The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel is being revived at the Arcola Theatre from June 18th. We recently caught up with some of the top talent involved in the production, director Luke Fredericks (LF) and designer Stewart Charlesworth (SC).
Between them they have set up their own production company, Morphic Graffiti, and have already enjoyed success reinterpreting classic musicals with a production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Union Theatre.
We put some questions to them about their new production of Carousel, and found out which songs they like best, the challenges of musical theatre, and how the lead parts came to be cast.
You’ve set up Morphic Graffiti. Tell us a bit about how the company came about and what the artistic vision is.
LF: Morphic Graffiti was formed back in 2011 when Stewart and I decided to create a company that was recognised for its “creativity, integrity and quality”. After many cups of coffee and meetings at the Royal Festival Hall we had drawn up a plan for the company and our own mission statement that has since become our own ‘bible’ to what we do. Our inaugural production was the musical Jekyll and Hyde at the Union Theatre back in 2012 and it led to working with the show’s lyricist Leslie Bricusse last year on The Revenge of Sherlock Holmes! Carousel is our third production since we started.
SC: Luke and I met as actors few years ago on the European Tour of The Rocky Horror Show and have been friends ever since. We both share a passion for, and similar views on theatre and, as Luke said, it just seemed to be the next logical step.
You’re presenting Carousel this month. Who decided on the title and why is the time right to revisit it?
SC: It has always been in my top 5 favourite musicals. The story, character, score: it’s just such a beautiful story. I have to say that when the opportunity arose for us to pursue this as a project, we sat and discussed it at length. People see it as a large musical, however when you strip it back, it’s really a stunning human piece with a rawness and an energy.
LF: Stewart first mentioned Carousel to me when we finished our second project and wanted to raise our level and move forwards with the company. We had been in contact with Bert Fink at Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals who had been to see our Sherlock production. We contacted Bert and I sat and read the script in one sitting and was hooked. The story of Carousel is timeless but steeped in traditional staging and assumptions on how it is performed. Being able to bring it forward sixty years and see these characters leap off the page with a renewed vigour, we both felt there was something new and exciting in an established piece that people will want to see.
You’re setting the show during the 1930s Great Depression in America. What is it about that period that supports your vision for the piece?
LF: Crikey, where do you start?! Researching the Great Depression and the post 1920s era in America has given us so much to play with within the story of Carousel. The world of carnival is hugely in decline after its boom at the turn of the twentieth century and its once successful proprietors are forced to turn to darker means to make money. Mill workers were going on strike against pay and working conditions and were being pushed to create more product and work longer hours. Finding a Billy and Julie who turn their back on their jobs in an era where work was scarce and sought after resonates greatly. Enoch Snow is the only visionary able to see beyond the immediate economic crash and think of building up a business slowly, and from scratch. We are also in the era of prohibition, with illegal bootlegging of liquor up and down the New England coast, transporting it on whaling ships and avoiding the law at all costs. It sits beautifully as a backdrop and has informed the work so much.
Stewart, what challenges has the setting presented to you from a design point of view? Anything you’ve especially relished?
SC: This show has always been considered a “big” show. There were certainly one or two raised eyebrows when we told people what we were planning, but, I think this version will allow the story to really shine through. Arcola is an amazing space full of industrial texture, and so I used that as an inspiration for the design. The Arcola also has no wing space and is so far removed from a traditional theatre that any idea had to be turned upside down and rethought in order to make it work. The production design revolves around cloths and ropes that fly around the space, and so planning all that has been an interesting challenge for our Production Manager and me. I think designing any production that is so well known and much loved as Carousel is always going to be a challenge, that’s why I’ve enjoyed this process of re-imagining so much. Then of course there’s the huge thing of that massive Carousel turning…
Luke, what do you enjoy about directing musical theatre, and why do you think Rodgers and Hammerstein are so highly regarded?
Directing Musical Theatre is a challenge and I love a challenge! For me, I relish making a scene flow from dialogue into song and then working with a choreographer (I can’t dance to save my life!!) so that they can take the story and bring that through into dance. The best bit is working with passionate people and having fun in the rehearsal room and in production meetings to make the best decisions for the show. I don’t profess to knowing the right answers (ask the cast of Carousel! – I sometimes get a bit carried away!) but finding the answer that works for the group of people that I am working with is exhilarating!
As for Rodgers and Hammerstein, I equally hold them in high regard. We have talked a lot in rehearsals about why these ‘classic’ musicals have that title. They are held in such high esteem and many regard them as the greatest examples of Musical Theatre. What is apparent is the detail in the music and lyrics that informs so many character choices. We drew the parallel with doing Shakespeare – in the sense (before Shakespeare experts clutch their complete works!) that everything is there, in the material and this is always the starting point for decisions and moments that we are creating. Working through the music with our MD Andrew Corcoran, so much detail is written on the score that we take into the work on stage.
Carousel is famous for the song You’ll Never Walk Alone, which has taken on a life of its own as a football anthem. Will singing along be encouraged?
SC: Well, if we can have “Singalong a Sound of Music”….!
LF: Maybe if England win at their World Cup Matches! In all seriousness though, the song is beautiful and so poignant both in context of the show and its resonance with Liverpool FC. I think most people have cried at that number in rehearsals…. Except me !
Do you both have favourite musical numbers is Carousel?
LF: Too many to choose from and knowing how brilliant the cast is, it is difficult to choose a favourite. However, I have always loved If I Loved You and will admit that when Gemma (Julie) and Tim (Billy) sing it, I choke up! It is stunning.
SC: I would have to agree with Luke on this one. There are so many amazing moments and songs in this production. However, I have a soft spot for June is Bustin’ Out All Over and the Ballet is just incredible!
What can we expect from the new acoustic orchestration by Mark Cumberland?
LF: Something rather special. The line up for our band includes a harp that was a massive feature of the original 1945 production. This acoustic version brings the beauty of the music out and the plight of the characters very close to the audience. It is an intimate production that is going to pluck at everyone’s own heart strings!
What makes the Arcola Theatre the right choice for the production?
SC: The Arcola is an amazing space and with the audience on three sides, is an intimate space where no one can hide. We are very lucky that the Arcola allowed us to stage this production there. With an amazing reputation for mostly presenting plays and new work, they are very specific about which musicals they choose to present (they presented a massively successful revival of Sweet Smell of Success).
We really enjoyed Gemma Sutton’s performance in Drunk at the Bridewell. What did she bring that won her the role of Julie Jordan?
LF: We were overwhelmed by the calibre of people that showed interest in being a part of Carousel. Gemma came to see us and with the angle that we were taking this production, ticked all the boxes that we could wish for in a Julie Jordan. I won’t give away too much about Gemma’s Julie, (you will have to come see it!) but as well as being a gorgeous person to work with in a rehearsal room, Gemma is a wonderful actress and singer too and draws you in from the minute she walks on stage. Our entire cast are genuinely incredible and a privilege to work with.
You’ve worked with Tim Rogers before. Why did he spring to mind for the part of Billy Bigelow?
LF: Tim actually mentioned to us about coming to audition when we saw him at a cabaret he was performing in. Tim was a sensational Dr Jekyll for us when we did Jekyll and Hyde and we knew he had the acting and vocal chops for the role. Rehearsing with Tim is brilliant. He is constantly pushing himself and the role. His Billy Bigelow is dangerous, sensitive and wonderfully complex.
What are the future ambitions for Morphic Graffiti?
LF: To keep on growing as a company, create wonderful, detailed work, continue working with incredible, passionate people and build on our reputation. We hope audiences will love Carousel as much as we have loved putting it together.
Carousel runs at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston from June 18th to July 19th. You can book tickets to see the show through the Arcola Theatre website.