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Music Review: Carousel, Studio Cast Recording (1955)

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The 1955 Studio Cast recording of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic Carousel, perhaps the first to present the score free from the truncation necessitated by earlier recording limitations is once again available courtesy of a Masterworks Broadway reissue. Conducted by Lehman Engel, the cast features Metropolitan Opera stalwarts Patrice Munsel as Julie Jordan and Robert Merrill as Billy Bigelow. A young Florence Henderson, destined to become Ma Brady, turns in a joyful performance as Carrie Pepperidge, and George Irving is the villainous Jigger Craigin. Mezzo soprano Gloria Lane plays Nettie Fowler and sings a tearful version of the inspiring anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It is a cast with the kind of musical talent that can really do justice to one of the truly great musical scores.

Based on Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play, Lilliom, Carousel was , like much of the work of Rogers and Hammerstein, something of a ground breaker in its day. Set in a town on the coast of New England in 1873, it is the story of Julie Jordan, a sweet small town girl who falls for, Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker, and marries him with unfortunate results. While it may seem tame today in light of Broadway musicals like The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, its subject matter, dealing as it does with an abusive husband, suicide and redemption—not the kind of material one would have expected to find in the typical musical comedy back in 1945 when the play first opened.

Moreover, it was musically innovative as well. As Richard Rogers points out in liner notes he wrote for the ’55 recording, they felt that the material could not be developed conventionally. Instead of a traditional singing and dancing opening number, they opened with “The Carousel Waltz.” “Actually,” he says, “there aren’t many songs in Carousel that subscribe to ordinary musical comedy pattern. Surely ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is quite far afield.” He also notes that it may have been the only musical play to have its overture between acts rather than at the beginning.

Musical highlights on this Studio Cast recording include an eight minute plus Munsel Merrill duet of the beautiful “If I Loved You” combining music and dialogue for dramatic effect and Merrill’s impassioned versions of both the “Soliloquy” and the less famous “The Highest Judge of All.” Opera stars on Broadway haven’t always been successful, but studio recording obviates some of the difficulties, and in any case both Munsel and Merrill have glorious voices. Henderson is no less a talent; she turns in an outstanding version of “Mr. Snow.” “A Real Nice Clambake” and “June is Busting Out All Over” are upbeat moments for Henderson, Lane and the chorus. Less well known pieces from the show include Munsel’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’,” and Henderson’s duet with Mr. Snow, sung by Herbert Banke, a serio-comic vision of their future together, “When the Children Are Asleep.”

Carousel is Rogers and Hammerstein at their best. And although it has been recorded in many versions, this Studio Cast recording takes a back seat to none of them. It will be a welcome addition to digital library of any aficionado of the Broadway musical.

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About Jack Goodstein