Where to begin? Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carousel, which first premiered in 1945, has been recorded several times over: both the original Broadway and London cast performances were preserved and since then we’ve had numerous revival and studio cast recordings. But perhaps it’s prudent to go back to the beginning… and then spend some time looking at a few of the major recordings of the score.
The Original Broadway Cast Recording is great, preserving the original cast performances and providing enough of the score so that one gets a fairly good idea of the show. Yes, some songs are shortened (like “If I Loved You”) but the only song that gets left out completely is “Geraniums in the Winder”. The other cut material is mostly reprises and dance music. The cast are all good singers. John Raitt’s baritone rounds out the songs nicely, Jan Clayton gives a moving reading of Julie’s songs and Murvyn Vye is fun as Jigger. We did get a reminder of the original Julie and Billy’s performances on a TV special in 1954. Watching this clip reveals how masterful Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work on the show was and also gives us some idea of how fantastic Raitt and Clayton must have been when the show premiered 9 years earlier:
Looking at the same scene as it appears in the misguided and disappointing 1956 film – well, it just doesn’t compare. Neither does the Soundtrack, although it does give one a better impression of the film than it deserves. Overall, it’s far too polished: the sound of the bigger orchestrations sounds far too much like generic Hollywood instead of the New England setting of the material. Gordon Macrae and Shirley Jones, while delivering highly listenable covers of the songs, are a bit too light in the central roles and there’s not enough contrast in terms of vocal characterization between them and the other leads. Logically enough, this makes Barbara Ruick and Robert Rounseville stand out to a greater extent – and of course this means that the balance in the cast is somewhat off-kilter. In terms of completeness, there is more material here than on the OBCR – the ballet music is included but “Geraniums in the Winder” and “The Highest Judge of All”, which were cut from the film, are not.
Another recording that often gets mentioned in discussions about the show is the 1987 Studio Cast Recording. Some folks love it, but it’s not really one of my favourites. Although it’s almost complete, cutting only the Act 2 ballet music, there’s a bit too much tiptoeing around the roles on the part of the singers for everything to settle completely. Samuel Ramey’s singing of Billy is impressive but he doesn’t get the character to move through the material in terms of characterization. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Barbara Cook, whose work I truly adore elsewhere. I suppose my major beef with this album is that it is a typical studio recording – albeit an excellent one and far more successful than most – but it never really catches alight in the way Carousel should.
My personal favourite recording of Carousel is the 1994 Broadway Revival Recording. What is really fantastic about this recording is that there is such a fantastic balance between acting and singing. The cast have enough voice to serve the material but also communicate the stakes of what’s going on dramatically in the score and in the show as a whole. The “Carousel Waltz” is played so beautifully on this recording – it’s heartbreaking. Michel Hayden forces you to engage with Billy and the journey of his character. Sally Murphy sings to your heart and completely gets the arc of the character from “If I Loved You” through “What’s the Use of Wond’rin'”. One of the highlights of the recording is Audra MacDonald’s Carrie, an interpretation that really reveals her versatility as both an actress and a vocalist. She is perfectly matched by Eddie Korbich – their rendition of “When the Children are Asleep” is unmatched. (I’d definitely pick this one over it’s London counterpart, although I really enjoyed Joanna Riding’s Julie on that disc.)
As I’ve noted above, there are many other recordings of the show (some not yet available on CD), but I think these recordings represent the main players of a musical that provides an truly emotional experience not only when seen live in the theatre, but also when appreciated musically on your CD player or iPod in your own time.