Part two of a new series by Liam Nolan
Think of the songs ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘If I Loved You’, ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, ‘Soliloquy’ and ‘When The Children Are Asleep’, and you’re thinking of ‘Carousel’ — music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
It’s about a fairground worker, a carousel barker, whose job was to call out to passers-by to attract their custom. It’s about his romance with a local girl who works in a mill. In the show their names are Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. The setting is the coast of Maine.
Having had such a spectacular success with ‘Oklahoma’, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to take their collaboration at least one step further, to try one more show together.
But how to go about it? They met, talked, discussed, argued, kicked ideas around, and found great difficulty in agreeing. Trying to settle on a story, a subject matter, a theme, was driving them crazy.
“No matter what we put together,” Rodgers said, “people will still compare it with ‘Oklahoma’ and say, ‘Yeah, it’s O.K. but it’s no ‘Oklahoma!’”
Theresa Helburn, the woman from the Theatre Guild who had proposed the idea of adapting ‘Green Grow the Lilacs’, suggested that they adapt another play. The one she had in mind was Hungarian, written by Ferenc Molnar back at the beginning of the 20th century. It was called ‘Liliom’, a Hungarian slang term for “tough guy”. But both Rodgers and Hammerstein said, No. They didn’t think it was suitable, or even faintly promising, and its ending was downbeat and depressing, all wrong for a musical.
In any event the playwright had refused several times to allow it be adapted into a musical. Among those he turned down were the German composer Kurt Weill, (‘The Threepenny Opera’, with its famous number ‘Mack the Knife’), and the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (‘Madam Butterfly’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Tosca’).
“I want my play to be remembered as mine,” Molnar said, “not Puccini’s”.
Long before the Theatre Guild people tried to persuade R & H to adapt ‘Liliom’, the Guild had presented an English language translation of the play in New York in 1921. It had had a successful run of 300 performances.
But Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t fancy working on a musical based on a dark play and set in Budapest. And they hated the unhappy ending. Even the Hungarian audiences were puzzled by the play when it was first put on in 1909.
It lasted only 30 performances then, and its author withdrew it. It didn’t reappear until after World War l, and then it became a tremendous success.