The Troubled Color Blindness of “Carousel”

carousel-broadway-702x336Carousel was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Spiritual.” The show sang out in 1943 and still sings out to this day of the pain and the release of leaving behind life’s agonies for another plane. It may be set in the whitest of American neighborhoods, Maine, near the turn of the last century, with a musical voice as far removed from a field holler as one could conceive, but the sentiments explored and expressed are largely those of “Negro Spirituals.”

I can’t say that I ever thought of this before seeing the current Broadway revival, which nobly color blind casts an African-American in the lead role of Billy Bigelow (stentorian-voiced Joshua Henry), then suffers the consequences, heedlessly. With an African-American Billy, the waywardness, of this lost soul’s character, his cruelty, and his violence, juxtaposed against the projected decency of the surrounding community of stolid white New Englanders, suddenly takes on racial overtones wholly unintended by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The white communal disapproval of this black Billy, and the community’s dismissive ultimate reception of his death (to say nothing of the implications of his suicide in that context) yanked me right out of the play I was watching and made me acutely uncomfortable. Now, Carousel has always been an uncomfortable piece of theater, by intention and also, one might argue, unintentionally. The “hero” hits his wife, the “heroine” allows herself to be hit. This has never been easy to justify, especially now, from our current, politically correct, perspective. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein surely recognized this going in; in fact, it, no doubt, was one of the compelling factors in their decision to musicalize Carousel‘s original source, the spousal abuse drama Liliom, written by the esteemed Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár.

Still, to further multiply the negative morality factor by thrusting race into Carousel‘s  ugly mix, without remotely addressing its implications, or even its presence, seemed to me, not merely a missed opportunity but, in the end, an insurmountable mistake.

Which is a shame, given the many glories of this production. The score is gorgeously sung by a cast led by Mr. Henry and, in the role of cousin Nettie (who, of course, sings, among other showstoppers, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), opera’s greatest diva of the moment, Renée Fleming. The choreography created by New York City Ballet master Justin Peck elevates the story-telling to sumptuous and often fantastical heights.

I would love to say that all of this vocal majesty and interpretive beauty distracted me from the core confusion of Mr. Henry’s color. I am a wholehearted believer in the efficacy of color blind casting. Our cultural moment demands it; our theater today must embrace it; our audiences can handle it. However, once a director (in this case Jack O’Brien) makes that choice, dramatic truth is impacted. You cannot look away. This Carousel does.

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