” for the sailors in the first act, as well as the famed twelve minute ballet in the second. There have been recordings of South Pacific, The King and I and even the recent studio recording of Allegro which give us the score in its entirety. I would like to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest score might be given its due sooner rather than later.
The rain was still coming down in torrents when we left Carnegie. We had even considered stagedooring it (with mostly soccer moms in attendance, a precursor to what was to come during his Broadway runs), but we were informed by one of the stage door attendants that the cast was going to be sitting down to dinner before emerging. We decided the show had already been enough and walked through the rain all the way down to Grand Central (why none us thought about taking the subway or a taxi, I’ll never know) but we maintain great memories of that experience, and I for one couldn’t get that score of my head for days, as I nursed my inevitable cold. But dammit, it was worth it!