It’s intriguing about Hugh Jackman and Fox 2000 planning to make another film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, with Jackman producing (with partner John Palermo) as well as playing the lead, Billy Bigelow. The original 1956 film version, directed by Henry King and starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, is kind of cornball but it has some great songs and a devastating final 20 minutes. Every time I watch it, I melt.
Bigelow is a Maine carnival barker and an ignorant thug who’s managed to charm and marry a local girl named Julie. Too proud to knuckle down and find a job, Bigelow is determined to make money when he learns Julie is pregnant. This leads to his falling on his knife and dying during a botched robbery. Stuck for 16 years in celestial purgatory, Bigelow is given a chance one day by the “manager” to return to earth and try and help out his daughter, who has a lot of the same attitude problems he had when alive. Bigelow’s initial efforts to provide guidance are crude and pathetic, but things finally kick in and his daughter seems to somehow hear him at the finale.
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom”, Carousel is the only Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that gets me because the dark tragic story balances the overly jubilant emotionality of their music. And that strange celestial plot line — a story of a loser who manages to show love and get his act together and help his child only after he’s dead — is affecting in some kind of deep-down way that I’ve never fully understood.
Jackman sang the Billy part in a 2002 Carnegie Hall concert to honor Rodgers & Hammerstein. He’ll have to be better than the hammy Macrae was in the older film. Frank Sinatra was initially signed to play Bigelow in the ’56 Carousel and went before the cameras for a couple days but abriuptly left the shoot when he realized he’d have to perform each scene twice — once for 35mm CinemaScope cameras, once for 70mm Todd AO cameras (i.e., the way Fred Zinneman’s Oklahoma was shot). And yet when MacRae was brought on to replace Sinatra, Carousel was filmed only in 35mm.
Sinatra’s cocky-Hoboken-thug personality would have probably made for a perfect Bigelow. He recorded most of his “Carousel” songs in the studio before shooting, and here’s his version of the famous “Soliloquy” number — the one with Bigelow dreaming and fretting about his unborn child.