A Musical Walk Through a Storm
To be honest I am a big musical fan and as such have watched the good, the bad and the ugly of the movie musical world but "Carousel" is one of the most interesting I have watched. And the simple reason is that whilst on one hand "Carousel" is a typical musical with a storyline of romance accompanied by a brilliant Rodgers & Hammerstein score it is also non typical with also a down beat storyline. It doesn't really shock you but this is a tale which sees death, wife beating and some self loathing and that is not what most musicals are made of. It's most likely down to this that whilst many see "Carousel" as one of the best musicals there are also many who find it less entertaining because of its darkness.
When Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae - Oklahoma!), a carousel barker, meets Julie (Shirley Jones - The Cheyenne Social Club) his life changed for ever as not only did he get fired from his job by the jealous Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie) but he also got married. But married life is not all bliss as Billy and Julie move in with her cousin Nettie (Claramae Turner) as with him knowing only how to work the Carousel Billy finds himself hitting more than rock bottom as he is unable to get work. With Julie declaring she is pregnant Billy feels he needs to support his future family and turns to his old friend Jigger (Cameron Mitchell - The Tall Men) who offers him a job in a robbery which goes wrong. All of which leads to Billy being in his current situation "Above" making sure stars sparkle for the starkeeper and learning that things aren't going well for the family he had to leave behind and so wants permission to return for just one day to make amends for his mistakes.
Now "Carousel" is a musical which is right up my street because this isn't a tale of performers but a tale of life and romance and so whilst it is full of brilliant musical numbers they are all part of telling that story. And what that story is is a tale of trouble and romance as we watch Billy Bigelow in the afterlife recounting to the Starkeeper what his life was like back on Earth and how he came to be there, cleaning stars. In some ways this reminds me of "Heaven Can Wait" with its fantasy element of a man explaining to a mightier power how bad his life was back on earth, but instead about being allowed into heaven or hell this is about returning back to earth for a few hours to deal with a problem.
Anyway so this story, this look at the life of Billy is in fact quite short as we watch him meet the love of his life Julie and end up at rock bottom having married her and not having a job. What follows on from there is really just as simple as Billy, desperate to make money when he learns that Julie is pregnant, makes a poor choice and an accident ends up well, you can guess seeing that he is now making sure stars sparkle.
But despite not being the most in-depth story it is fascinating because of its dour mood. "Carousel" is in many ways the opposite of what you expect from a musical as we watch Billy become depressed as he finds himself unable to find work and that depression manifests itself in anger which includes hitting Julie and plenty of self loathing. It's not so much a dark musical, although there is crime and death, but one which lacks the bubbliness that you associate with the genre.
Whilst it is darker the musical element is exactly what you do expect and the Rodgers & Hammerstein score is brilliant. It's such a pleasure when every musical scene is about telling the story and whilst some of the songs such as "This Was A Real Nice Clambake" are a bit corny there are others which are simply spellbinding such as the always brilliant "You'll Never Walk Alone". The only criticism is that a dance scene during the end almost borders on the too artsy as it embraces a more balletic style compared to earlier, more typical dance scenes, which to be honest felt very similar to "Seven brides for Seven Brothers" in style.
As for the acting well it's a case of solid all round be it Gene Lockhart as the friendly Starkeeper or Barbara Ruick who adds a touch of lightness to the tale as Carrie. But the stars of "Carousel" are very much Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones who whilst not having the most believable of romantic chemistry going on deliver every musical scene brilliantly. MacRae as Billy Bigelow has this power to him, not just from his singing but also his demeanour whilst Shirley Jones as Julie has this blend of beauty and fragility going on which to be honest makes her very appealing.
What this all boils down to is that "Carousel" is a very good musical and features a brilliant Rodgers & Hammerstein score as well as some nice performances. But because this isn't the bright, breezy and fun tale which most musicals are it ends up feeling strange, feeling a little wrong and even a little less entertaining despite there being nothing really wrong with it.