by Brenda W. Clough
Over at Arena Stage in Washington DC a revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is wowing the town. In its day this was the perfect musical theater, uniting music, book and dance. Not until West Side Story did anyone achieve so superb a synthesis again. Somehow all these years, although I know the entire score and could probably sing you most of the songs, I have never seen this on stage. So this was a grand occasion, or, as they say, a real nice clambake!
What strikes me, seeing it on the boards, is how tightly the thing is built. Nothing is wasted. Even the title — the horses of the carousel are those in Plato. They represent the passions, which if properly tamed can carry a person through life. If your horses are uncontrolled you become Billy Bigelow, led hither and thither by your impulses until you destroy yourself. And they go around and around — the cycle that the hero is trapped in, and that, unless he intervenes, will trap his daughter as well.
This is one of the great redemption musicals, along with Les Miserables. (Can you think of another? Surely Gypsy does not count.) You think it’s going to be a straight Shakespearean style romance. The paired couples, Billy and July versus Enoch and Carrie, clearly display the importance of choosing your spouse wisely. And there’s a clear undercurrent of economic socialism in there. Why does the mill owner get to dictate the girls’ sex lives? Mrs. Mullin is clearly an abusive employer. You sit there balanced between several plot possibilities, the straight romantic resolution in the line of All’s Well That Ends Well or even something Ragtime-like, with the slaying of Mrs. Mullin and the mill owner followed by the founding of the Socialist Cooperative Commune of Maine.
Bit suddenly it takes a left turn into new and strange territory: the salvation of Billy’s soul. And we remember that money, and even love, are not the root of it. The loss of those won’t kill you. The show is still one of the pillars of musical theater, more than seventy years later — amazing! Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it on stage!