Carousel, by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Opera North
May 2012

Ferenc Molnár, author of Liliom, on which Carousel is based, was said to have turned down two composers who had previously proposed making musical versions of the play: Giacomo Puccini (who changed his mind and wrote Turandot instead) and Kurt Weill. No wonder Rodgers and Hammerstein were nervous when he turned up in the stalls for the first run-through. As Rodgers remembered: 'There in the back of the theatre, his coat draped round his shoulders and a monocle stuck in his right eye, sat Ferenc Molnár. I was terrified. We both began to sweat. Nothing looked or sounded right that afternoon. Whatever we saw was through Molnár's haughty gaze; whatever we heard was through his disapproving ears … I was certain he would hate our new ending. In order to give the story some measure of hope we'd changed the last scene … This so completely altered the spirit of the original that we awaited a humiliating dressing down. We walked to the back of the theatre … Molnár opened his mouth and the monocle popped out of his eye. "What you have done," he said, "is so beautiful. And do you know what I like best? The ending!" It was better than a rave notice in The Times.'

It is not so surprising that Molnár was happy with the way Carousel transformed and gave further life to his play, given the fact that Liliom was such a resounding flop when it was first staged in Budapest in 1909 that its author thought it wouldn't survive at all, let alone become a runaway success. Plays, operas and musicals often have unlikely beginnings and this one started as a newspaper article, completed in a frantic rush, up against a deadline, when inspiration threatened to fail entirely. Molnár, before the age of 30, had written a successful novel and two plays, one of which, The Devil, had been performed all over Europe and in America. Despite this, he hung on to the day job, writing a weekly column for the newspaper Pesti Napló. Scraping the barrel for subject matter one week he came up with a piece about Budapest's amusement park, where barkers drummed up trade for the rides with a virtuoso stream of coaxing invective, by turns taunting and flirting with the girls who came to spend what they could spare from their hard-earned wages.

Something about the subject stuck with Molnár and he decided to turn it into a play. His grandson, Mátyás Sárközi, considered that he drew deeply on his own experiences to create the character of Liliom, who becomes Billy Bigelow in Carousel. At the time he wrote the play, Molnár's first marriage was failing miserably. He and his young wife had violent quarrels and he was known to have lashed out and hit her on more than one occasion. Liliom is perhaps an attempt by the author to reveal the goodness struggling through in a man for whom blows come more easily than words, who finds it impossible to express love, who constantly does the wrong thing for the right, if muddled, motives.

Audiences in 1909 must have been confused by the combination of the natural and the supernatural in the play, by the way in which a gritty reality was presented to them only to give way to a scene in which the hero is killed off, taken up to heaven to be judged and then allowed back to earth for one day in which he has the opportunity to redeem himself. Ten years later, when the play was revived, after the First World War, that mixture must somehow have become more acceptable and, in a way, comprehensible.

The pattern of initial failure followed by success repeated itself in London, where a version of Liliom, misleadingly retitled The Daisy, was presented in 1920 and closed after only 15 performances. In 1926, in a new translation by Benjamin Glazer, it did much better, despite the unlikely casting of those exquisitely refined actors Ivor Novello and Fay Compton in the lead roles, and the scathing criticism of James Agate, the most influential theatre critic of the day. For Agate the play was 'pure highbrow gammon' and Liliom, who should have been a 'hulking brute', unable to explain himself, was presented by Novello with 'aquiline grace and Latin effrontery', who 'could have explained anything and everything from Lord Beaverbook's politics to the esoteric mystery of the Black Bottom', a 'public school Adonis with fastidious intonation'. Fay Compton, far from being an 'untutored servant wench with thick, strong arms' was 'a drawing-room ornament' of 'saccharine sophistication'. In Agate's opinion, to introduce 'modish wistfulness' into a treatment of Molnár's 'naïve, earth-bound fairy story' was to do the author 'the greatest possible violence'.

Despite this, the play did well in London and went on to be produced on Broadway in 1921, running for 300 performances. It was the 1940 revival, with Burgess Meredith as Liliom and Ingrid Bergman as Julie that was seen by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, although they did not at first consider it a likely candidate for musical treatment.

Before that, however, in 1934, Fritz Lang, having left Germany for Paris before eventually settling in the USA, made a film version of Liliom. Again, it was neither a critical success nor an instant hit with the public and the French clergy rejected it out of hand for its 'anti-Catholic' notions. The critics disliked in particular what they saw as Lang's heavy-handedness. It was 'trop boche', it was 'stolid, ponderous and absurd' and the French actors Charles Boyer and Madeleine Ozeray were overwhelmed by 'a wave of German thoroughness and bitter earnestness'. It was the only film Lang was ever to direct in France and, despite its reception, remained his favourite out of all his films.

It was finding the right place to set their version of Liliom that finally put Rodgers and Hammerstein firmly on the path to writing Carousel. The first idea was to move the action from Budapest to New Orleans but that would have brought with it the problem of how much to incorporate the local Creole dialect and whether that would communicate to audiences. Eventually, Rodgers, who had a house in Connecticut, suggested that a coastal setting in New England might work and Hammerstein agreed. As he described it, 'I began to see an attractive ensemble – sailors, whalers, girls who worked in the mills up the river, clambakes on nearby islands, an amusement park on the seaboard, things people could do in crowds, people who were strong and alive and lusty. As for the two leading characters, Julie with her courage and inner strength and outward simplicity seemed more indigenous to Maine than Budapest. Liliom [Billy] is, of course, an international character, indigenous to nowhere.'

A number that hadn't found a place in Oklahoma! fitted seamlessly into Carousel – 'This was a real nice hay ride' reappeared as 'This was a real nice clam bake' but everything else was new and freshly minted. The homely sunniness that is somehow an intrinsic feature of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work survived, despite the darkness of a story in which one of the main characters is violent and unpredictable and dies halfway through. Redemption for Billy and a life-affirming final chorus of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' replaced Molnár's bleaker finish, in which Liliom strikes his daughter and is deemed by his heavenly judges to have failed again. Fortunately, as Richard Rodgers related, Molnár clearly saw the reasons for this change and endorsed it wholeheartedly.