It takes talent to do that well
11/09/2012 § 2 Comments
I was at the Barbican on Friday to see the Opera North production of Carousel: surely the most beautiful Rogers and Hammerstein score of them all. It’s a much better piece in the theatre than on film, especially in the slightly cut version done by Opera North, where dialogue flows seamlessly into song and song flows seamlessly into dance.
What I thought was most striking thing about the show was the lack of glamour and fantasy which surrounds the setting and the characters. Even now the detail of ordinary Connecticut life is striking – Julie must return to her boarding house before the curfew, or lose her job in the factory. Billy’s aspirations for his son are decidedly unglamorous (all but the last):
I don’t give a damn what he does
As long as he does what he likes!
He can sit on his tail,
Or work on a rail
With a hammer, hammering spikes!
He can ferry a boat on a river,
Or peddle a pack on his back,
Or work up and down
The streets of a town
With a whip and a horse and a hack.
He can haul a scow along a canal,
Run a cow around a corral,
Or maybe bark for a carousel
(Of course it takes talent to do that well.)
He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or President of the United States,
That’d be all right, too.
When you consider the setting of most 1930s musicals, what Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing must have come as a sharp break with the past. Oklahoma! was the revolutionary piece, the first stage musical in which the songs played an important part in both plot and characterisation, rather than the play breaking off periodically for an (at best) vaguely relevant number, but the nineteenth century cowboys and farmers of Oklahoma! seem more story-bookish than the fishermen and mill girls of turn-of-the-century Connecticut.
Both musicals are set a million miles from the mittel-European fantasy land of operetta or that smooth-edged Art Deco New York (or Paris, or London, or even Brighton) through which Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire whirled, but Carousel seems to me to be even less of a fantasy than Oklahoma!, more rooted in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. (It’s notable that the film of Carousel removes disreputable Jigger’s class-conscious explanation to Billy of the way heaven works, disabusing him of the idea that he might be judged by God himself: ‘No supreme court for the little folk –just police magistrates’.)
This rootedness is put across through the genius of Hammerstein’s lyrics, which achieve an extraordinary synthesis of poetry and talk; there’s barely a line in the entire show which would sound out of place in ordinary conversation. This effect is highlighted when you see the stage show, where the hells and goddamns that were removed for the film are kept in the script:
There’s a hell of a lot of stars in the sky,
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small,
And two little people, you and I,
We don’t count at all.
It flows, rhythmically, there’s nothing clumsy about it at all, and yet it seems both poetic and artless. It’s so far from the New York sophistication of Cole Porter, or even of Rodgers’ previous partner Lorenz Hart, that it’s easy to underrate Oscar Hammerstein, until you try and replicate that simplicity and realise just how difficult it is to achieve.
What’s most difficult to watch today, of course, is the horrible sexual politics around Billy’s violence against Julie: ‘I didn’t beat her!’ says Billy defensively, ‘I just hit her.’ Julie’s acceptance of Billy’s violence culminates at the point where Billy returns from heaven’s police court to see the daughter he has never known, loses his temper, and strikes the daughter too; the daughter wonderingly asks her mother if it’s possible for someone to ‘really hit you, mother, loud and strong so you hear it, and for it not to hurt at all?’ It’s horrific, and difficult to believe that in 1945 this was seen as an acceptable message (although it clearly was). But marriage doesn’t seem like a happy ending for anyone in Carousel; Carrie Pipperidge may think on the day of her engagement that her fiancé Mr Snow is ‘an almost perfect beau’, but it seems, sixteen years later, that she’s tied to a prude and a snob (and a disciplinarian – it’s interesting how often the figure of the whistle-blowing father, drilling his children with military precision, recurs in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals). Marriage and love is not the answer:
Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away,
But what’s the use in wond’ring,
If the ending will be sad?
He’s your feller and you love him,
That’s all there is to that.
Instead what seems to be the answer is the strength of the community. Billy returns to earth from heaven to do right by his daughter, and the advice he tries to give her is to dissuade her from the path he chose of stubborn independence and seek strength among others. It’s mawkish (and I find You’ll never walk alone the least interesting song in the show) but the vivid depiction of the community earlier in the play at least make the conclusion feel as though it has been earned.
(Incidentally, from Wikipedia, about the number This was a real nice clambake:
“When the song proceeded to discuss the lobsters consumed at the feast, Hammerstein wrote the line “We slit ’em down the back/And peppered ’em good”. He was grieved to hear from a friend that lobsters are always slit down the front. The lyricist sent a researcher to a seafood restaurant and heard back that lobsters are always slit down the back. Hammerstein concluded that there is disagreement about which side of a lobster is the back.”)