By Janine Sobeck, Dramaturg
Theatre lovers and historians are probably aware of the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein forever changed the world of musical theater when they wrote Oklahoma!. Instead of following the traditional musical structure of a story with unrelated or unconnected musical numbers interspersed throughout the night, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a revolution by integrating the music and the dancing into the storyline. The success of the Broadway production was so large, that Sam Goldwyn, the head of MGM Studios, reportedly told Rodgers to shoot himself because they would never be able to create another musical like that one.
Understandably, this meant that both Rodgers and Hammerstein were considerably nervous about trying to collaborate again on a new musical. As they searched for source material, the Theatre Guild (the original producers of Oklahoma!) approached them with the idea of adapting the popular Hungarian play, Liliom (by Ferenc Molnár) into a musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein rejected the idea at first, thinking that the tragic storyline was ill-suited for a musical. However, as time passed and ideas started to flow, they decided to take this tale of a carousel barker and his love, and turn it into their next project.
The process was not completely smooth. First, they had to receive permission from the playwright to make changes to his story (in particular, the ending), and they had to find a way to make the Budapest setting more accessible to the American audience. After Molnár saw a performance of Oklahoma! (which was also adapted from another work, Green Grows the Lilacs), he gave his blessing to the duo to make the changes they felt were necessary in order to make the story more musical friendly. Rodgers also had the idea of moving the story to the coast of Maine, which opened up all sorts of possibilities for the story.
When the show was ready to stage, Rodgers and Hammerstein brought back many of their collaborators from Oklahoma! onto the project — including director Rouben Mamoulian and choreographer Agnes de Mille. They then proceeded to cast a group of unknown actors for the all of the parts — in fact, only one (Jean Casto, who played Mrs. Mullin) had ever played Broadway before. Rehearsals began in January 1945, with an out-of-town tryout in Connecticut opening in March. The biggest concern was the running time (it is reported to have ended at 1:30 a.m., with de Mille’s ballet running over an hour and a half), and much work was done to shorten the show.
The original Broadway production opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 19, 1945. Rodgers, who had thrown out his back, was heavily sedated on morphine and watched the show from a stretcher behind the curtain. He could neither see nor hear the audience and feared that the show was a dismal failure. However, the audience greeted the show (including de Mille’s now 40-minute ballet) with thunderous applause. Critics garnered the show with praise, and Carousel won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Musical, 1945-46. The production ran for over two years before going on a national tour.
Since that time there have been numerous revivals, as well as the 1956 film version (with Oklahoma! stars Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones). Rodgers continuously claimed that Carousel was his favorite piece he had ever created and in 1999, Times magazine heralded it as the best musical of the 20th century. The beautiful music, combined with the compelling story, has firmly entrenched Carousel an important part of the musical theater canon.