Carousel is the second musical by the team of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). The 1945 work was adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, transplanting its Budapest setting to the Maine coastline. The story revolves around carousel barker Billy Bigelow, whose romance with millworker Julie Jordan comes at the price of both their jobs. He attempts a robbery to provide for Julie and their unborn child; after it goes wrong, he is given a chance to make things right. A secondary plot line deals with millworker Carrie Pipperidge and her romance with ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow. The show includes the well-known songs “If I Loved You”, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Richard Rodgers later wrote that Carousel was his favorite of all his musicals.
Following the spectacular success of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! (1943), the pair sought to collaborate on another piece, knowing that any resulting work would be compared with Oklahoma!, most likely unfavorably. They were initially reluctant to seek the rights to Liliom; Molnár had refused permission for the work to be adapted in the past, and the original ending was considered too depressing for the musical theatre. After acquiring the rights, the team created a work with lengthy sequences of music and made the ending more hopeful.
The musical required considerable modification during out-of-town tryouts, but once it opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, it was an immediate hit with both critics and audiences. Carousel initially ran for 890 performances and duplicated its success in the West End in 1950. Though it has never achieved as much commercial success as Oklahoma!, the piece has been repeatedly revived, and has been recorded several times. A production by Nicholas Hytner enjoyed success in 1992 in London, in 1994 in New York and on tour. In 1999, Time magazine named Carousel the best musical of the 20th century.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Rodgers and Hammerstein both became well known for creating Broadway hits with other partners. Rodgers, with Lorenz Hart, had produced a string of over two dozen musicals, including such popular successes as Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and Pal Joey (1940). Some of Rodgers’ work with Hart broke new ground in musical theatre: On Your Toes was the first use of ballet to sustain the plot (in the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” scene), while Pal Joey flouted Broadway tradition by presenting a knave as its hero. Hammerstein had written or co-written the words for such hits as Rose-Marie (1924), The Desert Song (1926), The New Moon (1927) and Show Boat (1927). Though less productive in the 1930s, he wrote material for musicals and films, sharing an Academy Award for his song with Jerome Kern, “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, which was included in the 1941 film Lady Be Good.
By the early 1940s, Hart had sunk into alcoholism and emotional turmoil, becoming unreliable and prompting Rodgers to approach Hammerstein to ask if he would consider working with him. Hammerstein was eager to do so, and their first collaboration was Oklahoma! (1943). Thomas Hischak states, in his The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia, that Oklahoma! is “the single most influential work in the American musical theatre. In fact, the history of the Broadway musical can accurately be divided into what came before Oklahoma! and what came after it.” An innovation for its time in integrating song, character, plot and dance, Oklahoma! would serve, according to Hischak, as “the model for Broadway shows for decades”, and proved a huge popular and financial success. Once it was well-launched, what to do as an encore was a daunting challenge for the pair. Movie producer Sam Goldwyn saw Oklahoma! and advised Rodgers to shoot himself, which according to Rodgers “was Sam’s blunt but funny way of telling me that I’d never create another show as good as Oklahoma!” As they considered new projects, Hammerstein wrote, “We’re such fools. No matter what we do, everyone is bound to say, ‘This is not another Oklahoma!’ “
Oklahoma! had been a struggle to finance and produce. Hammerstein and Rodgers met weekly in 1943 with Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild, producers of the blockbuster musical, who together formed what they termed “the Gloat Club”. At one such luncheon, Helburn and Langner proposed to Rodgers and Hammerstein that they turn Molnár’s Liliom into a musical. Both men refused—they had no feeling for the Budapest setting and thought that the unhappy ending was unsuitable for musical theatre. In addition, given the unstable wartime political situation, they might need to change the setting from Hungary while in rehearsal. At the next luncheon, Helburn and Langner again proposed Liliom, suggesting that they move the setting to Louisiana and make Liliom a Creole. Rodgers and Hammerstein played with the idea over the next few weeks, but decided that Creole dialect, filled with “zis” and “zose” would sound corny and would make it difficult to write effective lyrics.