Round in Circles They'd Go
Updated: Nov 23
What is the definition of a great musical? Is it the story that first appears on the blank pages of a writer's canvas or a cast of leading characters who emerge from the confines of someone's imagination, only to capture ours in ways we could never have expected? From impeccable costumes and elaborate staging to captivating cinematography and expert direction, many elements come together to heighten our senses to a medium that's every bit as entertaining as it is inspiring. But what sets a musical apart, perhaps above any other production, is an unforgettable score — a universal language transcribed by talented composers and spoken into melodious form by articulate lyricists. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II just happen to be two household names that are synonymous with the genre in every sense of the word.
Although most of the writing duo's works have received noteworthy praise and secured many accolades throughout the twentieth century, their enduring success is due in part to the unwavering support and loyalty of audiences from each and every generation that has followed and embraced them since. Making leaps from stage to screen, timeless classics like The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! and The King and I have certainly fared well over the years, seen and heard by even the most casual of moviegoers. The remaining titles in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog, meanwhile, have seemingly been kept within the confines of a much narrower, more select fanbase. Even with my own musical experience taken into account, I still haven't seen State Fair or Flower Drum Song; it wasn't until more recently, when I crawled down yet another Wonderland rabbit hole, that I stumbled upon Carousel to discover the most unusual entry in the series.
Inspired by the success of Oklahoma!, its award-winning predecessor, the 1956 film version of Carousel draws upon the talents of its two leading actors to retell a bittersweet tale (based on a 1909 play and the 1945 Broadway production) laced with heartbreak and tinged with dark undertones — elements that contradict the romanticized notion of fairy-tale love. But despite an impressive lineup of song and dance numbers, which are staged in typical musical fashion, the film's overall unorthodox approach to storytelling overshadows any and all preconceived notions.
While it's hard not to be impressed and delighted by the incredibly talented Gordon MacRae, it's quite easy to dislike his character in Carousel. No longer playing the part of the charismatic and classically handsome actor who serenaded Doris Day in On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon, Gordon rises to the challenge of portraying macho carousel barker Billy Bigelow. Punctured by a physical appearance that's rough around the edges, Billy is harsh, stubborn and uncompromising. His sense of pride gets the best of him in almost all situations; not even an encounter with the young and captivating mill worker Julie Jordan, who falls in love with Billy at first sight, can assuage him of his ways.
The appearance of Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie), Billy's employer, is as uncomfortable to watch as it is to listen to, for it paves the way for the innocent and well-meaning Julie to suffer the first of many grievances that are brought about as a result of her involvement with Billy. Accused of being a harlot — or, if quoted directly from the film, a slut — by the carousel's jealous owner, Julie's only saving grace comes from the unwavering support of her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge. Optimistic and upbeat, Carrie, played by the warm and ardent Barbara Ruick, stands by Julie's side at all costs; her enthusiasm in marrying fisherman Enoch Snow (Robert Rounseville), an opportunity she is most eager to pursue in "When I Marry Mr. Snow," foreshadows the unbeknownst makings of Julie's own impending nuptials.
The grace, resilience and intellect with which Julie navigates uncharted territory are a credit to the remarkable gifts of its female star. Though widely recognized as a television icon from The Partridge Family series of the 1970s, Shirley Jones was a classically trained singer when Rodgers and Hammerstein placed her under a personal contract and saw a musical prodigy in the making during her earliest stage appearances. Unlike the uncanny meeting of Billy and Julie at a small-town carnival, Shirley's pairing with Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma! — and again in Carousel — was a match made in heaven. Coupled with her partner's rich and powerful baritone voice, Shirley's mezzo-soprano vocals became an integral part of "If I Loved You," one of the most heartfelt and beautiful duets ever written.
The semblance of newlywed bliss aside, the Bigelows' union leaves much to be desired in terms of mutual respect and admiration. Even as Julie tries to make the best of the home she is attempting to build for herself and her husband — following a relocation to Nettie Jordan's Spa, a seaside resort owned by her cousin — Billy can't think about anything other than finding work. Dismayed by marriage, the reality of which doesn't seem to agree with him, he is bitter and frustrated, physically taking his anger out on his wife.
In a particularly unpleasant scene, which I imagine would disappoint many of today's viewers, Mrs. Mullin tries to convince Billy to return to his old job; as the former carousel barker considers leaving Julie, she fusses over him to make sure he eats his dinner and tries desperately to speak with him in private, all the while being silenced and ignored. It's not until Julie makes an important announcement, a blessing that feels more like a concern, that Billy attempts to redeem himself in Julie's eyes as well as our own.
With impeccable acting skills, rugged good looks and a distinct vocal technique complete with spot-on diction, perfect intonation and precise pitch, Gordon MacRae examines the soul of a highly flawed human being who has struggled to find his place in the world but is now willing to turn over a new leaf. From Billy's haunting "Soliloquy" number in Carousel to that of good-natured Curly McLain's "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" tune from Oklahoma!, he demonstrates his versatility not only as an actor and singer but a celebrated performer the likes of whom will never be experienced again.
Although Frank Sinatra was originally slated to play Billy Bigelow in the 1956 film, it's difficult to imagine anyone but Gordon MacRae giving the character all he's got. That doesn't mean, however, that Frank walked away from Carousel so easily. No one can blame him for recording his own renditions of the musical's signature tunes "Soliloquy" and "If I Loved You," the latter of which he performed live with Shirley Jones in 1958, outside of the official soundtrack's release.
Despite the questionable storyline and poor reception of the film upon its release, the original LP record was considered nothing short of a success.
A masterpiece that gave its listeners a chance to enjoy some of Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II's best work, the album also included the complete version of "The Carousel Waltz" along with "You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan" and "Blow High, Blow Low," two tracks that were deleted from the movie.
Despite a questionable subject matter and a peculiar storyline, Carousel has its shining moments. Shot on location around the picturesque state of Maine, the film showcases the memorable "June is Bustin' Out All Over" number, highlighting the festive mood and boundless energy of an island-bound community as it makes preparations for a summer clambake. Elaborately produced, the sequence features lavish costumes, an abundance of colorful staging and extravagant dance moves — inadvertently paying homage to the iconic barn dance spectacle from 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Unfortunately, while the celebration allows for a brief respite from reality and life's everyday struggles, its magic wears off quickly. Running off with a friend to commit a robbery so he can provide for his growing family, Billy tests Julie's resilience yet again. Convinced she should stand by her partner's side at any cost, Julie, with the outmost sincerity and conviction, asks Carrie "What's the Use of Wond'rin" when she questions her conflicting feelings for Mr. Snow. Neither character knows what the future may bring, but unconditional love — defined by whatever meaning it holds for each — is decidedly a driving force.
As troublesome as 1956's Carousel may seem, it is by no means as controversial as the original production. Adapted for a different audience, the film version of the story diminished the repercussions of Billy's act of desperation and ultimate need for redemption. A deliberate suicide attempt on the stage was re-written into an unfortunate accident for the silver screen, both leading to Billy's untimely demise but with the latter option altering his motives and character development once and for all. Given Billy's unfavorable depiction, which still shines through in its watered-down cinematic state, the notion of his stage persona committing yet another act of selfishness is unimaginable.
"You'll Never Walk Alone," a highly regarded musical standard, is performed in the movie twice, first when a devastated Julie is comforted at the scene of her husband's crime and again as a reprise at the conclusion of the story, which takes place 15 years later. Similar to "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music, whether by accident or on purpose, it expresses a heartfelt sentiment of finding inner strength to never give up and keep moving forward with courage and hope-filled perseverance. While Shirley Jones' vocals are not exclusive to the song in the film, the focal point being Julie's dialogue with a dying Billy, solo versions of the popular song have been covered by Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Susan Boyle, to name a few, since Carousel's release.
Just as striking as the premise of Billy's death is his consequent return to Earth, where he must perform a good deed in order to get into Heaven. What was a mandatory requirement in the show became a recommendation of helping someone in trouble when the show was transformed into a movie. That individual in question happened to be Billy's daughter, Louise, delicately portrayed by Susan Luckey as a troubled young woman whose adolescence is marked by hurtful remarks and peer-led taunts concerning her deceased father. On the verge of adulthood, Louise struggles to find a sense of belonging in the same way that Billy did, albeit having never known him in person.
The "Louise's Ballet" sequence that sheds light on the youngest Bigelow's experience is another ambitious yet slightly unexpected number that appears toward the end of the film. Shot on a beach to showcase more stunning seaside views and a special appearance from renowned dancer Jacques d'Amboise, the classically choreographed act becomes an interpretation of Louise's experience — seen through the lens of Billy and Julie's encounter at the carnival all those years ago.
Reluctant to make his other-worldly presence known to Julie, Billy thinks of a way to interact with a daughter he's never met, which is certainly no easy feat, while the Snows, whose family has now grown to include eight children, give him a glimpse of just how much time has passed since his departure. But though he's still lacking a sense of finesse and sensitivity in his approach to women, something is changing within Billy that is not visible at surface-level. Further exploration into his character would have certainly been insightful; while a few words of encouragement to Louise are certainly well-meaning, the film does not afford the audience further opportunities to witness the carousel barker's development. His appearance in the lives of his family is short-lived, almost like an afterthought. And even though Billy's case has now been closed, with no unfinished business left behind, the brief depiction of his earthly visit leaves much to be desired.
The experience of listening to the Carousel record, especially in its original LP format, is nothing short of spectacular. Decades after its release and well-received reception, it is still one of the best movie soundtracks that a musical lover can own and savor over and over again — like a carnival ride that never forsakes its charm or loses its sense of wonder. Hearing the glorious voices of Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones soar during a flawless rendition of a legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein score is an honor and a privilege, no longer limited to the Broadway stage but available to an entirely different generation of theater and moviegoers alike.
Having taken the glorious music into account, the film, in and out of itself, does not hold
up as well. Expert cinematography, exotic locations and talented performers aside, there is something about Carousel that feels amiss but is hard to pinpoint. And it doesn't necessarily get better upon consequent viewings. There is little joy to be found in the limited character interactions and relationship of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan because it never quite lives up to its potential, and the struggle to understand the boundaries of love, at least in the way they view and tolerate them as individuals, is very real.
One question remains: is it worth seeing the 1956 movie at least once? Regardless of its many flaws, and considering the contribution it's made to Classics in Wonderland, I would say yes. While not as thrilling to watch as it's so-called counterparts, Carousel is still an important part of the cinematic journey; if viewed through an appropriately adjusted lens of the time period in which it is set and without the influence of modern sensibilities, the story of a carnival barker and a millworker whose merry-go-round romance defied all odds remains a part of history that begs to be taken into consideration.