Carousel comes ’round to Court

By Elizabeth Grobel

Expect to be weaned from the coddling breast of Broadway convention with Court Theatre’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which begins previews this Thursday—so hints director Charlie Newell (also Court’s artistic director since 1994), who’s in rehearsal 10 hours a day with cast and crew, even on Sundays. It’s a wonder he has time to give interviews.

Court’s Carousel has its conceptual roots as much in Rodgers and Hammerstein as in their original source materials: the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar and its 1934 film adaptation by Fritz Lang. Newell explained, “What struck me so much about [the film] was the German black-and-white expressionistic sort of look. How gritty, how harsh, how tough, how brutal the world was.”

He added, “As we do often here at Court Theatre, we love to go back to the original inspiration of why the artist decided to write the piece. When I found out that the Fritz Lang film was really one of the original sources [of the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation], I thought, ‘Aha, how could we actually create a production that really came from that?’”

At the time of Carousel’s debut in 1945, the American public had, as a custom, sought refuge from wartime anxieties in musical theater, and as a function of this, Rodgers and Hammerstein made changes to the story of Liliom, bringing its more optimistic themes to the forefront. Carousel nevertheless represented a shift in American musical storytelling into darker and deeper waters.

Newell expressed a desire not to gloss over this quality of the work in favor of the usual Technicolor musical-theater posturing, which so often can amount to emotional caricature. Instead, the texture and palette of his production will reflect its hard-knocks setting (a late 1800s New England fishing village) and difficult themes (when are death and redemption ever easy?). “Our effort in all of the piece was to get to the emotional truth of it, given the original text of Molnar’s,” he said.

And yet, just because there might be some real meat here, don’t think anyone’s forgotten that it’s a musical. “One of the things I’ve learned in my studies of Japanese aesthetics is if you really want to see and feel the color purple, put it in the context of yellow. That’s been our intent with the beauty of the music, to put it in a world that’s tough and brutal, so that then when the music is in counterpoint to that it has that much more preciousness,” Newell said.

The 250-seat space of the Court Theater will no doubt help to achieve this sought-after preciousness by virtue of its intimacy. “People are going to get to experience this piece on an emotionally intimate level because of the approach, because of just the architecture of the room; that hopefully will give them a new and fresh experience of Carousel,” Newell said. “The piece has a great, affirmative optimistic energy about it.”

May Carousel usher in this campus’s long-awaited spring.