After creating a buzz with last week’s announcement of an especially appealing eight-show season for 2015-15, the 5th Avenue Theatre is about to unveil its new production of Carousel. Laura Griffith and Brandon O’Neill (on the heels of his Broadway debut in Disney’s Aladdin) star as Julie and Billy in a new production directed by 5th Avenue’s producing artistic director Bill Berry, with music supervisor Ian Eisendrath leading a 21-piece orchestra.
The early Rodgers & Hammerstein classic gets a fresh airing in this fourth major collaboration between the 5th Ave and Spectrum Dance Theater — for my money, one of the most creatively stimulating and innovative performing arts companies on the Seattle scene.
Donald Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director, brings his dancers back to the 5th after choreographing a thought-provoking, insightful interpretation in 2012 of Oklahoma! – the groundbreaking Rodgers & Hammerstein musical from 1943 that preceded Carousel by two years.
I recently spoke to the Bessie Award-winning, Tony-nominated choreographer about his latest engagement with an icon of American musical theater.
What makes a work like Carousel, now seven decades old, still work for audiences today? How do you find it resonates for people today?
DB: The appeal is that it is a classic. We wouldn’t have the kinds of musicals we enjoy today if it wasn’t for these Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. They invented the book musical in many ways. And it’s also important to be reminded of why they work so well and tell us something about storytelling in the musical theater that contemporary musicals often don’t do as well.
For me it’s exciting to go back to the source and see how they build a show with a classic arc and climax. As with any classic, you can learn something different and deepen your understanding every time you come back to it. For example, Oklahoma! says something about how dance can work in the modern musical. With Carousel it’s a much darker story, and that points to the range and breadth of what a musical theater piece can be and do.
You were personally encouraged by Agnes de Mille, the legendary choreographer of the original show, when you were embarking on your own career. What is significant for you about her contributions? How did she demonstrate that dance can fit into those possibilities?
DB: She was interested in how to tell a story and also in how to tell an American story. Even though the source material [the 1909 play Liliom by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár] is not American, they created a very American story in the way they told it.
De Mille really wanted to have an American dance and American themes and heroes and heroines. Sometimes her dances may look and feel old-fashioned, but if you keep in mind what she was after, you start to see beyond that.
How did you decide to approach or reference the original ballets De Mille choreographed for Carousel — and Oklahoma!, for that matter?
DB: I found myself wanting to honor what Agnes De Mille did and to make sure that somehow her values are embedded in what I do with the shows. I follow the scenario she created, but i don’t use her movement necessarily — though I do quote here. In the big ballet [the “Billy Makes a Journey” scene in the second act], the first thing is a quote.
Yet in your version of Oklahoma! you introduced an intriguing Freudian dream sequence.
DB: The dream sequence I used for the Oklahoma! ballet looked at how artists of that period were all talking about sex and Freud. Psychology doesn’t play such a deeply rooted role in Carousel, but one of the show’s themes is about how what we desire is both to be able to give and to receive love. This manifests itself in a desire to be accepted — and also in the impulse to push people away and to create the Other. Louise [the daughter of Julie and Billy] is definitely the Other.
Community is important in both Oklahoma! and in Carousel. And what a close-knit community creates is outsiders. At the same time, there’s a fascination with the Outsider. Carrie, Julie’s best friend, shows this when she considers her options regarding the person she can marry. She has a choice between someone very rigid, like Enoch Snow — a version of a young Tea Party Republican — or someone exciting like Billy Bigelow, the dangerous bad boy.
He’s like an animal that is caged. When he’s domesticated, what does he do? This manifests itself later in the show with his daughter Louise, who also has Billy’s spirit.
Tell me more about your take on the character of Billy Bigelow.
DB: In some ways Carousel is really about a type of person. It makes me think of the Heath Ledger character in Brokeback Mountain: here’s a person completely ill-equipped to deal with his situation, He has no tools to express his circumstances and his internal life to the outside world. I think [Carousel‘s hero] Billy Bigelow is somebody who has no tools to express a very essential part of life. How do you express that you love somebody?
On top of that — and this gets back to how Carousel still resonates for audiences of today — Billy is living in an America that’s changing in the 19th century. It’s a little bit like what we have going on now, for working people at least. Billy’s a barker at a carnival, but after he loses his job he discovers he doesn’t have any skills. So he’s in a situation of feeling forced to do something morally that he doesn’t agree with when he attempts the ill-fated robbery. And he’s unable to express his love for Julie. He resorts to domestic violence, a classic manifestation of his sense of being a failure. How do you cope when you’re not prepared to do the things you need to do to live in the world?
Another thread that runs through Carousel is a kind of ambition which is very American. Louise [Billy and Julie’s daughter] is an outsider because of what her father has done but she’s ambitious to succeed at something. In theory America is classless, but Louise finds she is somehow locked out. This seems to be one of the directions the country is moving into again. Read Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, where talks about a new class of the super-rich that comes from inherited wealth, while the rest of us are locked outside of that. These are some ways of looking at this musical that show how it resonates with the America we live in today.
What stands out for you this time in your collaboration with 5th Avenue Theatre?
DB: Spectrum is even more integrated into the entire production than we were in Oklahoma!. For example, the famous clambake scene in the first act — “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” — is all about hormones flowing at springtime and all the hot-and-bothered excitement and horniness that goes along with that. But in the original there was a pretty dance for the women that but didn’t have much to do with what the song was about. It was followed by a number in which all the men had a hornpipe dance. We thought it was weird that in this number about sex there was no dancing together of couples. But in the movie (which De Mille didn’t choreograph), they did a big dance number for “June,” so we decided to add a newly invented dance number within that number.
Looking back, what do you make of the fact that your choreography for the dream sequence in Oklahoma! generated so much controversy? Do you expect any similar reactions this time around?
DB: The story itself is already controversial. There’s nothing I can do that can make it any more controversial. Carousel is not really what many people think of as typical “musical theater” material.
I think the production is adult but will not be controversial.
To me it seems people were overreactive with Oklahoma!. It was their interpretation of the staging that made it controversial: it resonated in a way that created discomfort. Places like Seattle that perceive themselves as being really progressive don’t like to have this brought it up for them.
A lot of it was generational: people who grew up in the Civil Rights era were in general more reactive than people who were younger. It’s about not wanting to revisit these issues. When they’re further back, like 12 Years a Slave, then it’s easier to handle, but not when we’re talking about history that is too recent. So part of it comes down to people not wanting that stuff to be there — references to lynching or to racist stereotypes of the oversexed Black man.
But those prejudices are there and we need to look at them. There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable! Sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to wake up to reality. When I first did The Minstrel Show, Yusef Hawkins was beaten to death by a gang of white kids in Bensonhurst. I remember thinking: How could this happen in 1989!” I thought all of that was over, but it really woke me up. We often assume things are done when it comes to social justice issues. But they’re not done.
What are some things that might make us feel productively uncomfortable in Carousel?
DB: The feeling that comes from being on the outside, recognizing that we do in fact have a class system. Carousel also shows people facing judgment about whether it’s appropriate to be in love with or to marry a certain person. And the issue of domestic violence runs through the show as well. Carousel shows us that it’s important to address the reason behind why people behave the way they do.
(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.