Archive for May, 2012

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How To Audition for a School Musical When You Have No Talent

May 27, 2012

Someone has recently found my website by googling this sentence, so there is clearly a demand for an article like this. One has to admire the courage of someone who types something like this into a search engine; the pessimistic knowledge of one’s limitations combined with the optimism of someone who suspects there may be a way around it: the intense desire to do something one does badly in the most wildly public way imaginable is fantastic, and makes me want to meet this person. Well, in the style of a post such a person might want to discover, I offer the following:

1)      You are probably an astonishingly poor judge of how good or bad you are. Most people, young people in particular, are in the dark about their abilities or inabilities.  Watch the first couple of weeks of American Idol, especially the crazies who can’t sing at all. They’re usually shocked when somebody tells them they can’t. But more than that, the shining stars of your school, the greatest jocks, musicians, and nerds in the highest stratosphere of their cliques have identified, perhaps, some inclination to success, but history is full of stories of successful people who discovered their abilities rather later than high school, and many of the people you idolize in the pantheon of your school will lead shockingly mundane lives in fields that don’t relate at all to what they seemed born to do in Junior High or High School. The voice is something which doesn’t mature until later than high school, and whatever ability that star student has is only a down payment on a house that hasn’t yet been built. Musical ability, the ability to dance, the ability to act, these things are partially ‘talent’ and much more the result of the application of love and a lot of hard work. Some of that love will be your love for your art, some of the love will be applied by mentors, teachers, your friends, and your colleagues. The idea of the limitless talent that comes from nowhere and descends upon some chosen soul is a total myth. Mozart? Stevie Wonder? Justin Bieber? They’re just people. People with some natural talent, the ability to work at that talent through a punishing amount of practice, and a lot of people around them guiding and nurturing their journey. Don’t walk into this thinking, “I have no talent”. Go in thinking, “I’m going to bring the best version I have of my current self and let them see what they think.”

2)      Don’t audition for a show to climb the social ladder. Theatre is supposed to be the kind of hard work you enjoy. If you hate theatre, do something else. If you want everyone to know how awesome you are, start a blog or go into politics or something. Leave the theatre to the people who want to tell stories in an interesting way. The theatre is about listening and reacting, knowing your lines and your music and playing in those moments. It’s about working together toward a shared vision, about the belief that people’s lives improve when we tell them a story well. Audition to be a part of something, audition to tell a story, audition to meet new friends, but don’t audition to be awesome. Being awesome is another thing entirely; the only truly awesome people are living for something else.

3)      Read the audition instructions carefully and follow them. You want to know what’s an annoying turn-off? When somebody comes to an audition and hasn’t read the instructions. When somebody’s supposed to fill out a form and doesn’t do it, or learn a song, and didn’t bother to learn it. This show’s going to be a lot of work. If you weren’t even in the game enough to fill out the form, go home. And don’t go in and announce, “I’m terrible at this.”, or say, “I can’t dance.” Just go in and do your best. If you secretly think you can do it and announce that you can’t, you’re probably addicted to the sound of people telling you how great you are. That’s an unattractive character trait you should try to get out of your system. If you know you can’t do it, and you’re worried about failing publicly, it’s a great chance to lose some foolish pride and get in touch with yourself. Gosh, who really cares what your friends think anyway? Really interesting people have better things to be concerned about.

4)      Ask your most savvy friends and/or the adults involved in the production which character you should aim for and listen carefully. This one’s a little tricky, because your friends may suck up to you and tell you things that aren’t really true. Adults, less so. When I’m preparing students for an audition, I try to find the role in the show that matches most closely their type and ability level, and teach them the audition side that meets the requirements and shows those qualities. Then we work it really hard. If there are multiple roles the student might be good at, I usually work on the one with the qualities that are hardest to see just by looking. For example, if an actor is interested in two characters, one who is a wallflower, and one who is a crazy extrovert, I’d prepare an extroverted audition, because it’s easier to dial energy back from an actor than to wind up somebody who doesn’t have any energy. They’ll be able to imagine you more subdued if you give them a big audition; if you give them something small, they’ll have trouble picturing you being big. If your friends tell you you’d be great in the chorus, give the best audition you can, and be game to try anything they ask you to do. You never know.

5)      Give everything you’ve got, don’t expect too much, have a good time. Auditioning can be a blast. If your whole life is riding on it, it’s a drag. Always remember: They want you to be great. They don’t want you to fail. All you can bring is your best version of what you think they’re asking for. And if their answer is no, take it with a grain of salt and a lot of grace. Maybe they were wrong, maybe they had a bad day. Maybe there’s something better for you than this in your life right now. Have a great time in the chorus, and start the hard work of getting better. Or if you didn’t make the show at all, find another show or another passion. Life is full of things to get excited about; find one of them and jump in with your arms open wide.   

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Carousel: A Rough Guide For The M.D. Part II

May 8, 2012

CAROUSEL ROUGH GUIDE PART II:

AS YOU’RE CASTING:

BILLY

One of the great roles for a Baritone in the canon. Billy is an extremely challenging part. He must be innately likeable, but believable as a bully. He must have a gorgeous and powerful singing voice, but be able to act some very subtle moments believably, including a suicide. He is generally physically imposing, but must also be able to be playful and charming with the girls. Sings up to a real chested high G. The show rises and falls on your casting of Billy.

JULIE

A great Soprano Heroine, with some beautiful music and a lot of challenging acting. Needs to be able to play young in the first act and older in the second, be convincing as a young naïve girl and as a world-wise mother. She needs to be able to flirt with Billy without seeming like a vamp, she needs to be able to portray a vast reserve of strength and calm, but also be able to be genuinely afraid and destitute. Sometimes Julie is played in a sort of whiney victim way, which is absolutely wrong. Julie must be very strong. Her monologue over the dead Billy is as hard as Maria’s monologue at the end of West Side Story, and the subtleties of the scene in which she confides to Carrie that Billy has beaten her are beyond many actresses. And then, of course, she needs a beautiful voice that can sing a G flat powerfully, a strong melodic line, great breath support, and the power to work opposite Billy. And naturally it would be nice to have some chemistry between them.

CARRIE

Hammerstein wrote a number of secondary roles for sassy, funny sopranos. Ado Annie from Oklahoma!  also comes to mind. Carrie actually sings a half step higher than Julie in this show! She plays flighty, but she isn’t as dumb as Ado Annie, she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She needs to play something other than silly; the scene when Julie confides in her requires some gravity. She also needs to be able to put over When I Marry Mr. Snow, and have some chemistry with Jigger for their scene in the second act. She must also be light enough for Jigger to carry her. (sorry, but it’s true) A great challenge for a gifted soprano with comic chops.

SNOW

Snow is a funny tenor, but he too will need to show some gravity, especially in the second act. Hopefully he can pop that A, but if not, some kind of passable G above the staff will suffice. The comedy comes from his delight in his plans and his determination to succeed. Normally tenors are not so stolid and responsible in musicals. Another great challenge.

JIGGER

The ideal Jigger is wiry and dangerous, attractive and aloof, charming, funny, moves well and has a tremendous personal magnetism. It helps if he can also sing, but if you have to cast one singing character with somebody who isn’t much of a singer, it could be Jigger. He also doesn’t sing anything higher than a D.  Jigger’s machinations are an engine of the plot through the end of the first act and the beginning of the second, and a bad Jigger is a real let-down.

BASCOMBE

An older actor, preferably, with a personal warmth for his first appearance, but a little fire so that his second appearance also gives the other actors something to play against. He doesn’t sing, so the role could go to one of those hard-to-cast non-singing fellows.

NETTIE

Yet another terrific role in this show. Needs to be able to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone magnificently at a crucial moment in the story, but almost as importantly, needs to be a rock of support for Julie, and put across delight and amusement at the carryings on of the young people around her. Needs a G above the staff, great musicality and breath that goes on for days, but also needs to sing fast in June is Bustin’.

MULLIN

Also doesn’t sing. Needs to play older than Julie and Carrie, but can’t be completely over the hill, or the sexual chemistry between her and Billy will play very creepy. Demanding and dominating but also savvy and able to make a convincing appeal to Billy’s ego and desires. Also spars with Jigger and has a dramatic scene over Billy’s body.

STARKEEPER/Dr. SELDON

It works best when these two are played by the same person, for reasons that become obvious when you read the final scene. You don’t need me to tell you that the part needs to be played by someone authoritative but warm, who reads older.

LOUISE

Louise needs to be a dancer with a ballet vocabulary (not a jazz dancer) who can also act and appears 15 or so. She doesn’t sing. Preferably she is tough with a vulnerable side, the kind of person the audience wants to see protected. But since she carries the second act ballet and has a pas-de-deux, you should cast first and foremost a dancer.

A WORD ABOUT THE MATERIALS:

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has updated the materials to Carousel, including a newly engraved score and parts. I worked both from that new edition, and from the old edition. I found the new edition to be much more complete with regard to the instrumentation, but if you can get your hands on the old 1945 version, it’s more playable for the pianist. There are also a couple of things in the new score which I think may be typos, although I can’t be sure. The benefits of the new version far outweigh the liabilities. UPDATE MARCH 2015: The R&H Organization was kind enough to provide me with their 2013 materials, which were not available when I made this post originally. Let me tell you, these books are absolutely glorious. The partitur is clean as a whistle and well spaced, there has obviously been a great deal of research using the original materials, and I don’t suppose we will ever require a better edition of this iconic score. At the end of the second volume of the partitur is a fascinating set of notes on the restoration which have a treasure trove of information about the materials consulted to build the current score and an amazing amount of detective work including personal interviews about the orchestrations and the circumstances surrounding the shaping of each individual number. If the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization does this for all the R&H shows, the scholarship of this body of work will be immeasurably enriched, and scholars can begin to use these materials as a new baseline of scholarship. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for theatre music scholars, this is as important as the publishing of the Neue Bach Ausgabe for 19th Century music lovers. In addition, I want to revise my earlier statement about the playability of the old vocal score. I think the accuracy of the 2013 vocal score makes it the better choice.

THE INDIVIDUAL NUMBERS / TECHNICAL ELEMENTS:

Prologue (The Carousel Waltz)

There is a theory going around that Rodgers wrote this as a concert piece for a Paul Whiteman Commission and repurposed it to fit this scene. It certainly holds together as a concert piece very well, and one source I read claims that Agnes DeMille asked Rodgers for some changes in the opening number to suit the action; changes he refused to make.  If you read Rodgers’ biography, you’d come away thinking the opening ballet was a stroke of genius on his part (and discover that he disliked loud brass in overtures), but the scenario is also the opening of Molnar’s play.

The original scenario for this ballet is very involved. An older version of the script would include some lyrics, which have been cut from the revised script, I suppose because people might have actually been singing them, which is expressly NOT what the script calls for. You’ll find them in a note on the page opposite the first page of music. They are very instructive in setting up the action because they fall in a specific part of the music. The original script reads, after the sentence …while MRS. MULLIN, the proprietress beams above them

Here is what Billy would be singing, if he were heard:

Ride on the merry-go-round?

Ride for a mile for a nickel?

Ride on the merry-go-round

With your sweetheart by your side?

Music that fits this lyric happens at 235, 251, 291, and 307.

Later, the barker is supposed to say:

Look at the girls?

Look at their whirls?

This lyric seems to fit what’s happening at, say, 121, which doesn’t work in the right order for the scenario. I suspect every person who has thoughtfully set out to choreograph this number has puzzled over this section.

This is the first place where you, your director, and your choreographer are going to have to sit down and sort out what is happening. If that music is really supposed to match that moment, the whole ballet needs to be choreographed around it. It won’t happen accidentally. None of the stage directions are in the score, so it’s up to you to figure out what happens where. It’s also important that a STORY be told here. It’s not just a pretty ballet, this sets the scene for the entire show. Should you decide cuts are needed, the number is arranged fairly neatly into 8 and 16 measure sections, so they can be achieved artfully.

The R&H library’s materials also include a DVD about Agnes DeMille’s original choreography, which would be useful to watch in your planning.

Don Walker’s original orchestration is for a full percussion battery, but the rest of the score is for a single percussionist. You’ll have to work with your percussion player to include the details you want from the three player version.

Swain’s chapter on Carousel in The Broadway Musical focuses heavily on this opening number, and if you’re of a theoretical bent, you’ll find his harmonic analysis really interesting.

2. Change of Scene

More of the same. I took it at a faster clip than the same passage in the Prologue. You can move directly into:

3. Opening Act I Scene II

It takes a little work to get a clean ensemble with this, with staccato eighths exactly together. The first time you run it, do it at a quarter speed, then slowly increase the speed. I found it was effective to cut it off at the first downbeat after Mullin’s entrance.

4. Mister Snow (Julie and Carrie Sequence)

This is the first of the extended sequences in the show, and it sets the tone for the sequences to come. Ethan Mordden points out that this sequence sets up the later bench scene sequence, so that the audience is ready to listen to that sort of musical exposition. Like the other sequences, it operates at several levels; spoken dialogue over accompaniment, rhymed dialogue in rhythm over accompaniment, arioso that is tonally and melodically neutral, and song form proper. This sequence begins with rhymed dialogue in rhythm over the accompaniment, and I found the tonal shift hard to manage between the rather tense scene that precedes this section and Carrie’s first line. I think a pause is in order after Billy’s exit before the song begins. The section beginning at m. 11 (you’re a queer one, Julie Jordan) is a kind of arioso; the melody isn’t particularly memorable, and the harmony is basically static.  Notice that Julie’s rhythms are dotted eighth-sixteenth, where Carrie sings the same kind of phrase using straight eighths. This gives Julie’s phrases a flightier, whispier feel, and makes Carrie seem more straightforward and sensible. Don’t let your actresses smooth over that detail. The Allegro section at m.26 is more neutral melody, with Rodgers’ signature repeated accompaniment pattern portraying the loom described. I think the new time signature should be taken at the tempo of the old, quarter=quarter.  I took a pause before the pickup to measure 58, so that the audience can respond to the joke. (it normally gets a laugh) The passage that follows is an example of a kind of very chromatic and contrapuntal underscore that I believe is new to Rodgers; I suspect he was trying to stretch his technique a little in the parts that didn’t accompany singers. Don’t let the complexity of the musical material overshadow the dialogue. Watch when you teach measure 71-14 that the pitches go all the way down to the D each time. It’s kind of and ingenious melodic device, each phrase starting at the D and going a little higher each time. It’s appropriate, I think to take a little ritardando at 91 (fish is my favorite perfume…) , even though it isn’t marked. A tempo again at 93 (last night he spoke…) if you decide to do that. The original piano score has fermatas in the bar before “When I marry Mr. Snow”. I think that works well. This is, of course, the big tune of the sequence, and it’s one of Carrie’s big moments. A rich, warm, but balanced and forward placed tone is what’s required here. Bring out the beautiful answering phrases in orchestra during Carrie’s long notes in measure 115-116, 123-124, etc. The phrase “Well, Mr. Snow, here I am” can be delivered a thousand ways, but you’ll have to find just the right one for this place and another way for the other place it occurs in the show, one that matches your Carrie and her character arc. If overplayed, I find it really takes me out of the moment.  The last 8 measures are a test of your Carrie’s ability to build a phrase and maintain placement over a continually leaping and ascending line. I took the last two measures in 4 and gave as strong a button as I was able, to give Carrie a good applause cue.

5. Scene Billy and Julie (If I Loved You)

Sondheim calls this scene “the single most important moment in the revolution of contemporary musicals.” This is one of the spots where you need to be there as the scene is being blocked and staged. Music ebbs and flows here in a subtle and important way. The scene is really not at all the same without the music, and the music is infinitely better when staged. It’s not just music here; there’s a story. Again, there are levels here. The lower level scenes without a lot of memorable melodic content can be freer in tempo, which will help set off the bigger moments. At the beginning, Billy is singing Carrie’s material about Julie; this is just how the universe and everyone in it feels about Julie. At measure 16, we have new material in a more solid tempo. Measures 28-34 are awfully tricky to hear; they’re probably the most chromatic passage in this highly chromatic show. Work it slow as you teach it to get it exactly right. In measures 38-40, get Julie’s “no”s in exact rhythm, so they match what the orchestra will be doing under her. At measure 53, we see another really chromatic and contrapuntal underscoring that could potentially draw focus from the scene if you weren’t careful. At 61 and the other places like it, get the singers used to coming in after 8 bars. It’s hard while you’re delivering the lines, but if the singer comes in a bar early or late, you’re going to be scrambling later, because it won’t sound ‘wrong’ until measure 77. Note that Juilie’s lyric here is slightly different than Carries was in the same section in No. 4. If you’re using the old 1945 vocal score, the first note in measure 85 in the left hand is actually an F natural. That’s a typo. Also, measure 90 shouldn’t have a fermata. If I Loved You can be sung many ways effectively, but the breathing should be planned out in advance. I always prefer longer phrases, myself, so if the singer can, carry from “If I loved you” to “time and again”. The end of the phrase “…know” should be sung all the way to the end, deliberately. The same goes for the next phrases. The B section also requires some consistent breath support. The orchestra dynamic drops to a pianissimo at 117, remaining at a piano + or lower until the end of the vocal line but it takes an exceptional singer to drop the dynamic that low effectively, and it’s difficult to negotiate the following passage up to the high G flat without a forte dynamic; it falls in a tricky place in the voice. It’s not written in the score, but performance practice and common sense tell us to slow down in 125 and put a short fermata in the second beat of 126. (how I loved youuuuuu…) Then the grand pause needs to last just the right amount of time; it’s the turning point of the lyric. If you have good communication with the actor at that moment, you can breathe with them, and let the actor choose the moment for the “If I loved you” herself. I honestly think the authors didn’t want applause here. There’s no button, and the accompaniment fades away. Of course you can’t stop people from applauding, but I chose to go on with the underscore as soon as the moment ended. Billy and Julie will get plenty of applause at the end of the scene, there’s no need to break up the dramatic momentum of the scene to give Julie an ovation just yet. Be aware of how the dialogue lines up with the music, especially rolling into measure 139. There is some leeway, but the moment needs to be shaped. It’s very important. The section from 141-196 is a crucial moment of poetic vulnerability for Billy; it is a chance for the audience to see what Julie might have seen in him. Hammerstein goes to the same place he went in Oklahoma, when Curly sings:

The sun is swimmin’ on the rim of a hill,

The moon is taikin’ a header,

And jist as I’m thinkin’ all the earth is still,

A lark’ll wake up in the medder…

(there’s that lark again, who shows up in so many Hammerstein lyrics)

Billy waxes even more rhapsodically about nature, although his musings take on a far more philosophical angle.

You can’t hear a sound, not the turn of a leaf

Nor the fall of a wave hittin’ the sand.

The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a theif,

Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land

On a night like this I start to wonder what life is all about.

…and later…

There’s a helluva 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.

In a fascinating passage cut from that song, he goes even further, to sing:

There’s a feathery little cloud floatin’ by

Like a lonely leaf on a big blue stream

And two little people- you and I –

Who cares what we dream?

Nature somehow makes these paragons of masculinity,( Curly and Billy) into poets. Billy’s delivery of this passage needs to be vulnerable, natural, and fluid, with a strong legato line. The phrase “…what life is all about…” has a tenuto in the original score on the word ‘life’. For my money, Julie’s answer “And I always say two heads are better than one, to figger it out” needs to be faster, and more flippant, to motivate his response and second poetic phrase. Work carefully to make this section beautiful and moving, because it not only motivates Julie’s love for him, but demonstrates Billy’s appreciation of beauty and his underlying nihilism and feelings of insignificance under his braggadocio. It’s important to show this clearly so that we see the magnitude of the change in the end of Soliloquy, where he realizes his potential significance for another person. Following this final poetic passage, we have another chromatic underscore. I found this passage needed to be a bit faster than Lento to line up with that tiny snatch of dialogue. Because Billy is using Julie’s material at 213, I think he’s playing with her a bit. I think this passage should be sung with humor. Again, the “But You don’t” “No I don’t” exchange needs time. Be sensitive to it in the rehearsal. It’s a big shift, and sets up Billy’s If I Loved You. Everything I wrote earlier applies here, perhaps more so, since the Eb, F, Gb area is in the passagio for most baritones who would sing this. The final 22 measures of underscore are really important to time properly. The scene should be blocked and worked out with the music from the beginning. The ending should build to a real Hollywood conclusion. THEN you get your very strong button which lets the audience know to go gaga with their applause.

6. Opening Act I Scene II

A really fun Incidental, work for tight ensemble in your orchestra. I liked a slightly separated, staccato feel from the eighth notes, even though it isn’t marked that way.

7. June is Bustin’ out all over

Watch the very opening of this. I had a tendency to take it too quickly, to emphasize the girls’ excitement. But then Carrie’s section was too fast. Think Carrie’s ideal speed in your head, then conduct to that tempo. There are a lot of words to be confused about here; it’s really easy to switch them out without even knowing you’re doing it. “Along come pretty little May”, not came; things like that. You as the MD should keep an eye on those words especially early in the process and correct mistakes before they get ingrained. I found the tempo at 27 (now jest a minute ladies…) needed to be relaxed a bit, and that made it so that the 1st Man solo needed to really watch me for that tempo. The section at 43 isn’t really all that hard, but they do need to watch you for the entrances. Make the cutoff in 58 the upbeat to the ladies entrance. The rhythm at 63 has a tendency to morph into sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth, which is jazzier, and easier to sing, but wrong. The real rhythm is a reversal of the ‘look at them clams’, ‘sooner we sail’ rhythm. I found the bell tone in 91 worked better when given to the horn, (it’s cued in the part), and it worked for me to place it just after Nettie said “whoopin’ out into the sunsine.” (note) played softly through the next cueline. As written in the score, the bell tone just slows things down. Make your accompaniment a quiet but stentorian piano in 92, lighter in 94, graceful in 96, and almost sprightly in its bounce in 100. The cutoff in 115 is not very intuitive. Either drill it the way it’s written, or extend it to a half note. The original vocal score has a repeat during the chorus part, but the new version has it written out to the end, and includes a lot of orchestral details missing from the original. The choral parts are also slightly different, FYI. The cutoffs at the end of the phrase (mm. 159, 207, and 259) are also odd, and need to be either altered or drilled. I changed the last note to a half note in each case. The slower sections at 160 and 208 worked for me staying in 2. “Sap” seemed like an awfully strange word to hold, so I changed it to a staccato quarter note. Earlier I mentioned some strange turns of phrase. One is

“All the rams that chase the ewe sheep

Are determined there’ll be new sheep

And the ewe sheep aren’t even keepin’ score.”

‘There’ll’ is a hard word to articulate at this speed, and if you’re not careful, it’ll turn into ‘they’ll’. But the idea is not that the Rams are determined to turn over a new leaf and change their ways, and that the ewe sheep don’t notice the rams have reformed. It’s that the rams are determined to make new sheep the old fashioned way, and that the ewe sheep have lost count of the new sheep made in this fashion. What a difference an r makes.

The end of this number is odd, because it cadences strongly on a V chord. If you cut the encore and the subsequent dance, you have to change this. You can’t end the number on the dominant. I changed the chord in the penultimate bar to an E7(b5)/Bb chord with a G# on top and cadenced on A in the final bar.

If you cut the encore, go back and repeat a portion as a playoff.

8. Encore (June is bustin’ out all over)

If you choose to use the Encore but cut the dance, you should do what I just laid out, only in measures 33 and 34 of the Encore.

9. Girls’ Dance (June is bustin’ out all over)

This is actually a lovely dance break, and it’s done by the girls, who may well be your best dancers. Don’t feel bad about cutting it down, though, because if you’re doing the two huge ballets and moving at all in the other chorus numbers, there’s already a LOT of dance in this show. If you choose to do it, there are a lot of passages for the orchestra that need to be run for clarity under tempo a couple of times to get a very clean ensemble.

10. Julie’s Entrance

Very simple play on for Julie and playoff for the dancers. Don’t even do it at the sitzprobe.

11. Mr. Snow Reprise (Carrie, Girls, Mr. Snow)

In this number, the revised score shows itself far superior to the original piano vocal. Measure 19 doesn’t really make sense in the original piano vocal score. It should be a C7sus/G chord, but in the original PV, it’s written as a C minor 7th, which clashes with the vocal part somewhat. The original piano vocal is also missing the pedal E which is played by a bassoon in measures 1-3 and 6-9. The women’s chorus here needs the same light, unified vowel production you’d want in Out Of My Dreams from Oklahoma!; this is an operetta moment here. I found it better to cut off on the third beat before “With your orange blossoms quiverin’ in your hand”, and to cut off together and breathe after “golden band” and before “and you’ll know the feller’s yours”. Then the last 2 measures before the key change I began conducting in 2, in the tempo of the Snow Reprise. This is very much the same as her first version,  (except a step lower) so clearly whatever you worked out earlier should apply here. I think the “Well Mister Snow, here I am” should be delivered differently than the first time. If your Snow has trouble negotiating the high A, his section can be transposed into G without too much trouble. Begin the transposition in measure 53 (note that this measure is not really notated the same in 52 and 53 in the original vocal score) I think Carrie and the girl’s “Mister Snow!”s in measures 56 and 57 are to be spoken in the rhythm of the countermelody in the accompaniment. There is a typo in the vocal score and in the vocal books. Mr. Snow should sing “everything’ll be as right as right ken be”, not “as right as rain ken be.” Maybe the folks at R&H know something I don’t, (I’ll be happily corrected) but the original Piano Vocal Score and Script, all available cast recordings, and Hammerstein’s collected lyrics have right there.

12. Carrie and Mr. Snow Sequence (When The Children are Asleep)

I think the opening accompaniment and circling melody are meant to evoke the rocking of Snow’s boat. It stays there, basically immobile until the expansive A major chord (which is a pretty sophisticated place to go from Eb major, you have to admit) The accelerando in the passage beginning at 23 is very important. The dainty woodwind figurations at 28 are a delightful detail, but they make much more sense at 60, where they are clearly romping children. If your Snow has range challenges, an F will suffice in 48. Whatever you do, speed up there (the original vocal score has an accelerando; it’ll help the singer get through the long note) I think Carrie’s line “Who’s goin’ to eat all that herring?” is funnier in the clear, without underscore. The Slowly and Softly indication over yet another contrapuntal chromatic underscore should really be taken seriously. I’ll bet you can’t take it slow enough to line up with the end of the dialogue. The section at 78 should, I think, be a bit faster, and needs a slight accelerando in 85 and 86 to lead up to the Moderato in 87, which I really think should be conducted in a moderate 2, even though it isn’t marked. The alternate modulation at 113 is useful if you’re trying to make that change seamless; I think calling Carrie’s section an Encore is a little funny, although I’m sure the editors had justification for calling it that. Carrie’s section is really indispensable, and isn’t an afterthought. (the old vocal score doesn’t call it an encore) If your staging asks for applause for Snow, there may be something to starting up again from a break, so that it’s as though Snow doesn’t get the last word. See my remarks in the first half of this commentary for the significance of this last section. I moved into 4 around measure 161, and then into a quick 2 again in 165. This song is important and deep, but it’s also funny. Don’t forget that it’s a comic number.

13. Blow High, Blow Low

Blow High, Blow Low begins on the last note from the previous number, only now, instead of the tonic, it’s the submediant! Run that transition a couple times. The old vocal score has no harmony at the ends of most of the lines. The new one has a nice 2 part. Use it. Work for a crisp diction and clean cutoffs. The echoing phrases in the orchestra are delightful. Enjoy them. I find Billy’s verse in this song baffling; we wound up giving the verse to Jigger. Hopefully you cast one who can sing passably.

14. Hornpipe

This dance can also be cut, and I rather recommend it, unless your men are spectacular. I think the audience of 1945 really expected these dance numbers, but today, the number is enough, particularly if it has some movement in it. You could also cut sections; it falls neatly into 8 bar phrases. If you choose to do it, keep an eye on the tempo; the 6/8 portions in particular have a tendency to speed up.

14A Hornpipe Exit

This isn’t in the vocal score, but it represents what many MDs probably have done over the years: this is the pickup to 63 through 78 of the previous number.

15. Soliloquy

Are you ready for the greatest moment in American musical theatre before 1950? (perhaps of all time?) Billy’s vocally and dramatically demanding 7+ minutes are a high water mark, and withstand comparison with any other musical theatre composition and any other opera aria in Western history. It’s astonishing how deftly Hammerstein shows society’s contradictory expectations of young girls and boys, putting the words in the mouth of a character who would never be self-aware enough to consider those contradictions. At the culmination of the number, he seamlessly leads Billy to an awful decision that will put into motion the action of the rest of the play. It is the first number they wrote for the show, and it’s a seminal moment in the history of Musical Theatre.

I don’t know where the new opening 4 measures of the new vocal score version of this number came from, but I don’t like them. The opening dynamic at measure 6 is also changed, I think for the worse. The old version is much stronger, and I think the new version has watered it down unnecessarily. In the script, Billy kicks Mullin on her way out.  The original piano vocal score begins with a strong forte, after 2 measures softening to the mezzo forte, then further to a piano when he begins singing. His rage softens, but the original, rather aggressive accompaniment isn’t soft and pretty, and his first line is deeply self centered. “ I wonder what he’ll think of me.” The new accompaniment is 4 measures of Julie’s music. I don’t think Billy is capable yet of thinking of her in this moment, despite his tenderness toward her in the previous scene. I really admire Bruce Pomahac and the group at R&H that is doing such great work, so I assume they have a good reason to add this, but I think it’s a mistake. That detour breaks the line of musical storytelling here. If you can find a way to make it work, by all means use the new music.

UPDATE: MARCH 2015 The notes in the new edition clear up this issue well, indicating that the new first 5 measures don’t appear in the original vocal score, but were played through the original Broadway run. I still prefer a big opening, but I can see why the other would work too! Back to my original post:

The articulations in the accompaniment should be strong and clear. I read that Bill Hammerstein claimed that he and his father would go for a swim in the mornings when they lived in Great Neck. So the section beginning at “I’ll teach him to wrassle…” is something at least slightly Autobiographical for Hammerstein. There are a lot of tempo changes throughout, and you should familiarize yourself with some of the major recordings for those speeds.

For some reason the section beginning 4 measures before “And I’m damned if He’ll marry his boss’s daughter” has caused trouble with a number of singers I’ve coached on this number. I think it feels like it’s going to be in 3 briefly, which throws people. Try and get them to feel that two-bar pattern and nail the entrance. The section “wait a minute… could it be…” (etc.) isn’t sung, but still needs to be spoken in rhythm. Clue your singer in to the melody Rodgers wrote to the lyric in the piano part. There is a portion that was cut early on that has been reinstated in the new vocal score. “When I have a daughter I’ll stand around in barrooms” It’s lovely, but not necessary. If you choose to go without it, you need to include the line. “I can just hear myself braggin’ about her.” There isn’t much space for that line, so you’ll need to put in a ritardando, or at the very least cut the note that precedes it short.  For many baritones, the lyric “My little girl” section winds up being a placement trap. It’s so tempting to really revel in the lush melody that spins out that triplet figure, then rhythmically augments it, then back again, up and up with a warm, dark tone. The reason it’s a trap is that depending on your technique, that placement further back is going to make the high G impossible to sing on the next page. Focus on the support, the long legato line, and pretend you have to sing the high F and G in the earlier phrase, and you’ll set yourself up for a better ending.

As you’re working out the scene, notice how intelligently Hammerstein sets up each dramatic shift, how each new idea comes out of the last one. Finding these doors from one section to another is the key to building a dramatic connection. There are many potential connections there, but the most important is near the end here, where the ending of the line “…and she comes home to me” dovetails with the beginning of the dramatic finale music. His thought of his future daughter’s devotion to him dominates the previous section, and at the word “me”, he finally connects that if she relies on him, he will have to come through for her. That music is the shift in his mindset. I like to tell singers I’m coaching to think that if they didn’t make the shift in their mind, the music wouldn’t change. It’s not about changing a facial expression or a body position, although that may happen. It’s about changing the thought in your subtext, in your internal monologue. That’s the difference between a real depiction of a character here and a lovely recital piece with a high note at the end.

I feel like the last 22 measures or so should be crisp, dramatic, building, and almost violent in the orchestra, and building in the singer with a bright intensity. You may have to warm the singer up with a vocalise that gets them up into the passagio range with the right registration, then work that placement down into the beginning of the passage. If you place too much vocal weight at the beginning of the passage, you’re asking to crack as it gets higher up, (unless you’re really a tenor in disguise) It’s possible to hold out that fermata G for quite a long time. As I tell my students, you can be as daring as you are successful.

16. Finale Act I

This piece really demonstrates the newfound strength and remaining weaknesses of 1940s musical theatre. The underscore here is just right, dramatic, almost harrowing, certainly very disturbing under this dialogue. You should work to line up the new rising “June is Bustin” lines to the dialogue. In a newer piece, I suspect the tension in this ending would have remained until the curtain fell, but Rodgers and Hammerstein here end with a jolly reprise, which must in some way be meant ironically, but is hard to take that way. There’s also a lot of business on the stage, all of it important to the plot, which needs to be covered in a short time. We found it hard to coordinate the entrance of the chorus in the reprise with the way we staged it, so we gave Nettie the first line, with everyone else singing “The flowers are bustin’ from their seed.”, and Nettie going on as written. And give that last button A chord everything you’ve got to send the audience into applause.

17. Entr’acte

We didn’t do the Entr’acte in our production. It’s funny, I think everything Rodgers says against Overtures in his autobiography applies to Entr’actes, except perhaps that people need to be told to get back in their seats. Yet Rodgers evidently thought the show needed a very flashy Entr’acte anyway. This number has a lot of exposed harp work. If you didn’t get a harp, that’s another reason not to do the Entr’acte.

18. Opening act II

If you don’t use the Entr’acte, the very brief and to-the-point Opening of Act II does a fine job of setting up the second act, picking things up pretty much exactly where we left off, with “June is Bustin”

19. A Real Nice Clambake
The Collins guide and others claim that this number was written for and cut from Oklahoma as “This was a real nice hayride.” Tim Carter’s Oklahoma: The Making of an American Musical claims this story is fabricated, and that sounds right to me. For whatever purpose it was written, it is a classic Hammerstein community moment. It’s also one of the rare times in the show we see Billy and Julie happily spending time together. I have always disliked the length of the notes in this melody. “Real” and “clam” are begging to be held out as long notes, but “et” and “bet” feel like they should be short and crisp to me. They’re notated the opposite way. I altered them. I hope the spirit of Rodgers will forgive me. The first chorus should be subdued and piano, with each successive chorus becoming louder and more exultant. By now your ladies should know how to produce that light, round operetta chorus sound for the “Fittin’ fer an angels’ choir” The phrase “Then at last come the clams” should be a spiritual experience, and the more beautiful the choral sound there, the funnier the line, “Just how many of ‘em galloped down our gullets” will be. Watch that cutoff on “gullets”. That TS sound goes on for days if everyone isn’t together. I also found it more satisfying to hold measure 180 (the last “real”) a dotted half instead of a quarter. If you don’t do that, make sure you get a clean cutoff on 2. (that takes some doing) If you have a hotshot first soprano, a high D adds just a little bit of thrill to the very end. Only one, please.

20. Geraniums in the winder (stonecutters cut it on stone)

From its opening oddly reminiscent of the lick at the beginning of “Take the A Train” to Jigger’s usually croaked verses, this number is one that people often wish would end quickly. It is a nice payoff for the Geranium seed moment, and you must have the ending at least, to set up What’s The Use of Wonderin’? If you decided to cut any of it, skip everything until 1st Girl sings “I never see it yet to fail”. (measure 82) If you keep it, Snow needs a very overdone moment here. This is a comic number, and he is a tenor archetype here. If your Jigger can’t sing well, his verses can be quasi-spoken. That “I never see it yet to fail” melody is awkward for many singers; it seems like it should move up the 4th on “see”, not the ‘ver’ of “never”. You must teach this right from the very beginning; once you learn it wrong, you can’t unlearn it. In the original score, No. 21 starts right at “What’s the use of Wonderin”. The revised version moves “Tell it to her good, Julie, tell it to her good!” into the beginning of 21. I suppose you could also start there if you were cutting 20. The measures before Julie starts singing are slowing to the new tempo. The old vocal score doesn’t say this, but the last 2 measures before she sings are to be conducted in 4.

21. What’s the use of wond’rin’

This is Julie’s big song moment, her counterpart to Soliloquy, where her character shares her core values. It’s a difficult roller-coaster of a melody to get through, and requires a lot of breath support. Plan those breaths carefully. I really prefer to have no breath between “break and run away” and “but what’s the use of wond’rin’” and especially no breath between “you will walk” and “and anytime he needs you”. To make that happen, I put in a catch breath before “you will walk, and changed the rhythm to a couple of 16th notes. The B section (starting at “somethin’ made him the way that he is”) works well with just a bit more movement, slowing back down during that Gershwiny turnaround before “when he wants your kisses”

There’s a temptation to treat this song like a jazz standard, and it certainly has that vibe in the changes and the rangey melody. But this song needs to be simple. The simpler the better, really. Don’t add brushes, don’t let your bass player soup up the bassline. (it’s begging to be souped up with a bunch of walking passing tones) That kind of freedom will destroy the simplicity of the moment and distract the audience from this heartfelt, somewhat disturbing expression of loyalty to this man who beats her. Again the girls need an operetta sound when they echo her. Hotbox doll sounds are totally out of the question. With both Julie and the chorus, watch the D natural in the rising scale of “Now’s the time to break and run away”. The D flat at the beginning tends to make people want to just sing that D flat scale all the way up. A big breath is needed before “there’s nothin’ more to say”, and the support has to be strong so that the note doesn’t go flat over time. Time that cutoff to be right at the downbeat of the last measure or have them watch you for it.

Bonus Points: In the preface to Hammerstein’s collected lyrics is an amazing passage where he talks about the choice of the word ‘talk’ in this song. Must read. Ultimately, I think he made the right choice, because of the resonance of the word ‘walk’ with You’ll Never Walk Alone.

22. Change of Scene

The violin line there is in a horrible key for them. Unless your crew are pros, they’ll need to look at that and tune it carefully. The horn solo is cool, and very evocative as we transition into a pretty spooky scene. Then you have a LONG time to think about things before no. 23:

23. You’ll Never Walk Alone

Julie’s singing of the first 8 measures can be heart-breaking or embarrassing. It really needs to be grounded in the acting moment; it shouldn’t be beautifully sung. Nettie’s portion needs to be grounded too, but must also be really beautifully sung. It’s tempting to use a really earthy placement for the beginning of her solo, but keep in mind the G at the end, and work to build a placement that will work for the whole thing, or plan your transitional moments carefully. (the first ‘walk on’) comes to mind. Especially near the end, breath support, legato line, and a slow crescendo are the things to aim for. The new score has a decrescendo to pianissimo from the last ‘ne-ver’ through ‘walk’ that isn’t in the original. This number ends small, despite the fortissimo 4 bars from the end.

24. Incidental

We wound up having to repeat this because of some really cool business we used at the end of the previous scene. When you do it under the dialogue the way it’s intended, it will likely feel like you are frighteningly behind, but it seems to work itself out in the end, despite having no safetys or repeats in it. The original piano vocal score has a crescendo in measure 21, and another crescendo poco a poco 4 measures later. I think that is supposed to line up with Billy’s “So that’s it, Just like Jigger said…”. The new score says the music stops after the line “y’hear?”, but the original score and script don’t. I think it works playing directly through the dialogue, and if you time it right, the Heavenly Friend’s line “Simmer down, Billy. Simmer down winds up in the last two measures of music, which can be a direct segue into 25. (In fact, if you don’t do that, the attacca at the end of 24 doesn’t make a lot of  sense, since if you cut out at Billy’s earlier line, you presumably never got to the end of the tune)

25. The Highest Judge of All

This number was cut from the latest revival, but as I said before, I think it’s an important step in Billy’s journey. The grace note rips into the opening figure should be forceful and violent, and Billy’s initial phrases should be strong and insistent. The middle portion should come down in dynamic and build to the end of the phrase. Resist the temptation to slow down at ‘every star in heaven’. The old vocal score only has a rallantando at the end of measure 34, and the new vocal score has no rall. At all. The new piano vocal score has corrected the lyrics at the end. If your score reads “take me beyond the pearly gates” again on the bottom of 161, they’re wrong. The real lyric is “Reckon my sins are good, big sins, and the punishment won’t be small, so…” the “so” is quarter note G at the end of measure 38. If your Billy can handle the sustained G, let him hold it out a while. If it’s a little precarious up there, speed up again for the last 2 measures.

26. Exit of Billy and Heavenly Friend

Should you find you need more time to change the scene, repeat 7 through 14.

27. Ballet

The second act ballet is much easier to work out than the Prologue, because the action is all laid out in the score the way it’s supposed to happen. I suspect this ballet was assembled not by Rodgers, but by Trude Rittmann, an unsung heroine of ‘40s and ‘50s musical theatre. The music is much more episodic, like the other dance breaks, and seems to be giving DeMille what she was asking for in the prologue, namely music that matches the action. Unlike the ballet in Oklahoma!, the original dramatic purpose of the tunes properly matches the action on the stage; music from “June is Bustin’” to match the play of Louise and the urchins, Snow’s music about his plans to have children to match the arrival of those children, Carousel music from the Prologue to match the arrival of the Carnival Troupe; every moment is perfectly crafted. The music falls into discrete phrases, which is helpful in choreography, but there are a number of moments only a trained craftsperson would have written; for example the beginning of the “when I make enough money” theme from 98 is truncated at 114 into a falling octave pattern, which becomes an accompaniment figure. That figure is tossed around the orchestra until the introduction of the “my little girl” theme, which first appears in a fragmented form in 124, then appears in a full melody at 128. This may be the result of a cut, but I really admire the 4 measures beginning at the pickup to 144, because the F octaves at 145 seem to be an interruption of the balanced phrase structure, but manages to keep the 4 bar unit anyway. The pas de deux music at 360 is remarkable, and is arranged from the phrase “I guess he’ll call me the old man” from the beginning of the Soliloquy. Rodgers was a genius, but I get the sense that melodies appeared to him in whole cloth, and he didn’t much care for manipulating them later. This ballet is a masterfully manipulated medley of the themes in the show, written by somebody who was clearly put through their paces with a classical composer’s education, as Rittmann was.

If you decide you don’t want to cast Snow kids, they can be cut, (you can find youtube videos of productions with them cut out) but you need to sit down with your director and choreographer and plot out the story you’re telling before you cut anything. The story here is crucially important, it’s the reason we even have a ballet at this moment. It’s quite easy to make cuts in this music, because the music fits so neatly into 4, 8, and 16 measure units. But pay attention to the original intention of the music, and try to fit that music to the story you’re telling. It’s so carefully constructed, it’s a crime to block it so the music doesn’t match the action. This section was the most enjoyable of all the numbers for me to conduct every night.

28. My Little Girl (Reprise)

I found a need for a little air before the underscore begins, so I waited about 3 seconds. It’s pretty straightforward, again, full of Rodgers’ experimentation with chromatically moving interior lines.

29. Carrie’s Incidental

I don’t need to tell you that because this is unaccompanied, the singer can put it in any key she likes.

30. Porch Scene

This is one of the most brilliant reprises in music theatre, and if you play it right, it’s emotionally devastating.

I was fortunate enough to be backstage, right where Julie is about to enter. She watched the scene on the stage in the video monitor, and I watched her, and just as she rushed on, I gave the downbeat, with a very strong forte dynamic. The music quickly drops to a piano to stay below the scene, but keeps moving forward with intensity. You need to be in the room as this scene is blocked; the music needs to line up with the end of the dialogue in measures 25 and 26. There is also a lot of music from measures 27 through 42, and not a lot of action. If you really can’t make the scene work at that length, you can find a cut, but try and do it without any. I find that long underscore is an agonizing wait with a great payoff when Billy finally sings. He needs that time to finally get the words out.

NOTE: Billy says “how I loved you”, not “how I love you” That ‘d’ at the end of the word is very important. You can’t change it. It’s hard to put that d at the end of the G flat particularly; it really gets in the way. Work to stay true to the lyric there.

Following that section, there’s another underscore that needs to line up properly. You will need to get those fermatas in 72 to go under “Julie Never Changes” because the ‘my little girl’ theme in measure 73 is Billy’s subtext which motivates his next line. The score says that the music needs to increase (get louder?) for the scene change and cut off abruptly when the change is ready, but I found it very effective to begin the scene with the characters applauding in the fermata in the final measure.

31. Graduation Scene (finale Ultimo)

This must be some really beautiful choral singing; it’s the big payoff of the whole show. Set aside time in every rehearsal to run it, and run it at the end of your cast warmup every night. The first entrance of the sopranos and altos is a true pianissimo; you have a long way to build. The entrance of the tenors and basses is also pianissimo; the dynamic comes up with the addition of more singers. The first true crescendo is in measure 16, but only to a mf, which remains until measure 21. The decrescendo in 23 all the way back to pp is crucial, it makes room for Billy’s very important line, “I loved you Julie, know that I loved you.” Julie joins them in the rest of the song, and I think that moment needs to be made explicit in both the music and the blocking. Julie needs to be a notch louder than the rest of the group, and the staging needs to be such that our focus goes to her. (we spent some time in our production finessing this moment) Then the gradual crescendo begins, and Julie’s voice can blend with the rest of the group. You must carefully manage the breathing and the cutoffs of the consonants for each phrase; shoot for long phrases wherever possible. The rising chromatic interior lines and the long, gradual crescendo make this an exultant  moment, and it demands a long, legato line well supported by the breath, and a tall vowel with a forward focus.

32. Exit Music

Again, the original vocal score has no exit music, and the new score has codified what many music directors must have done through many productions: it reuses measures 27-62 of no. 30. It’s not a long selection to use for bows, so you’ll have to move quickly, but you can do it. I would not repurpose other earlier music for this moment; the up tempo numbers would change the audience’s mindset on their way out the door. The take home thoughts of this show are ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “If I Loved You”, not “June is Bustin’” or Heaven forbid, “Blow High, Blow Low”

YOUR PIT ORCHESTRA

This is a difficult show with regard to the pit, because the pit is so large. The original orchestration is in my opinion much better than Robert Russell Bennett’s Oklahoma orchestrations.  Don Walker’s Carousel Orchestration is far more imaginative, and requires 40 players. In many houses, this ensemble would drown out all the singers, and would probably be too expensive to hire. The new edition has moved the strings to a synth as an option. I dislike that sound, it sounds really phony to me, no matter how good the synth is, but that could potentially cut 20 players out of your pit. The Harp book can be played by a synth, but the harp features so evocatively and prominently (remember that heaven figures importantly in this show) that a real harp is unimaginably better. There is no piano in the original orchestration, but you can do it with a pianist playing from the new vocal score, 3 or 4 of the reeds (there isn’t much doubling, so you can find players), a bass player, and a few strings. Be careful about the percussion book. There’s a little bit of set work, but it’s mostly bells and timpani, and the timpani can very easily overpower the ensemble if you’re working with a very small group. For the conductor, there is a full score available for rental. The perfect pit for your production is going to be a function of the size of your house, the size of your budget, and the availability of good players in your area.

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Carousel: A Rough Guide For The M.D. Part I

May 5, 2012

Carousel Rough Guide

Carousel is one of the big dogs in American Musical Theatre. It’s like West Side Story. I’m not kidding. You need some powerhouse singers to sing Soliloquy, the Bench Scene, and You’ll Never Walk Alone. You’re going to need some serious acting chops to be sympathetic as Billy Bigelow, or to pull off that charmingly dangerous Jigger role, or to do that monologue Julie speaks to the dead Billy. You’re going to need some dancers who can dance, because they’re going to do all the story telling at two of the most important moments in the show, and they’re going to do It for 8 or 10 minutes at a stretch. And if you have those, (and that’s a big if) the Director, the Choreographer and the Music Director are going to have to be on their A game to pull it off well. All three of them do heavy lifting in the storytelling of this piece. Carousel is up against an audience it wasn’t written for, and it tells a story people don’t want to hear (using music they do). Because of all these obstacles, the Choreographer, the Director, and the M.D. are going to have to be on the same page about the story, facing the same direction, in the same room, and listening hard to each other, the music, and the story to do it justice. That’s why I’ve split this post into two sections.

In this first half, I’ll be looking at the big ideas of the piece.  Why does the M.D. need to pay attention the big ideas of this piece? If you don’t want to think hard about the drama and how the music works with it, you need to do an easier piece. This show is not for you.

The ideas I’ll be discussing have come out of the production I music directed at Villanova University directed by Dr. Valerie Joyce and choreographed by Shannon Murphy. If there are good ideas here in this section, I probably got them from these two wonderful collaborators. If some of the ideas are lousy, they’re probably mine.

In the second half, I’ll be examining the specific elements of each of the numbers with technical advice for the M.D. As with all the other rough guides, I hope that advice is helpful to you, and that if I’m wrong, you’ll ignore my advice. But please don’t think of Carousel as a set of technical hurdles to be jumped. It is a set of dramatic questions to be posed and worked out through the mechanism of Hammerstein’s words and Rodgers music.

What To Do Before You Start:

1)      Read Liliom by Ferenc Molnar. It’s a gut-wrenching play. When you read it, you’ll probably wonder how Rodgers and Hammerstein ever thought it could be musicalized, especially with the vocabulary the musical had in the 1940s.

  1. BONUS POINTS: watch Fritz Lang’s Liliom with Charles Boyer. Good stuff. Not safe for kids, though, FYI. (some pre-code groping in the bench scene)

2)      Read the script, and don’t skip the stage directions or the descriptions of the dances.

3)      Listen to the soundtracks, in this order;

  1. ORIGINAL 1945 BROADWAY CAST with John Raitt.
  2. LINCOLN CENTER 1965 REVIVAL CAST with Raitt and Jerry Orbach as Jigger. Raitt is superman. He actually transposes numbers UP. Insane.
  3. 1994 BROADWAY REVIVAL CAST with an undercooked Billy, but a tremendous Carrie.

There are other soundtracks, which are fun, but not important for you to listen to. Buy the 1993 LONDON REVIVAL next, then the 1987 STUDIO VERSION with Sam Ramey and Barbara Cook, then the 1956 MOVIE SOUNDTRACK, if you really are a completist.

4)      Read the chapter on Carousel from Joseph Swain’s amazing book The Broadway Musical.

5)      Avoid watching the movie.

THE REPUTATION OF THE PIECE.

My librettist Matt Boresi puts the plot of Carousel this way:

A real jerk hits his wife and dies. Then he comes back from the dead to hit his daughter. “Who was that?”, the daughter says. “Oh, that was your father.” says mom. “He hits people to show them he loves them.”

Your audience probably doesn’t even know the story of the piece. In our production, we often heard people come out of the theatre saying, “I knew all that music, but I guess I never knew the story at all.” When people look at the material, there is sometimes a sense of disgust or anger. (although interestingly, much more in young people than in the older audience) Is the hero of this piece really a man who hits women? Does the heroine really sing a ‘stand by your man’ type song about this guy? Does he hit his daughter too? How am I supposed to sit still and watch this?

This musical isn’t a big piece of fluffy cotton candy. It’s dealing with some really tough issues, all of which are still with us today. There is a way to direct this piece that focuses on the hard realities, and another way that focuses on the warmly human messages Hammerstein is trying to relay. But in order to do the piece justice, you must be willing to face some ugly truths about human nature and be honest with your audience about it. Some of the issues Carousel brings up include:

1)      What makes a man hit a woman or a child? Is such a man completely beyond salvation?

2)      A child who is brought up by a single parent in a closed-minded community walks a difficult path. Does that path determine his/her destiny? If not, what does?

3)      Society has different expectations of men and women. Are they equitable? Are they reasonable?

4)      What happens to a person with very few marketable skills when they lose the only job they’re qualified to do?

5)      Is death the end, or do we live on? Is that afterlife in the great beyond, or do we live on in the world we’ve helped create? Or is it both?

To such timeless and important questions, Rodgers and Hammerstein have given us few answers. That’s how good theatre functions; you work out the answers in your mind on the way home. The playwright’s job is to ask them in such an interesting and compelling way that you are forced to reconsider questions you had previously considered answered.

In my exploration of the ideas of the piece in this first half of the guide, I’ll be focusing on those themes which find musical expression. You’ll have to tease out the rest of the issues during your rehearsal process. But you will not do the piece or your audience any favors by watering down the hard truths of the story. Face them head on, and if you don’t have the stomach for it, do a show that asks easier questions.

BLOSSOMS/FLOWERS

This is a major theme of the show, and a thread that runs nearly all the way through. Part of this stems from Hammerstein’s subconscious, which always goes to nature imagery for lyric inspiration. But the thread of flowers is also a deliberate theme.

Carrie is the first to mention flowers, and in her vision of her wedding:

“The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees”

The blossoms in the bench scene are in Molnar’s Liliom only once at the very end of the scene but Hammerstein makes the motif far more explicit with a simple change. Hammerstein knows how and when to ask for musical punctuation to get the audience to applaud.  (see Sondheim’s remarks about the end of Rose’s Turn in Finishing the Hat) Here he and Rodgers don’t ask for applause at the end of each If I Loved You, instead moving into underscore without a button to signify the end of the song. At each of those moments, Hammerstein has placed a reference to the blossoms, and the fact that the wind brings them down. At the end of the scene, Julie says “The blossoms are jest comin’ down by theirselves. Just their time to, I reckon”. Then they kiss to close the scene. Molnar’s original also ends with blossoms, but Julie is far more aggressive, asking him not to go back to the Carousel and asserting herself more forcefully on him. In Hammerstein’s version, Billy and Julie are a part of nature. Just as the flowers don’t need the wind to fall down, their love matures in its own time.

The girls in the Mr. Snow Reprise continue the wedding flowers motif:

“With your orange blossoms quiverin’ in your hand…”

Because Hammerstein is so careful to mirror the primary couple in the secondary relationship for contrast, it shouldn’t surprise us to see the flower metaphor in the Carrie and Snow’s relationship. When we meet Mr. Snow, he surprises Carrie with flowers, but in the form of packets of Geranium and Hydrangea seeds. These are flowers we’ll have to work at and wait for. To ruin the metaphor by making it explicit: Billy and Julie’s relationship is wild and untended, a function of nature. Carrie and Snow’s is carefully cultivated and tended, and blooms at the will of Mr. Snow.

Hammerstein makes that comparison pointedly in the scene, when Snow says he likes to plant and tend flowers. Julie replies: “I couldn’t rightly say if Billy likes to take keer of flowers. He likes to smell ‘em, though.” I think it’s important that this line not be read too knowingly. It’s not Hammerstein’s way for these characters to be completely aware of the irony of these statements. The audience is smart enough to get the metaphor without the actor overdoing it.

Naturally we couldn’t get through a song about a month or a season without Hammerstein mentioning flowers, but he manages to hold off in June is Bustin’ Out All Over until the First Act Finale reprise, when “the flowers are bustin’ from their seed!”

The metaphor finds its final iteration in the number Geraniums in the Winder, where Snow laments the loss of his domestic aspirations. The scene is played for laughs, but in his moment of grief, the loss of what he had cultivated is what he mourns.  When Billy sings to Julie near the end of the show about his loss, he mourns his own inability to articulate his love, and his departure in a mist. Where Snow and Carrie’s love is cultivated, Billy and Julie’s  wasn’t planned and isn’t clearly defined.

THE COMMUNITY

In Carousel, the Community rejoices in their group activities, the clambake, the treasure hunt, their occupations, the fresh energy of the Spring. But Hammerstein’s vision of this community is nuanced, containing positive, neutral, and negative members, usually in matched pairs. This is a common thread in Hammerstein’s 1940s musicals. Oklahoma revolves around a community trying to reconcile its various interest groups through the shared joys of entertainment, song, and group activity. At the end of Oklahoma the community rallies around Curly to the point where they hold a quick trial to exonerate him, even though the circumstances of Judd’s death are by no means clear-cut. It’s also telling that when Hammerstein writes their next show Allegro, and is able to say exactly what he thinks without being held back by any source material, he writes a parable about a man leaving the warmth of a supportive community for the coolness of the city, and finding it empty, returning to his roots. The Hammerstein vision of community contains many disparate elements; some malignant, some benign, and some full of grace. In this community, the characters have the potential to overcome their troubles and find peace. But for the person who chooses to live alone or in the anonymity of the city, there is only a jaded opportunism possible in Hammerstein’s world.

In Carousel, the depiction of the complete community is important and integral. In the original Molnar play, there is a far bleaker depiction of a stiflingly stratified world, social roles are strongly circumscribed, the characters are more alienated from one another and seem to have far fewer options. Hammerstein’s many small changes to the characters create a world in which Billy and Julie have more moral agency, which makes their tragedy one of choice, not of fate. But Hammerstein is careful to create new redemptive possibilities even as he makes them more responsible for their choices. This emphasis makes the piece more American and in particular more like the idealistic America of the 1940s.

In Jigger and Mullin, we find people who are outsiders. They are world-wise, in fact at some points they seem to be the only two in the play who are able to see circumstances accurately. But they are opportunists; Mullin operates to keep the man to whom she is attracted in her employ and to build her business, even if it means destroying a marriage. Jigger is interested in gratifying his desires and bringing others into his criminal schemes. To that end, he lays out masterfully convoluted moral arguments. He is in fact, the most verbally gifted character in the play. These outsiders do not consider themselves responsible for the welfare of others, they are only out to serve their own best interests.

In Bascombe and Mr. Snow, we see people who are responsibly engaged in enterprise. In Bascombe’s case, although he has high standards for his ‘girls’, he does offer Julie one further chance to make the responsible choice. After Julie insists on staying with Billy, he observes sadly that “there are some of them you just can’t help.”. When Billy and Jigger try to steal his money later in the show, Bascombe speaks about actions and consequences, but still manages to ruefully say, “The fools- the silly fools. They didn’t even notice I was comin’ from the ship, not to it.” Bascombe thus represents a type of person who makes attempts to show mercy even while making a profit and laying down rules. Snow is also convinced of the consequences of actions, although in his mind the equation is much more oriented to his hard work resulting in the construction of a solid, profitable, and growing business. “A man had enough to worry about, getting’ a good sleep o’ nights so’s to get in a good day’s work the next day without goin’ out an’ lookin’ for any special trouble… A man’s got to make plans fer his life- and then he’s got to stick to ‘em”  In the following number, Snow lays out a long plan for the furtherance of both his business and family plans, all of which revolve around expansion. We hear from Carrie that Snow believes unemployment to be a fault of the unemployed; he shows little patience for the unindustrious. This aspect of Snow’s character is Hammerstein’s invention; Snow’s counterpart Wolf in Liliom is also a successful businessman, but at the end of the play, we find that he has gotten a better job for Julie, and we see him as a magnanimous character. Hammerstein is careful to show the downside of Snow’s single-minded focus. In the second act, Snow has become a judgmental prude, and something of a hypocrite. His narrow mindedness and his pride in his hard work and his hard won gains have strained his marriage and given him a cause to look down on everyone who hasn’t had his success.

It’s important to note that in Hammerstein’s version of Carousel, there are jobs to be had! Carrie puts it like this: “Mr. Snow says a man can’t find work these days is jest bone lazy.” Billy himself mentions 10 occupations in Soliloquy that he can imagine his future son holding. In Molnar’s world, Liliom doesn’t have many honest options. The only trades besides carnival Barking that Liliom has as options are in the distant factories of America, and in a job he is offered as a caretaker. Molnar makes the point clearly that Liliom is incapable of caring for anyone or anything, and that he knows he would be awful at this job. In Hammerstein’s world, one senses that Billy really could get a job if he were willing to let go of his pride.

Incidentally, in Molnar’s play, Julie actually has more options. Another man with a decent job is courting her, and the dying Liliom encourages Julie to marry him and have him raise their child as his own!  

Dr. Seldon and Aunt Nettie are deeply inside the community. Here we find Hammerstein’s ideal community members: Warm, knowing, understanding, forgiving, they aren’t takers; they’re giving and encouraging. These characters show up in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows often, and they are usually the characters who come closest to laying out what might be called a ‘moral’. Nettie is the polar opposite of Mother Hollunder, her counterpart in Liliom, who is constantly hassling Liliom for freeloading, and encourages Julie to dump him for the more responsible gentleman caller. Here’s a sample from the Molnar:

MOTHER HOLLUNDER: Always wanting something, but never willing to work for it. He won’t work, and he won’t steal, but he’ll use up a poor widow’s last bit of firewood. He’ll do that cheerfully enough! A big, strong lout like that lying around all day resting his lazy bones! He ought to be ashamed to look decent people in the face.

She has a line very like this nearly every time she’s on stage, and the audience sides with Billy in disliking her. But in Hammerstein’s world, The presence of warm, providing, loving people in Billy’s life makes him even more responsible for his choices.

I’m not sure how Hammerstein could have made it clearer that Dr. Seldon is a man to be listened to: The angel in the scene identifies him with the Starkeeper, they are normally played by the same actor, and he is a country doctor. Hammerstein liked country doctors so much, his next play revolved around one. In an earlier draft, this scene had apparently included a Mr. and Mrs. God. Presumably, this is what’s left of Mr. God. The words Hammerstein put in Seldon’s mouth are about personal responsibility, faith, and new beginnings. Nettie and Seldon are the benevolent grace of the community personified.

THE CITY LIFE VERSUS THE COUNTRY LIFE

Implicit in this idealistic picture of community is a rejection of ‘City’ values. We see no real rejection of the City in Rodgers previous work before Hammerstein, but beginning with Oklahoma, we can trace a greater and greater rejection of city values, culminating in the moralistic rejection of the city in Allegro, the show they would write after Carousel. In Oklahoma, Will Parker’s humorous exploits in Kansas City are played for laughs, to point up his complete inexperience in city ways, but we also see between the Burlesque theatre and the “Little Wonder” a commercial expression of sexuality that in the case of the “little wonder”, is potentially deadly.

The rejection of City life is more subdued in Carousel, but it is there: The officer who confronts Billy and Julie in the Bench scene remarks that he came up from Coney Island, implying that makes him more dangerous. In the second act, Carrie and Snow have returned from New York, and in a scene very much parallel to “Everything’s Up To Date In Kansas City”, she relates the extravaganza she saw there, which Snow found too shocking to allow his wife to see, but not so shocking that he didn’t go back to watch himself later.

In Allegro, the condemnation of the city life and the glorification of the country life are made explicit in the story and the songs.  In the number yatata, we see a montage of shallow city people with money who use the doctor for shots and pills as they lead fast-paced lives running about aimlessly, and near the end of the show, when the hero is reaching the pinnacle of his success in the big city, he hears the voice of his mother beckoning him back to the country:

You will find a world of honest friends who miss you

You will shake the hands of men whose hands are strong

And when all their wives and kids run up and kiss you,

You will know that you are back where you belong.

We can see Carousel as another step in Hammerstein’s rejection of the City in favor of an ideal Rural Community, where characters can know and be known by each other.

THE ROLE OF MUSIC IN CAROUSEL

Music plays an important role in the world of the show. Billy’s world is full of music when he works at the carousel, as we hear in the first 8 minutes of the prologue, and music is of central importance to him. Julie tells Carrie:

“After supper when he stands out here and listens to the music from the Carousel – somethin’ comes over him- and he’s gentle.”

Later, when Mullin tries to recruit Billy again, she mentions the new organ at the Carousel, and he comments that it has a nice tone, and that he listens to it every night. Before the botched robbery attempt, Billy reacts with dismay when Jigger tells him only the rich folks get music and angels in heaven. In Jigger’s equation, the poor get justice, the rich get music. Justice and music are opposite. Not only is Jigger’s speech one of the few remaining comments on societal inequity remaining from Molnar’s original play, it is crucial to set up Billy’s demand in The Highest Judge of All:

Want pink faced angels on a purple cloud,

Twangin’ on their harps while their fingers turn red

Want organ music, let it roll out loud

Rollin’ like a wave washin’ over my heard!

In this sense, music operates in the world of the piece as a force of grace, and the thought of an eternity in which only the wealthy get music appalls Billy, because music is his only solace.

MUSIC AS STORY TELLER IN CAROUSEL

It’s common in the literature to point out that Billy and Julie never sing together in the whole musical. This is a profound key to understanding the storytelling of Carousel, but it’s only the beginning. The way the characters sing to and with one another is crucial to understanding their interactions, and these interactions are shrewdly managed by the Authors.

If I loved You is a song about two people who are incapable of coming right out and saying that they love one another. Or is it? Hammerstein loved to write this kind of lyric, in which a character posits a question or observation about love, usually hypothetically, in order to speak about love obliquely to the beloved without committing him or herself. Other examples include:

Why Do I Love You?

Only Make Believe I Love You

People Will Say We’re in Love

Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?

It’s fun to look for this kind of a lyric in Hammerstein, and until I read the source play for Carousel, I had always assumed that the lyric was his invention.  But in the play, we see this exchange:

Liliom- But you wouldn’t marry a rough guy like me- that is, -eh- if you loved me-

Julie- Yes, I would- If I loved you, Mister Liliom.

Hammerstein latched onto this idea and built a pivotal number around it. The structure and many of the details of the scene remain, but Hammerstein has made many small changes in tone and intent. In the original scene, Julie is much more aggressive. As the scene comes to a close, Liliom is about ready to go and ask for his job back. Julie says, “Don’t go back to her-“. He says something about the blossoms, and she says it again. “Don’t go back to her.” The Julie of the play is sure of what she wants. The Julie of the musical is outwardly more demure. I suspect the change was made so that Julie doesn’t look overly sexually aggressive and lose the sympathy of a conservative audience. But Hammerstein does something more beautiful still with the scene, because Julie teaches Billy how to say he loves her without saying it. Billy’s only original music in the whole scene is his musing about nature and philosophy. He isn’t singing about her. He’s not capable of expressing his emotion in that way to her. But almost at the end of the scene he uses the language and music she’s already sung to him to advance tentatively, noncommittally into the love song himself. It isn’t that they don’t sing together, or that they can’t say that they love each other. It’s that Julie has taught him how to say he loves her.

Carrie and Snow have a completely opposite, but similarly telling musical trajectory. Whereas Julie and Billy can’t say they love each other in a full 12 minutes of singing, Carrie says she loves Snow in her very first song on stage. “For I love that Mister Snow”. He returns the favor in his first entrance, singing “I love Miss Pipperidge and I am to make Miss Pipperidge change her name to Missus Enoch Snow”.  These two have no trouble expressing their love for each other. When the Children Are Asleep is a still more impressively constructed musical metaphor. Snow begins with a new tune and accompaniment that both rock back and forth like the boat he’s describing. He lays out his plans for his marriage and his home life, and some of the details are clearly surprising to Carrie. But this scenelet, like the other two extended duet scenes, culminates in a more conventional tune, in which Snow paints a picture of their love thriving in this domestic situation. At that point, Carrie begins to sing HIS material from the beginning of the song, in her own key, skipping the material about his ambitions, and moving directly to the main tune in which they still love one another at home. She has appropriated what she approved of in his song, and is happy to sing that with him. The two of them are learning to be a couple together by sharing their music. At the end of the tune, they sing together, but in an ingenious way that most audiences are not even aware of. Their phrases overlap by a word; the same word in each case, but used in a different sense.

Carrie:

When the children are asleep, we’ll sit and DREAM

Snow: (overlapping)

DREAM all alone

Carrie:

The dreams that every other Dad and Mother DREAM

Snow (overlapping)

DREAMS that won’t be interrupted

When the children are asleep and lights are LOW

Carrie: (overlapping)

LO and behold

If I still love you the way

I love you today,

you’ll pardon my saying

I told you so.

When the children are asleep, I’ll dream with YOU

Snow: (overlapping)

YOU’ll dream with me.

They are truly singing one another’s material, and they take turns beginning and ending phrases. Carrie and Snow finish the song singing the same lyrics in parallel 6ths, which is the musical equivalent of perfect union of two characters. After experiencing a primary couple who are so inarticulate and hesitant about love, in which Julie is constantly giving the means of expression, the secondary couple comes as a sharp and welcome contrast.

When the inevitable bump in the road happens in the second act for Snow and Carrie, Snow sings his regrets about the dissolution of their relationship in Geraniums in the Winder. Interestingly, he sings very little about her, and much more about the plans he had made which are now unlikely to come to fruition. For her part, Carrie doesn’t sing at all. Where she would have sung, Jigger sings instead. This is funny, but also telling, because Jigger is the cause of Snow’s regret, and he hasn’t really considered Carrie at all; only how the scene he walked into doesn’t fit into his plans. Carrie and Enoch eventually get married, but they don’t sing together again for the rest of the show, and we see that Snow’s closed-mindedness has grated on their relationship for some time. They have stopped learning one another’s music.

Billy doesn’t sing again about Julie until very close to the end. He sings briefly (and somewhat inexplicably) about sea life during Blow High, Blow Low. Then he comes to the first expression of love that is truly his own, in Soliloquy. At first, of course, he sings only about himself. “I wonder what he’ll think of me…” is a classic example of Hammerstein’s ability to have a character say something absolutely true to the moment and incredibly revelatory to deeper truths the character doesn’t know about himself. He insists the kid be named after him and paints an idealized picture of a young man, himself. But during the course of the song, he discovers a true responsibility to another person, and the sense of poetry he felt about nature bubbles to the surface to another end. Where in the bench scene, he had sung a nihilistic:

“We don’t count at all”

He now sings:

“She’s gotta be sheltered

And fed and dressed

In the best that money can buy

I never knew how to get money,

But I’ll try by God, I’ll try.

I’ll go out and make it

or steal it

or take it

or die! “

His relationship with Julie and her subsequent pregnancy has taught him how to express something that is tragically misguided, but neither nihilist or self-serving, and his newfound outlook finds its expression through his music.

In The Highest Judge of All, we see that Billy’s pride and his determination not to be underestimated is still in full effect, but his musical expression has lost the lyricism of the end of Soliloquy, and is now purely the musical depiction of his swollen self-importance, an egotism that has been the obstacle to his true self-awareness through the whole play. The number was cut from the most recent revivals. Our Billy Bigelow related a story to me that he had sung the number in a master class for Patti LuPone, who claimed never to have heard it. I think cutting it is a mistake. It’s an important moment for Billy, an expression that makes him something of a Don Giovanni, defying the Gods.

The most brilliant musical stroke for Billy is the reprise of If I Loved You, where Billy is finally able to say that he loved her.  He never actually says he loves her in the present tense,( although Julie manages to tell the dead Billy that she loves him). This is very near the end of his character arc, and Billy finds the way to say that he loved Julie using the musical language she taught him at the beginning of the play. The painful truth for the audience is that she is unable to hear him in this, the only true expression of his love.

Music plays one further role in the storytelling here, in a way that works whether the audience understands it or not. After Julie’s speech to the dead Billy, Nettie encourages her  to say the words stitched into a sampler Julie had made for her. Julie sings them, but is unable to complete the first phrase, and Nettie begins again and sings You’ll Never Walk Alone. In the world of the play these words hold a deeply comforting and healing power; they are part of the shared cultural resources of the community. They are evidently shared commonly by everyone; at the conclusion of the musical, Dr. Seldon refers to them as a song they used to sing every morning on the way to school. Then they sing the song together. The stage directions call for Julie’s voice to join them at “Walk on, walk on”. This is music as a healing power. Julie has taught Billy to express love through one beautiful song, and when he is gone, the community teaches her to move on through another.

I have read in several places that the ending of the show doesn’t feel as good on the drive home as it did in the theatre. If the message is only, “Your choices are your destiny. Don’t hit people”, then the closing chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone feels very hollow indeed. But if this is a story about how couples teach each other to sing, and how we can sing each other through difficult times together, then the anthem is truly the perfect, and most beautiful expression of everything that is right about Carousel.