The other night, we saw a Harvard student production of Carousel, the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
It's a very strange show, when you come right down to it. I hadn't seen it since high school -- I missed the Broadway revival a couple of years back. In high school, I didn't really appreciate how strangely pessimistic this show is, despite all its sunny tunes. After all, this is a show about abusive relationships and ill-matched marriages, about an unusually intelligent young millworker who marries a wife-beater and her unimaginative, dim pal who marries a nebbish.
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 of wond'ring
If the ending will be sad?
There's nothing more to say.
(Note the early pomo gesture: as we approach the mid-point of the last act and are wondering how this can possibly end well, the heroine starts to argue that is might not. Carousel famously ends in a realistic muddle; everyone remembers skipping the happy ending liberated music theater, but nobody seems to have much noticed this odd, early reflexive move. Routine today, perhaps, but this is 1945.)
- In 1945, New York theater could treat coastal New England -- towns like Gloucester and New Bedford -- as archaic and exotically distant lands.
- Writing about Showboat, Lahr pointed out a few years ago that when musicals seem to be about the plight of Negros or Asians or Irish immigrants, they're often also talking about New York Jews. Carousel, in this reading, is again boarding the train at a very early hour; it's a show about how terribly mixed our feelings must be for the vexing, opinionated, self-destructive, vindictive, and often dangerous people who made the journey to a new world and, incidentally, turned into our parents or grandparents.
- Harvard student productions have the benefit of a sizable student body that's selected to excel in extra-curricular activities. I still think that's an odd way to run a college, but it means that, when you do musicals, you can find some really good voices. The performance was heavily miked, but really didn't need it. Jennifer Rugani does a nice job with Julie Jordan, and Jennifer Brown's Carrie Pipperidge has power to spare.
- That extra-curricular roster also lets you do things that would be exorbitant elsewhere, like an orchestra with the full original instrumentation. Three french horns, doubled oboes, trumpets, two flutes and a piccolo, a full string section. Unfortunately, the horns and the piccolo had a rough night of it. Those are the breaks.
- Lots of the undergrads dressed up. Lots of young women in their very best dresses, which were very good indeed; the student production was classier than opening night for the ART. Blazers and bermuda shorts seemed popular with the men. I don't know what that was about.
- The Harvard production favors Southern accents, which is odd. But Liam Martin plays Jigger Craigin in a fine, menacing South Boston.
- The show didn't come off as well as Cabaret did the other year, in part because Cabaret's staging is so confined. Carousel really needs great dance (though you could do it in concert, I suppose). The Carousel Waltz, for example, might have worked better as an overture with a closed curtain than it did as a dumb-show. While you can find terrific voices at Harvard, it's a lot harder to find terrific singers who can also dance (and time to rehearse). Joss Whedon has a comment on this, to the effect that it's a lot easier for an actor to learn a little singing than to learn a little dance.