The Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership was one of the legendary collaborations in music theater history. Their first work together, Oklahoma! , opened on Broadway in 1943. Its initial run lasted five years and nine weeks, and its first national touring company spent ten and a half years on the road, playing 153 cities including ten in Canada. In spite of this success, it was by no means certain that the two would work together again. Rodgers already had a collaborator in lyricist Lorenz Hart. The two had created On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and Pal Joey together, shows that could boast numbers like “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” In fact, after Oklahoma! , Rodgers returned to Hart to rework and update A Connecticut Yankee, which had premiered in 1927. But Rodgers would never enjoy another success with Hart – the lyricist left the revival’s opening night and died shortly afterward.
Hammerstein, too, had already seen success on Broadway working with other composers, most notably with Jerome Kern – the two created their masterpiece, Show Boat, in 1927. After another of their collaborations, Very Warm for May, tanked on Broadway in 1939, Kern decided never to write for the theater again and packed his bags for Hollywood (“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” which he composed for the 1941 film version of Gershwin’s Lady be Good, won an Academy Award).
Thus, the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership was a second career for both men, and it was Carousel that cemented the deal. They were having lunch at Sardi’s early in 1944 with Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langer, who had brought the two together for Oklahoma! and were always on the lookout for new story ideas for the team. They suggested that Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s fantasy Liliom would make a great subject. Rodgers and Hammerstein were skeptical at best – the play was unrelentingly dark and had an uninspiring setting. (A good-for-nothing carnival worker in Budapest marries a factory worker, commits suicide trying to evade police, and is sent to hell, where he spends 16 years before being granted one day on earth to atone for his sins. He tries to make things right with his daughter, but she slaps him in the face and rejects his entreaties, sealing his fate.)
Rodgers and Hammerstein were not excited but agreed to think it over. During subsequent meetings, Helburn suggested they move the action to New Orleans, but the idea was nixed because Hammerstein feared he would be unable to write in a Cajun dialect and Rodgers thought the setting would make the show too “fake-picturesque.” Rodgers suggested the New England coast instead, and the possibilities offered by a seaside setting began to present themselves.
The play’s despondent ending still presented a problem, but the change of setting offered the opportunity to inject a glimmer of hope. In the musical, the final scene takes place at the daughter’s high school graduation. Doctor Seldon is giving a speech and remembers a song he used to sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The carnival worker tells the daughter to listen to the words, and she joins in the song. The reworked ending gave the story a moral without a wholesale rejection of Molnar’s denouement.
In keeping with the weightier subject, Rodgers gave more importance to the music than it had had in Oklahoma! . Carousel’s roles were written with trained voices in mind – Billy’s “Soliloquy,” which comes toward the end of Act One, is one of the most operatic numbers the duo ever created, in the sense that his character develops through the interaction of music and text over the course of the number. Several of the show’s other songs – “Mister Snow,” “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “When the Children are Asleep” – come at the end of through-composed scenes (in which the entire scene is set to music, rather than spoken dialogue preceding a number). Perhaps one of the show’s most original inspirations comes right at its beginning with a purely orchestral opening scene, the famous Carousel Waltz. Carousel’s original orchestrations, which John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will perform tonight, were prepared by Don Walker for a theater orchestra that was considered unusually large for the time – it included 40 instruments and used a large complement of strings.
The show had its premiere on April 19, 1945 at the Majestic Theater in New York and ran for 890 performances – the fifth-longest run of the decade for a musical. Amusingly, the Majestic was right across West 44th Street from the St. James, where Oklahoma! was still enjoying its successful run. The Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership continued, producing a string of hits that included South Pacific (whose original cast album stayed on Billboard’s charts for 400 weeks), The King and I, and The Sound of Music (which became one of the most popular musical films of all time) and, exercising a profound influence on later generations of composers and lyricists. Looking back on Carousel in his autobiography, Rodgers remembered, “Oscar never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics, and to me, my score is more satisfying than anything I have ever written.”
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA and the Assistant Editor of Hollywood Bowl Magazine.