It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

August 18, 2022

It seemed like a good idea at the time.   I was on  one of my daily walks, newly retired from my accountancy practice, and thinking about how I might fill up my days.  “Write a book, “ I remember saying to myself.“ It’s something you have been wanting to try  for years.”  It took only a moment after that initial thought to decide, “why not?” and a mere twelve years later, here it is in print.

Actually, newly retired is not an entirely accurate description of my status.  I had already reduced my working hours to enable me to care for my late wife Greta, who had not been in good health for a number of years.  Now, I decided , it was time to stop completely.  I would be available 24/7, but when I wasn’t needed, there would be time available, hence my musings on that walk.

I had always imagined that if I ever did sit down to write, that (first?) book would be a novel.  However, when the moment finally came,  I remembered the classic advice I had seen and heard so many times, that you should write about what you know.  My own life story, at that time anyway, seemed to me to be unremarkable, and not one that would get potential readers rushing to the bookshops.  Ditto the world of a chartered accountant.  I could envisage a large remainder counter in our local bookshop filled with copies of a novel entitled “Debits and Credits.”   Next, I thought about football; as a season ticket holder at Tottenham Hotspur, it is certainly  a subject I know a lot about, but it was just not one I  fancied writing about.

And then there was musical theatre, a lifelong passion of mine, inherited from my parents who insisted that they took me to see Oklahoma! during its initial London run at Drury Lane. I would have been only four or five years old at the time, and in the late 1940s, taking children at that young age to the theatre was I am sure, even less common than it is today.  So, I believe the story to be apocryphal, but what is beyond doubt is that the first song of which I have a definite recollection is Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’. 

Over the years I had built up a sizeable library of books about musical theatre. Biographies of the great songwriters; encyclopaedias about the shows; learned works by musicologists discussing various aspects of the genre; and a handful of books telling the history of just one show, but none of these were about my favourite show, Carousel and online checks confirmed that I had not overlooked any. Indeed, such show histories were a relatively new concept, some being glossy coffee table books linked to the film version of a musical, whilst others were more scholarly in content, published by university presses and adapted from doctoral dissertations. To these could be added just a small number of books devoted to one of the “golden age” musicals.

And so it was, that slowly, the idea developed, that I would not write a novel; instead, I would write the story of Carousel.  Looking back now it seems a crazy decision to have made.  True, I was familiar with the bare bones of the story, but those bare bones would not fill even a slim volume. I knew there was a wealth of material to be found in various libraries in the U.S., but I was clearly not going to be able to visit them any time soon.  Nor did I have any idea whether the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organisation, who control all the pairs’ works and access to their papers, would be willing to co-operate with an unknown wannabee author without a publisher or agent behind him. (As it turns out, they provided me with more help than I could ever have hoped for).

Now you may be wondering, what made a retired chartered accountant think he could write a book that anyone would want to read?  The truth is, I had no idea if I could  or not; but I did know I wanted to try.  Whether anything would come of it only time would tell, but meanwhile, I looked upon it as a challenging and interesting exercise.  I would be researching into a topic I loved, and at the same time, I would at least be making a start at trying to achieve a long-held ambition.  I had nothing to lose, and so, more in hope than expectation, I began to sketch out my preliminary ideas for a history of Carousel.

So was it a good idea? Of course it was. There were many trials and tribulations along the way, and just how well the book will be received, I have no idea, but I am very, very glad I decided to embark on what has been an amazing journey.

To order your copy, click here.

Carousel at the Arcola

June 27, 2014

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has always been my favourite musical. Indeed I would argue that it is the greatest musical of all time. When I read that a new fringe production was coming to London in which the show was to be “re-imagined”, I had all sorts of nightmares. I envisaged something akin to the Rent / La Bohème scenario whereby Richard Rodgers’ glorious score would be belted out by rock singers accompanied by highly amplified electric guitars.

I need not have worried. What hits you from the opening moment of this marvellous revival at the Arcola Theatre in London’s East End, is the love and respect for the original material that permeates the entire production.

The re-imagining consists primarily of advancing the time of the play from 1873 to the depression years of the early1930s. This suits the mood of the piece very well although it does jar a little at Carrie’s line – “Mr Snow says a man that can’t find work these days is jest plain lazy.” Millions of Americans could not find work in those dark days. Apart from that minor blip it is I think a clever device. The time change also means that the show’s finale, the iconic Graduation Scene with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” now takes place at the time it was written, towards the end of the Second World War when so many people were facing the future without their loved ones.

From start to finish, Luke Fredericks’ direction, Stewart Charlesworth’s designs and Lee Proud’s choreography are all focussed on letting the power of Richard Rodgers’ music and the brilliance of Oscar Hammerstein’s book and lyrics shine through. The stage is small, the sets are simple, and yet as intimate as the production might be, none of the magic of the original has been lost. In a way, it might even have been enhanced and for that they deserve our heartfelt thanks, for this is a show that needs no stars, egos or special tricks.

Not that there are no stars in this production. Gemma Sutton is superb as Julie. Even standing quite still she has a magnetism that means you cannot take your eyes off her no matter what is going on elsewhere on stage. Coupled with a beautiful voice she is the best Julie I have seen since Joanna Riding’s Olivier winning performance in the 1992 Nicholas Hytner production for the RNT. Molnar’s original play Liliom might have been named for the leading male character but in this production at least, it is really all about Julie.

Tim Rogers as Billy succeeds in the difficult task of making us not totally hate him. This was the biggest problem Rodgers and Hammerstein faced when considering whether or not to adapt Molnar’s play into a musical. They solved it by coming up with the idea for the “Soliloquy” which shows that Billy does have a gentler side. It is not an easy number but Tim Rogers nails it. One particular moment in this scene demonstrated Lee Frederick’s skill. As Billy begins the “My Little Girl” section, unseen by him, Julie comes on stage and listens for a while. As unsympathetic a “hero” as Billy might be, we can understand why Julie has stayed with him.

Vicky Lee Taylor has tons of energy and comedic skills as Carrie and Joel Montague makes a fine Mr. Snow. Richard Kent was properly evil as the villain Jigger Craigin, dressed as a spiv rather than a seaman – a nice touch made possible by the time change. But all the cast deserve high praise. Their energy and exuberance make the whole evening a sheer joy.

When Carousel first opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York in April 1945, Richard Rodgers demanded 39 musicians in the orchestra, twice the Broadway norm. Obviously an orchestra of five cannot possibly sound like that but Mark Cumberland’s orchestrations cleverly evoke Don Walker’s originals and do full justice to the music.

My only disappointment in the entire evening was that the theatre was not full. This show, this production, deserves to be seen. The theatre really is easy to get to, so if you like musicals and you like talent, do make the effort. Get on your bikes; get in your cars; Get on the trains. You will find it very worth while.


August 24, 2012

When Liliom, the play upon which Carousel is based, first gained global acclaim in the early 1920’s composer Giacomo Puccini begged playwright Ferenc Molnar to grant him the rights to turn it into an opera. Molnar turned Puccini down flat. “Liliom is my masterpiece,” he said, “and I want it to be remembered as a Molnar play, not as the libretto for a Puccini opera.”

A little more than twenty years later, after being taken to see Oklahoma!, he granted the musical rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein paving the way for the pair to write what Time Magazine would call “The Greatest Musical of the Twentieth Century.”

Had it been written by Puccini, I am sure Opera North would have staged many productions of the musical Liliom over the years. As it is, we have had to wait until now to see and hear how a major opera company would tackle the most operatic of Broadway musicals and boy, they have done it brilliantly.

Richard Rodgers, who with his rich melodic and harmonic gifts I consider to be the Puccini of Broadway, was asked if he had ever been tempted to write an opera. He replied that he and Hammerstein were sorely tempted a couple of times, and he imagined Carousel in those terms. If, like their leading man Billy Bigelow they could look down from heaven and see this production, they surely would be delighted.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 National Theatre production reminded us what a classic show Carousel is. This production, while not forgetting the importance of the acting, focuses as one might expect on the music. It does not diminish the importance of Oscar Hammerstein’s superb book and lyrics, but it is in Richard Rodgers’ music that the true glory of this Carousel lies. It is like seeing a great painting that having been hidden in the vaults for a number of years, has been lovingly brought back to life by a master restorer.

Director Jo Davis stamped her own authority on the production. Her decision to use the prologue to show Billy’s back story was clever and I thought moving the story from 1873 to 1915 worked well. The production was well paced and had a good narrative flow. I especially enjoyed the setting of the introduction to the Act 2 ballet, transforming Heaven’s backyard into a movie set. Perhaps only in the final graduation scene, when Billy is at last able to help his family did the direction lack a certain clarity.

Gillene Herbert was entirely convincing as Julie, the strong New England girl who would survive whatever life threw at her, whilst Eric Greene as Billy showed us a tortured soul struggling with the unfamiliar emotions of love and fatherhood. They nailed the classic Bench Scene and If I Loved You completely.

Claire Boulter was a comedic delight as Carrie and Joseph Shovelton as her beau, Enoch Snow excelled too. Together with Elena Ferrrari as Nettie , whose rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was spine tingling, the entire cast sang their roles superbly. A special word of praise too for the chorus – seldom can the big set piece numbers such as June is Busting Out All Over have sounded better.

Anthony Ward’s uncluttered but effective sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting were a delight and Kay Shepherd’s choreography, sometimes lusty, sometimes tender, enhanced the story exactly as it was supposed to do..

James Holmes conducted the Birmingham Royal Ballet with a great feeling for the music. If I have one gripe it is that Richard Rodgers composed the score with a full orchestra in mind. When Carousel opened on Broadway the pit contained thirty-nine musicians. For this production there is twenty-nine. With such wonderful voices on stage it is a shame that they could not be backed by the full orchestra that the composer had in mind.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful production and one that will live long in my memory. I do hope that Carousel stays in Opera North’s repertoire and I hope also that other opera company’s add it to theirs.

Opera or musical? In the end it does not matter for what is certain is that Carousel is magnificent theatre.