We’re on a Carousel
By Peter Filichia —
This June is bustin’ out all over with a recording of Carousel that hasn’t been available for decades. Look around! Look around! Look around! The first studio cast album that was sanctioned by Rodgers and Hammerstein is with us once more.
By 1955, recording technology had greatly advanced since Carousel’s original recording session that had taken place almost ten years earlier. Back then, ten 78 r.p.m. record sides had to do, meaning that much of the score had to be omitted.
The famous “Bench Scene” – which includes “If I Loved You” – originally ran 4:16. Here, on this 1955 recording, it runs more than twice as long: 8:51. Almost every other song weighs in around a minute longer, including the glorious “Carousel Waltz.” But even with that instrumental masterpiece, you’re getting even more, for conductor Lehman Engel makes the carousel spin and twirl at slightly faster tempo.
To be fair, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” is shorter, as is “Soliloquy,” than on the original cast album. The reason for the latter, however, is that by 1955, Rodgers and Hammerstein had decided to drop a few lines from it.
The first recording session of this Carousel began on March 31, 1955, which is fitting, for this last day of March was and would be again an important date in R&H history. March 31, 1943 marked the opening of Oklahoma! – the show that had anointed the team as Broadway’s finest. March 31, 1957 would see their made-for-TV musical Cinderella debut on CBS, attract 60 million viewers, and become the number one show of the week. It eventually had two remakes and has often played on stage, even at New York City Opera.
Both Oklahoma! and Cinderella followed the familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl story that so many musicals had used before it. Although Oklahoma! had been considered ground-breaking, Carousel took greater risks, for it offered one of the most serious stories ever attempted in a musical: Boy (Billy Bigelow) meets girl (Julie Jordan), boy marries girl and loses job, girl becomes pregnant and boy kills himself after his botched robbery attempt.
Rodgers’s music was his most ambitious yet, so for this 1955 recording, singers with an operatic background were hired. Robert Merrill (the former Moishe Miller), a Metropolitan Opera star, was Billy, although this was certainly not the baritone’s first crossover. In 1945, the year that Carousel opened, Merrill not only made his Met debut in La Traviata, but he also covered some recordings from another Broadway hit of that year, Up in Central Park. Here, he did splendidly by “The Highest Judge of All” as well as the aforementioned “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy.” (Of course it takes talent to do that well.) Merrill was said to have hit his prime in 1951-1956, when he was 34-39, and this Carousel is good evidence that he did.
Playing Julie was Patrice Munsel, who’s having a good 2011; her 1964 recording of The Merry Widow was recently re-released, too. Munsel’s opera training served her well in one of the lyrics that Hammerstein second-guessed for the remaining years of his life: the last line of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” Hammerstein often rued that he ended the song with “And all the rest is talk,” because not every Julie would have that that luscious vowel sound at the end that would make the note easier to sing and hold. Note Munsel’s ease with “I like to watch the river meet the seaaaaa.” But the irony is that Munsel is able to hold the last note of “talk” for a surprisingly long time, and doesn’t seem to be the least challenged by it.
Florence Henderson potrayed Carrie, the woman destined to marry Mr. Snow and have a snowstorm of nine children. Eventually Henderson would become most famous (for better or worse) as Carol Tyler Martin Brady on The Brady Bunch, where she would play mother to “only” six children. (Of course, families were bigger in Carrie Pipperidge Snow’s day.) Henderson had started out playing “The New Girl” in Wish You Were Here in 1952 and established her name in 1954 as the title character in Fanny. She’d star in The Girl Who Came to Supper in 1963 and a Music Theater of Lincoln Center production of South Pacific in 1967. But because Henderson appeared on so few cast albums, hearing her on this one is a real treat. Fish may be Carrie’s favorite perfume, but you’ll prefer the top notes that Henderson hit.
Also on the disc is – as he’s billed here – “George Irving.” Longtime Broadway musical fans know his middle initial is “S” as readily as they know that “M” belongs in the middle of George Cohan’s name. Those who really know their Broadway onions can tell you that the “S” stands for Shelasky and, by George, that’s not his middle name, but his original last name; in fact, Irving is the middle name that George I. Shelasky was given at birth.
Irving has always been well-known in Broadway circles for his lovely nature. Most of the characters he’s portrayed (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells Are Ringing, Irma La Douce, and in Irene, for which he won a Tony®) have been nice guys – or at least nicer than they might have been had Irving not played them. In real life, Irving was also married to Maria Karnilova (the original Tessie Tura in Gypsy) for 53 years, from 1948 until her death in 2001, which suggests a nice guy in private life too.
So you’re assuming that on this disc he played the goody-goody Mr. Snow. No – he was actually Jigger, the ne’er-do-well who leads Billy astray. Listen and you’ll discover that Irving can be the bad guy when he has to, and offers no apologies for it, especially in one of Hammerstein’s best lyrics: “My mother used to say to me, ‘When you grow up, my son, I hope you’re a bum like yer father was, ‘cuz a good man ain’t no fun.’”
Hammerstein is often said to have been the least funny of the major lyricists. His wordplay didn’t get as many chuckles, let alone laughs, as his colleagues received. But this one amuses, as well as another one that shows up on the same track (nine): Enoch Snow (Herbert Banke) sang in the previously unrecorded “Geraniums in the Winder,” “I might hev hed a baby,” to which Jigger snorted, “What?” only to find that he’d interrupted the man, who had been about to say, “To dangle on my knee.”
Yes, Hammerstein actually wrote “hev hed” and “yer father.” He liked writing regional dialects: “I Cain’t Say No” (Oklahoma!) is one example, and “We get letters doused wit’ poifume” in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” (South Pacific) is another. Some have criticized Hammerstein for the black dialect he gave his characters in Show Boat (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Ah Still Suits Me”) or Carmen Jones (“Dat’s Love,” “Dere’s a Cafe on De Corner” and “Beat out Dat Rhythm on a Drum”), but his body of work showed he wasn’t racist; he simply wrote ‘em the way he heard his characters talk.
The cover of this Carousel is one the rare places where you’ll see the songwriting team referred to as “Rodgers and Hammerstein II.” We must wonder if the cover designer had feared that consumers would confuse lyricist Hammerstein with his grandfather Oscar Hammerstein I (1847-1919), a 19th century impresario. That Oscar Hammerstein eventually went bankrupt; “our” Oscar Hammerstein certainly did not. His work with Rodgers and others continues to enthrall millions from new productions, new recordings and even new reissues of old recordings – such as this Carousel. It’s one to which you’ll listen for many and many a long, long day.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.