The leading character beats his wife. Much of the second act takes place in heaven. People speak of clambakes and fairgrounds, but their passions run deep--and dark.
Mix these diverse ingredients with one of the musical theater's most rapturous scores ever, and you have "Carousel."
The 1945 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II has been revived in the production of a lifetime at the Royal National Theater, and it's unlikely this musical war horse will ever look quite the same.
The production, which opened to rave reviews last month at the National's Lyttelton auditorium, stars American actor Michael Hayden as the volatile carnival barker, Billy Bigelow; Joanna Riding as his patient and put-upon wife, Julie Jordan; and Patricia Routledge as Nettie Fowler, the whistle-blowing local matron and sage.
It marks the state-subsidized venue's fourth musical venture, following "Guys and Dolls," "Jean Seberg" and "Sunday in the Park With George."
It's far and away its best--a labor of love on the part of director Nicholas Hytner, designer Bob Crowley and choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, former principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet, who died Oct. 29 less than a month into rehearsal.
Hytner is best known internationally for directing the hit musical "Miss Saigon," but the 36-year-old Englishman said his aim with "Carousel" was to prove that it "is as good as musical theater gets, and that includes opera and ballet, as well."
Still, "good" doesn't mean cohesive. The problem remains how anyone approaching "Carousel" reconciles its emphasis on violence and psychological repression with the sheer exuberance of "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake."
Hytner said such demands made the musical uniquely suited to the National.
"This is not being done as some sort of commercial revival," he said prior to the opening. "It's a reexamination in the same way Chekhov and Shakespeare get examined.
"It's very much a National Theater aesthetic. Nothing gets done just because that's the way it's always been done; you question everything from basics."
The result is neither willfully perverse nor revisionist. Instead, Hytner and his cast have taken an acute scalpel to Hammerstein's libretto, revealing its dark and potent commentary on sexual attraction, which originally may have been veiled on stage, and in the sanitized 1956 film.
Hytner said the show was "about the intimate connection of passion and pain. . . . It's a story about two deeply wounded individuals with a huge well of pain at the center."
In "Carousel," Billy swings his fist where others might turn a phrase, and it's not until the first-act finish, "Soliloquy," that he lays bare his own feelings of inadequacy alongside his love for Julie and the child she will soon have.
Worried about having the money to support his family, Billy joins the ne'er-do-well Jigger (Phil Daniels) in a botched nighttime robbery. The incident precipitates Billy's suicide and his desire for one last chance from beyond the grave, as 15 years elapse and he sees his own teen-age daughter, Louise, repeating the destructive ways he knows all too well.
Calling Billy "one of the great parts," Hytner said the character's "wildness and violence spring from vulnerability and self-hatred."
"A man beating his wife is in no circumstances beautiful," said Hytner, "but he's not necessarily an evil fellow, either. What one has to do is seek identification as much for the beater as the beaten."
The intention pays off. Hayden, a 29-year-old fresh out of New York's Juilliard Drama School, makes clear the sensitivity behind the macho swagger.
His co-star, Joanna Riding, finds exactly the mysterious reserve in Julie that her good friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Janie Dee), sings about in the opening number, "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan!" As Riding plays her, this Julie intuits the depth of Billy's feeling for her even once his death has cast him in the community's eyes as a near-legendary thug.
The results satisfy dramatically and melodically, and MacMillan's long Act II dance for the adolescent Louise (Bonnie Moore)--at once petulant and provocative--ensures balletomanes won't be disappointed, either.
The advance sale for the production is $2 million, a record for the National. So, too, is the top ticket price of $43.
Among the production's many stars-in-the-making, none will benefit as much as the Minnesota-born newcomer Hayden, whose professional credits to date have been limited to supporting roles in regional theater and Off Broadway.
Speaking before the opening, Hayden said he, too, was aware of the feeling that "Carousel" couldn't be done nowadays: "They say it's undoable because of the heaven stuff, and Billy's too gruff."
So how did he make sense of the role?
"I once saw Billy described as a James Dean who can sing, and I don't think that's too far off," Hayden replied. "More people can relate to Billy than they care to admit."
Besides, the actor played Billy once before, as a ninth-grader in Westport, Conn.
"It was at the height of my football career--so long ago that I don't remember much about it, thank God," he said.
"I'm sure I was very sweet, and very bad."