There is an argument to be made that Lincoln Center Theater’s 1994 production of Carousel (directed by Nicholas Hytner, originally produced by London’s National Theatre) has proven to be the most influential revival in Broadway history. I’m not suggesting that it was the most commercially successful revival (Chicago, of course), but it opened the way for acclaimed directors (including many from England and with backgrounds in classical and contemporary drama) to revitalize and indiscreetly reconceive classic works of American musical theater, including the other major works of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! in London, Bartlett Sher’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center).
Carousel happens to be one of my favorite musicals (though I am of course cognizant of the serious challenges in producing it today). Throughout high school, I listened to the cast album of the Lincoln Center Theater production (with new orchestrations by William David Brohn, and performances by Michael Hayden as Billy Bigelow, Sally Murphy as Julie Jordan, Audra McDonald as Carrie Pipperidge and Eddie Korbich as Enoch Snow). Though I of course appreciate the original 1945 cast album (with the original orchestrations of Don Walker), the 1994 recording is, in my opinion, the finest available cast album of Carousel.
In recent years, I had been waiting for Carousel to receive its inevitable Broadway revival. I would not have minded if the Chicago Lyric Opera production with Laura Osnes and Steve Pasquale (which I did not see but heard via radio transmission) had transferred, or if Bartlett Sher had followed on South Pacific and The King and I with his own Carousel. In any event, it was surprising when word leaked out in spring 2017 that Carousel would return to Broadway with Joshua Henry as Billy Bigalow, Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan and opera diva Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler, with direction by Jack O’Brien (whose track record with musicals since Hairspray has been less than stellar).
Although Carousel was not the worst show I saw on Broadway last season, it was (at least for me) the most disappointing and infuriating. I have no desire to revisit the production, and am not particularly sad that it will be closing early. But in the spirit of open-mindedness, I did give a listen to its newly released cast album, in the hope that I may enjoy it more than the production itself, being spared some of O’Brien’s most bewildering and brutal changes, like turning the heavenly “Starkeeper” into an omnipresent figure who watches over the characters from beginning to end, which is distracting from beginning to end.
The first track, “The Carousel Waltz,” using new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, sounds great – and then the album goes downhill, and it is like reliving the revival itself all over again. Mendez, using a nasal character voice, is far too strident and silly as Julie’s naïve gal pal Carrie. (Don’t ask me how she won a Tony for her performance). Mueller too is vocally ill-suited for her role, which results in uncomfortably strained singing. Thanks to some included dialogue, I once again found myself wondering what kind of accent Joshua Henry was attempting. As in the production, Henry comes off as too contemporary in manner for a show set in late 19th-century New England. The attempts to spotlight Fleming by letting her overtake “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” and giving her a coloratura flourish in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” are embarrassing.
Another reason to disregard this cast album is for its deletion of “Geraniums in the Winder,” “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” and most of “Give It to ‘Em Good, Carrie” – though it was interesting how the production brought back in “The Highest Judge of Hall” (which Billy sings before being taken up to the gates of heaven), which is often cut today. In addition to “The Carousel Waltz,” two other fine orchestral sections include the dance break of “Blow High, Blow Low” (which proved to be the unexpected highlight of this production and was featured on the Tony Awards broadcast) and Louise’s 10-minute ballet in act two.
Now that we’ve gotten Carousel out of the way, let’s switch to a far more heartening item – the new cast album of Lincoln Center Theater’s lush, lavish and lovely (or, as Eliza Doolittle would say ,”loverly”) revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (which unexpectedly lost the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival to Once on This Island).
When My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956 (with a cast led by Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison), it was universally hailed as one of the greatest musicals ever written and went on to achieve unprecedented commercial success, running 2,717 performances (longer than any Broadway show at that time). It marked the height of Broadway’s 1950s golden age, when Broadway sat at the apex of American pop culture.
The original cast album of My Fair Lady is one of the most important cast albums in history – not to mention one of the most historically significant recordings of any kind. It was the best-selling album in the United States for eight consecutive weeks, and it remained on the Billboard 200 charts for 480 weeks. Many people (including Julie Andrews) prefer the 1959 London album (which was recorded in stereo, and shows Harrison more at ease with the score), but there is a palpable excitement and historic aura to the original Broadway cast album. Cast albums of subsequent revivals (including the 20th anniversary Broadway revival with Ian Richardson and the 2001 London revival with Jonathan Pryce) are less than essential. For purposes of this discussion, I am excluding the movie soundtrack – as it is a soundtrack, not a cast album.
The new Broadway revival has produced, in my opinion, the best cast album of My Fair Lady in nearly 60 years. In keeping with the high standards of Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher, there is a full orchestra, and the sound quality is pristine. The album contains a complete rendering of the score, including the dance breaks for “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” the saddened reprise of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “The Embassy Waltz,” and “Eliza’s Entrance” before the curtain closes on act one.
Lauren Ambrose (who was a surprise casting choice for Eliza) sounds radiant, handling the score’s vocal demands with aplomb. Merely listening to her sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” I felt as if I were getting a full impression of her performance, including the vulnerability and vitality that she brings to the role. Harry Hadden-Paton, who is a relatively muted Higgins onstage, comes off better on the album, bringing unexpected sensitivity to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and even “I’m an Ordinary Man.”
My Fair Lady makes a fine addition to the other cast albums of Bartlett Sher revivals, including South Pacific, The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof – all of which have displayed reverence for the original scores while finding ways to make the musicals fresh and interesting for a contemporary audience. While I do hope that Sher will continue to helm more revivals of classic musicals (perhaps he will even finally get a crack at Funny Girl), the winds seem to be shifting in another direction, with experimental directors suddenly being entrusted with classic works. It was just announced that Ivo van Hove will direct West Side Story on Broadway in 2019, and a reconceived, scaled-down Oklahoma! will play St. Ann’s Warehouse in the fall. Who knows what those productions will look like – or how the cast albums will sound.