TO the strains of the "Carousel Waltz" the curtain rises upon an amusement park in a New England town in 1873. Fishermen, sailors, mill girls and children are enjoying the sights and sounds of a carnival atmosphere. Two mill girls, Carrie Pipperidge and Julie Jordan, are having a good time until Mrs. Mullin, proprietress of the carousel, insults them. When her handsome, strapping barker, Billy Bigelow, jumps to the defense of the girls, Mrs. Mullin summarily fires him. Billy, being a happy-go-lucky fellow, does not take this dismissal to heart; on the contrary, he invites Julie to have a beer with him. While he is off to get his belongings, Carrie asks her friend Julie whether she finds Billy attractive, but Julie is singularly evasive ("You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan"). Carrie thereupon confides to Julie that she has a fellow of her own, the fisherman Enoch Snow, whom she plans to marry ("When I Marry Mr. Snow"). When Billy returns and is left alone with Julie they begin to talk about love, and the kind of person each would be attracted to. When Billy inquires if Julie could ever marry a person such as he is, Julie replies that she would--if she loved him ("If I Loved You"). The romance soon takes wing: Julie and Billy get married.
Making preparations for the first clam-bake of the year, the fishermen, mill girls, sailors and children are ebullient over the vernal season ("June Is Bustin' Out All Over"). Carrie and Enoch Snow dream about their future together as man and wife ("When the Children Are Asleep"). At this point Billy learns that Julie is pregnant. Though up to now completely irresponsible and incapable of meeting the emotional and domestic demands made upon him by marriage, Billy is suddenly filled with a sense of parental pride and with an overwhelming feeling of tenderness for both his wife and his unborn child ("Soliloquy"). He is determined to get money for them to assure their future.
The clam-bake proves a gay affair. ("This Was a Real Nice Clam Bake"), alive with good humour, rowdy spirits and song. Julie, however, is touched with sadness, knowing as she does that her husband is volatile in his moods and undependable in his behanviour; yet she loves him deeply, and for this reason there is no point in her wondering if he is good or bad ("What's the Use of Wond'rin'"). But that there is much bad in Billy becomes evident when he gets involved in a hold-up. Caught by the police, he commits suicide to elude arrest. Overwhelmed by her grief, Julie tries to find solace in the comforting words of her friend, Nettie ("You'll Never Walk Alone").
Billy arrives in Heaven, where he defiantly tells two of its police that he does not regret his actions on Earth. For this he is doomed to spend fifteen years in Purgatory. At the end of that period the Starkeeper in Heaven permits him to return to Earth for a single day to gain redemption for his soul. Snatching a star from the firmament, which he intends as a gift for his daughter, Billy comes back to Earth. He finds that she is an unhappy child who is incapable of receiving his gift. As a reflex action in his disappointment, Billy slaps her face, but the slap is given in love, and not in hate, and so the girl feels no pain. Through his understanding and tenderness, Billy is able to lift his daughter out of her misery and to fill her with hope and courage. He now watches the ceremony during which she is graduating from highschool, happy to see that her head is now high, happy too that he has found redemption.
As the immediate successor to Oklahoma!--the musical play with which Rodgers and Hammerstein made stage history--Carousel takes the American musical play another impressive step forward. From many points of view, it is better than Oklahoma!, though its performance history is less spectacular. The text has greater depths of feeling, a more encompassing humanity and greater universality--with tragic overtones not often encountered on the musical stage. The fusion of music and the text is even more sensitive here than in Oklahoma!. Song flows into speech and speech into song; melody and text become one. Extended sequences combine prose, verse and speech, or recitative and melody. The orchestra often becomes an eloquent commentator on what has just happened or is about to happen. And Rodgers' artistic horizon is extended. Here he is much more than the shaper of fresh, original and beautifyl melody; he is a musical dramatist. For the orchestra he now writes with symphonic breadth. The form and style of his windswept melodies and his expansive musical scenes, now unhampered by structural limitations, were dictated by the requirements of the text without concern for convention or tradition. His dramatic expressiveness succeeds time and again to penetrate to the very core of a character or situation.
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