Ferenc Molnár (1878–1952), one of Europe’s leading concocters of bittersweet, worldly-wise light comedies, startled his native Budapest in 1909 by turning out a somber play about two shabby people — a servant girl and an amusement-park barker — struggling to make sense of their lives. The name of the work, Liliom — literally, “the lily,” but also a slang term for “roughneck” — is the name of the hero, whose tough good looks draw flocks of young girls to the carousel where he barks. Budapest audiences, expecting something fluffier from Molnár, were put off by this wayward hero who struck his wife, died while committing a robbery, and wound up in a celestial police court. But after World War I, life looked different, and Liliom swept Europe. New York’s Theatre Guild took it up in 1921, making stars of its youthful leads, Joseph Schildkraut and Eva Le Gallienne. (Schildkraut’s eminent actor father, Rudolf, would shortly launch the epic struggle with censors recently chronicled in Paula Vogel’s Indecent.)
Liliom’s success helped spur Le Gallienne to create the Civic Repertory Theatre, where, in 1932, she and Schildkraut revived the piece, with the relative newcomer Burgess Meredith in a minor role. In 1940, Meredith starred in yet another revival, opposite the lustrous (but probably miscast) Ingrid Bergman; the shifty “Sparrow” who lures Liliom into his fatal crime was played by a young wannabe director named Elia Kazan. By then, Molnar’s tale had also spawned three movies, most notably Fritz Lang’s 1934 French version, starring Charles Boyer.
Much of this was probably known to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as they searched for a project to follow the gigantic success of Oklahoma! (1943). The Theatre Guild’s Theresa Helburn, who proposed Molnár’s play as possible source material, had been the one who suggested turning that other Guild production, Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs, into what became Oklahoma! Rouben Mamoulian, whose directing had been vital to Guild triumphs like Porgy and Bess (1935), and who had worked in Hollywood with both Rodgers and Hammerstein in their prior partnerships, was probably also a key contributor to the decision that transformed Liliom into Carousel (1945). Several scenes of the latter feature rhythmically spoken or half-sung dialogue, evolving into song, of the kind Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had experimented with for Mamoulian in the exquisite Love Me Tonight (1932). The combined imaginations of these four people — plus their choreographer, Agnes de Mille, also carried over from Oklahoma! — would have an incalculable effect on the American musical theater.
In Hammerstein’s transposition, Budapest becomes late-nineteenth-century New England, where Julie (Jessie Mueller) and her friend Carrie (Lindsay Mendez) drudge away as weavers in a cotton mill. Like other factory girls, they are drawn to Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), the barker for an amusement-park carousel owned by Mrs. Mullin (Margaret Colin). What starts as flirtation ends in both Billy and Julie losing their jobs. They get married almost out of defiance, and take refuge with Julie’s cousin, Nettie (Renée Fleming), a boardinghouse keeper. Carrie meantime has become engaged to the stuffy but enterprising fisherman Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani). While the locals prepare for a clambake, Billy plots with his friend Jigger (Amar Ramasar) to commit a robbery, which goes wildly wrong and ends in Billy’s death. In Heaven, he is met not by God’s judgment but by an amiable bureaucratic underling, the Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson). In a ballet Billy watches his and Julie’s daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack), grow up, a semi-outcast snubbed or patronized by the now-wealthy Enoch’s fleet of children. Allowed to return to earth for one day, Billy predictably makes a mess of things again and is led off to the lower regions while Julie and Louise struggle to remember him lovingly.
This strange, seemingly truncated story, full of male apologetics and self-justification, has always attracted a degree of head-scratching, which Hammerstein hardly mitigated by turning the original’s harsh night court into the soft-spoken Starkeeper. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, a disciple of Freud’s who grew up in Molnár’s Budapest, supplied an elaborate analysis of Liliom in his 1948 book Listening With the Third Ear. Reik views the hero as the central figure of an immature boy’s fantasy of misbehavior and retribution — he links it to Molnár’s once-popular novel about teenage gangs, The Boys of Paul Street — with attendant forgiveness by a maternal female figure. Which would explain Billy/Liliom’s story seeming to have two endings: He is led off to eternal punishment, and Julie forgives him. That’s the condition from which a self-aware misbehaving boy grows into manhood.
However accurate Reik’s analysis, it cuts little ice in the age of #MeToo, when forgiveness for male misbehavior, particularly sexual misbehavior and physical abuse of women, is in short supply. In Jack O’Brien’s new production, which manages to make strong, decisive choices and yet appear strangely wishy-washy, Joshua Henry rarely gets to display the confident, cock-of-the-walk side of Billy — save when his powerful voice opens up in one of the big, memorable songs Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for his role. In the dialogue, he often plays guiltily, as if he had judged and condemned himself before society or Heaven got there. (He came off stronger and sexier as the loving husband Jake in the last Porgy and Bess revival.) The fault lies not in his acting but in the directorial interpretation.
Other aspects of O’Brien’s production are also strangely uneven. It’s full of beautiful work, and especially of beautiful singing, but constantly shows a jumpy inconsistency, as if the drama’s dark material made him uncomfortable, or — perhaps more likely — as if this experienced old hand at steering musicals suddenly found himself caught between the familiar conventions and a new world in which they don’t exactly make sense any longer. In a way, they never really did: Carousel has always been a discomfort-causer, not only because Billy strikes his wife and, on his day back from Heaven, his daughter (in this production he hits Mrs. Mullin too), but because it seems to pull so hard in two different directions. It wants to be a tuneful, cheerful entertainment celebrating life and love, and it also wants to be a somber, earnest, morally inspiring work about violence, self-sacrifice, and how we reach understanding through suffering and endurance.
Many stage artists have struggled, some successfully, to merge these disparities; in Carousel, you can often feel the fabric rip apart. What’s maddening is how well Rodgers and Hammerstein did in both realms. The score’s joys, on its sunny side, are incredibly exhilarating; its darker dramatic moments, like the end of Billy’s “Soliloquy” and his angry “The Highest Judge of All,” cut as deep as the best moments in opera. And then there’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which has by now been sung on so many occasions of public piety as to have become an unofficial hymn. It moves many and makes others grind their teeth in irritation, summing up the formal problem of Carousel, an extraordinarily fine work that cannot be received easily for either its pleasure or its power. It’s both or nothing.
O’Brien’s uncertainty of touch creates some odd contradictions. The carousel in Carousel is always a scenic designer’s obstacle, but Santo Loquasto’s solution — a conceptual merry-go-round consisting of a lit circular awning and one emblematic wooden horse — doesn’t quite fill the bill. Nor am I sure why Nettie’s beachfront resort is decorated with stacks of blown-down fences. The show is a long one by current standards, but some of O’Brien’s cuts are unwise — they include the scene in which Julie catches Billy stealing one of Nettie’s kitchen knives, and the sung “stonecutters cut it on stone” sequence that leads up to Julie’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” By way of compensation, we get a much-expanded men’s dance to the sea shanty “Blow High, Blow Low,” with notably vivid choreography by Justin Peck. Peck’s choreography in general has a ballet-inspired quality — genuinely refreshing compared to the stuff contemporary routiniers turn out — that recalls the de Mille originals, though it’s less strong on storytelling details. And the dancing, like the singing, is first-rate throughout, with Ramasar, Pollack, and Andrei Chagas (in his pas de deux with Pollack) particular standouts.
Fine as so many elements in this Carousel are, the sense of it not having jelled is frequent. The casting has its odd side too: Colin and Thompson, superb artists from a very different theatrical realm, are not good fits for their roles — unlike Fleming, who appears to be relishing every minute of her vacation from opera. Assertive, Amazonish Mendez hardly seems the Carrie to be cowed, even temporarily, by Gemignani’s Enoch. And Mueller, though vocally and facially as dainty as a Victorian cameo, seems trapped in a role that compels her to hold back rather than let loose. You might say that time has run out for the sensibility which drove Rodgers and Hammerstein to create this work, three-quarters of a century ago, and that today’s performers can no longer fully fathom it. But because I have great faith in the skill and imaginative capacity of today’s performers, I suspect the likelier answer is that this production, so full of great things, has itself not been fully imagined, and so has not made a world for the performers to enter into.