Kelli O’Hara first learned about Carousel when she performed in it in high school. “I fell madly in love with it. It remains a very favorite.”
John Cullum had heard songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical – it includes such hits as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “June is Busting Out All Over,” and what many consider the most romantic Broadway love song ever, “If I Loved You” – before he put it together as all belonging to what Time Magazine called the best musical of the twentieth century.
“I really became acquainted with the musical when I sang it for Richard Rodgers during an audition for a production in Jones Beach,” says Cullum, a veteran of 29 Broadway shows who, at age 82, is making his New York Philharmonic debut tonight, when Carousel opens at Avery Fisher Hall for a four-night run. The production, featuring a 71-piece orchestra, will be featured in a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast on PBS on Friday, April 26.
Cullum is one of 47 members of the cast, including O’Hara and Nathan Gunn as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, the couple whose love is tested in supernatural ways. Gunn, too, has a first memory of “Carousel,” hearing the music from a very young age because his mother played the album. “Many of the tunes bring back memories of when I was 5 years old: All the feelings, sights and smells.”
The Philharmonic orchestra first performed songs from “Carousel” in 1946 at Carnegie Hall a year after its opening on Broadway; it has been revived on the Great White Way four times since, most recently in 1994.
“Carousel” was the second musical collaboration by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein Jr, and if it is not as groundbreaking as their first collaboration, “Oklahoma,” it was reportedly their favorite. And in that they did not walk alone.
“I think Carousel is revived often because of the beauty of the music and the universality of the story,” Gunn says. “The paths of all the characters are different although they desperately try to reach the same goal. Billy and Julie lose their chance but with the magic of theater they find reconciliation and love.”
In college, Cullum read “Liliom,” the 1909 play by Ferenc Molnar (who wrote it originally in Hungarian) on which “Carousel” is based. “To be frank, I wasn’t thrilled with it,” Cullum says. “It is the music, lyrics and story combined that make it wonderful.
“It is the sentiment of the songs that makes Carousel so beloved; the tremendously resonant love song – enigmatic, unresolved, and questioning.