It seems you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing a story about some sort of domestic abuse. Whether it’s Ray Rice hitting his fiancée in an elevator, allegations against U.S. welterweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather or just any of the 2 million domestic incidents that happen each year.
Fans of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel know that one of its chief plot points involves carnival barker Billy Bigelow looking for forgiveness from his love, mill worker Julie Jordan, for his abusive personality.
Back on Broadway in 1945, Billy’s actions may not have caused as big a stir, but can you really get away with romanticizing domestic violence in today’s age? That’s one of the questions that Jason Loewith, who is directing Carousel at the Olney Theatre Center, must answer.
“In the 21st Century, is it possible to forgive someone who has done that,” he asks. “Billy is striving for forgiveness. He’s an anti-hero climbing this hard mountain to get redemption.”
The musical has a very deep meaning to Loewith. When he was just twelve, his mother passed away and his father (an accountant) played an old LP of the “Carousel Waltz” for him.
“I fell in love with it at that point,” he says. “I started listening to the album all the time and was so blown away by Billy’s “Soliloquy,” which was this seven-and-a-half minute powerhouse piece of music that really revolutionized the way American musical theater works. That has been my way in.”
“My boy Bill
I will see that he is named after me, I will.
My boy, Bill! He’ll be tall
And tough as a tree, will Bill!”
What Loewith loved most about the song was the way it explored the parent/child relationship and what one hopes for from their children.
“What the hell!
What if he is a girl?
What would I do with her?
What could I do for her?
A bum with no money!
You can have fun with a son
But you gotta be a father to a girl.”
“There are all these expectations of a child and you have to accept what you get through the genetic lottery. That spoke a lot to me because of the relationship with my father at the time and how it developed growing up,” he says. “It’s a very personal story to me.”
Staging Carousel has long been a dream of Loewith’s, who first thought about putting up “the greatest musical of all time” when he was at a small theater in Chicago 15 years ago, but he knew that he didn’t have the resources or space to do it justice.
“I’ve always had ideas percolating about the story; some unusual and interesting stuff that I have pondered and I wanted to try,” he says. “What would have happened if indeed Billy and Julie would have had that son he sings about in the soliloquy? How would that have made things different? So much of the piece is what I call counterfactual; we may have seen a pair of happy lovers had Billy made different choices. Things like that always seemed very interesting to me.”
Without giving away any specific plot differences, Loewith admits he has done a few things that he hopes will give fans of Carousel something they might not have expected.
“It’s challenging and sexy and surprising,” he says. “I hope people don’t think about traditional productions of the show and movie and will be greatly and pleasantly surprised by what we do.”
For instance, the way the waltz is staged begins in an imagined fantasy world that didn’t come true because of the Billy’s choices and mistakes and crimes he committed.
“A lot of my ideas I started having when I was in Chicago,” he says. “I never wanted to do it with a big cast; I find it to be a beautiful, intimate love story, so it doesn’t need 25 dock workers or 20 women running around discussing clam bakes.”
What it does need, however, is a large orchestra, and Loewith made sure that Olney’s production will not disappoint in that regard.
“The score was written for a 40-piece orchestra. Last time, they did it here with 4 pieces and that doesn’t give you any of the richness that Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are designed to do,” he says. “We have the largest orchestra in the pit in Olney’s history”, referring to the 12 piece orchestra under the direction of award winning musical director Christopher Youstra.
In his two stars, Tally Sessions and Carey Rebecca Brown playing Billy and Julie, he cites both actors’ incredible emotional depth in addition to their vocal prowess.
Loewith is working with noted Broadway production designer Zachary G. Borovay (Rock of Ages, Evita), who has created projections on a scale the company has never done before. He’s also especially proud of the set design, which features a giant cosmic timepiece at its center.
“It really hammers home the idea of Carousel and this wheel of fate that spins you from one moment and decision to determine the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s really exciting to see that happening.”