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From Budapest to Broadway – Will Friedwald WSJ

From Budapest to Broadway - Will Friedwald WSJ
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-budapest-to-broadway-1523308293
 
From Budapest to Broadway
‘Carousel,’ whose latest Broadway revival opens this week, traces its roots to a 1909 Hungarian work.
Will Friedwald April 9, 2018 5:11 p.m. ET

The scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein's ‘Carousel’ (1945) when Billy spots Julie and falls in love with her. Photo: Eileen Darby/The LIFE Images Col
 
Stephen Sondheim’sfamous one-sentence appraisal of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first two collaborations—“‘Oklahoma!’ is about a picnic, ‘Carousel’ is about life and death”—is only partly true. The power of “Carousel,” whose latest Broadway revival opens this week, is that it’s both things at once, encompassing not only life and death but a “real nice clambake.”
When the Theater Guild first proposed in 1943 that composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II turn Ferenc Molnár’s “Liliom” into a musical, Rodgers initially declined because the play, introduced in Hungary in 1909, “was continually being revived without any help from a songwriting team.” But even then, two years before their show first came to Broadway, the two men were drawn to the possibilities the story opened up for the rapidly expanding medium of musical theater.
Molnár (1878-1952) was known for combining romantic comedy and whimsy with dramatic irony and a heavy dose of moralism. In both “The Guardsman” (1910) and “The Good Fairy” (1930), he plays with notions of infidelity and mistaken identity. Those works and “Liliom” have a considerable amount of sexual intrigue, and all were translated into various languages, staged on Broadway and adapted into early sound films.
Although Rodgers and Hammerstein shifted the setting of “Carousel” from the Budapest of “Liliom” to New England and gave it a distinctly American flavor, they maintained Molnár’s balancing act. Working from his blueprint, they created a Broadway masterpiece, a tale of a wife-beating miscreant who is somehow strangely sympathetic—a story with a message that no soul is beyond redemption, even if he has to transcend his own lifetime and travel back and forth from The Next World to achieve it.
As Tim Carter delineates in his new book, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel,’” “Liliom” premiered in Budapest but fared better in Berlin and then Vienna in the immediate pre-World War I period. It was also a hit on Broadway in 1921, produced by the Theater Guild in an English translation primarily (although anonymously) by Rodgers’s future songwriting partner, Lorenz Hart. The basics of “Carousel” are all there: Julie is an innocent but dissatisfied young girl who wants more out of life than the restrictive path that society lays out for her. In contrast to her best friend, Marie (Carrie in “Carousel”), who marries a respectable, hardworking fisherman-cum-businessman, Julie falls for a charming, low-life ex-carnival barker with no employment prospects.
After Molnár saw “Oklahoma!” he was convinced, no less than the Theater Guild, that Rodgers and Hammerstein were the ones to turn “Liliom” into a musical. The collaborators themselves couldn’t resist the challenge of bringing to life the story’s complex antihero. In “Oklahoma!” terms, Billy Bigelow is both Curly (with perhaps even more flamboyance and animal magnetism) and Jud (with his violent and sociopathic tendencies): the good guy and heavy rolled into one. Rodgers and Hammerstein were especially eager to write “Soliloquy,” Billy’s reaction to the news that Julie is pregnant, where he expresses mixed feelings over the notion of paternity in general and the gender of his forthcoming child in particular. This was something entirely new in musical comedy, a number in which a character reveals his inner turmoil and undergoes a complete emotional arc in song, in full view of the audience.

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in the 1956 film version. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collect
They also created the show’s iconic “bench” sequence, a combination of love scene and romantic duet—incorporating the song “If I Loved You”—that brilliantly and logically brings the two protagonists from first meeting to matrimony in a matter of minutes. (This classic scene lost most of its magic in the disappointing 1956 movie version, whose effervescent Shirley Jones, as Julie, desperately needs a leading man with both charisma and menace. Gordon MacRae seems merely naive; Frank Sinatra, the original casting choice, would have been perfect.) Because Molnár’s ending wasn’t strong enough for the team, they concluded with a rousing finale, which centers on the most anthemic hymn in Broadway history, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In Fritz Lang’s 1934 French film of “Liliom,” when the title character returns from the afterlife, just for one day, he meets his daughter, now 16 years old, and tells her that he was a friend of her late father. She asks if he was a good man and he says, “well, he knew some good songs. Some pretty ones!” Amen to that.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal. 






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