A new spin on ‘Carousel’: Conn College sets the musical in New London and explores a problem relationship

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When Connecticut College stages “Carousel” this weekend, it will be a very big show — a cast of 18 and an orchestra of 42.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” says David Jaffe, the Conn College theater department chair who is directing the musical.

It’s an intriguing undertaking, too, in a number of ways — from how the production is handling the abusive relationship between two lead characters, to imagining the story taking place in 1950s New London.

A little background: the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” was selected last spring by a student-faculty committee that chooses material for the following year. Every other year, the music department’s orchestra is involved, so it becomes a larger enterprise.

The student performers wanted to do a classic piece. And a large number of faculty members were available to work on it — Jaffe directing, David Dorfman choreographing, Mark Seto conducting the orchestra, Wendy Moy serving as vocal director, and Sabrina Notarfrancisco designing the costumes.

The students hadn’t done a Rodgers and Hammerstein piece, and the suggestion of “Carousel” arose.

Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted the “Carousel” story from Ferenc Molnar’s play “Liliom.” The musical, which premiered in 1945, pivots on the ill-fated romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan that unfolds during the late 1800s in Maine.

Jaffe had read that Richard Rodgers had lived in southwestern Connecticut when he was working on “Carousel.” The composer had visualized an idyllic whaling village off the coast of Maine as the setting. That all spurred an alternate vision from Jaffe.

“I imagined in my mind that actually he was really thinking about New London. He’s from Connecticut. I know the history of New London, that there were times where it was a real resort area, a destination, and then it falls on hard times. The world of this musical is people who are more on the fringes of society,” he says.

He began thinking about Ocean Beach — and that the titular carousel could easily be part of Ocean Beach Park in its 1950s heyday.

With these ideas swirling around, Jaffe contacted Ted Chapin, who’s the executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation, which holds the rights to the duo’s works. Chapin also happens to be a Connecticut College alum and a former trustee, and Jaffe has known him since 1978.

Jaffe says, “I talked to him about the possibility of taking it away from the original setting, which is 1880s Maine, and bringing it up to post-World War II at Ocean Beach. This can’t really be explicit. There’s no mention in the text of that town in Maine where it was set, but there’s dialect they use, and there’s a reference to Bangor, Maine, so we changed that reference to Bridgeport. We decided the world of this play is Ocean Beach Park and the environs of New London.”

Indeed, the set pulls from Ocean Beach Park — literally. Designer Edward Morris, who is an adjunct assistant professor at Conn, went to look at the site. He says he was struck by the park’s picnic tables, which had been piled up together in a post-season “sea of picnic tables.” He envisioned creating a minimalist set out of them.

The production got the okay from Ocean Beach’s Dave Sugrue to borrow those tables. Morris says they’ll be repositioned for different scenes; for one sequence, for instance, three of the tables will be turned on their sides and lined up to create the image of a six-foot fence.

During a recent rehearsal in the Tansill Theater, four of those picnic tables were serving their purposes. When the character of Jigger (played by George Grotheer) tried to cajole Carrie (Eva Murphy) into giving him a kiss, Grotheer leaned and lolled on the table top. At one point, when the rehearsal moved from one scene to the next, two actors each pick up a side of one table and toted it to a different point on the floor and angled it just so for the next sequence.

Oh, and another New London homage? This “Carousel” has morphed the name of a clam joint run by character Nettie into Nettie’s Shanty, as a nod to Fred’s Shanty.

While the New London setting is a fun twist, “Carousel” has darkness to it, too. It has some complicated matters to explore, particularly in the form of the central relationship. When “Carousel” came up as a possible production for Conn College, Jaffe says, “The immediate issue there is, well, wait a minute. This is the troublesome musical, right? Because it’s got an abusive relationship at the center of it.”

Because of that marriage between Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, the “Carousel” team has worked with Safe Futures, the New London-based organization that helps people who have been affected by domestic violence, and Melva O’Neill, who is Safe Futures’ community engagement coordinator. They have worked as well with Darcie Folsom, Conn College’s director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy.

“We’re learning about that world. We’re acknowledging the troublesome issues of the play head on and are saying, ‘These are complex relationships. Let’s see if we can learn about them,’” Jaffe says.

He goes on to say, “The central question of both the abusive relationship and the datedness of the gender roles has been a real issue. The campus is very alert to these issues. There’s a lot of involvement and awareness of these issues so there was a lot of concern. Our goal in terms of our leadership is to say, look, that’s a reason for doing it. Theater can show us the complexities of life and say, ‘Let’s look at it and let’s talk about it.’”

Indeed, Maggie D’Aprix, a junior who’s serving as the show’s dramaturg along with senior Rachel Maddox, says the students working on “Carousel” have had substantive discussions about the relationship between Julie and Billy. D’Aprix noted that a lot of college students are having their first long-term relationships, and some of them have experienced, or have seen their friends experiencing, a relationship where they’re not being treated well.

The major incendiary line in “Carousel” is spoken after the ghost of Billy returns and tries to give daughter Louise a star. She refuses, and he hits her. Louise then asks her mother if it’s possible for someone to hit you hard and it not hurt at all. Julie replies, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you real hard and it not hurt at all.”

Ted Chapin told Jaffe that a London production of “Carousel” altered the dialogue so that, instead of Julie responding, Billy did instead, telling his daughter, “No, dear, it’s not possible.” The Conn College production, meanwhile, was granted the special rights for small text changes based on Chapin’s longstanding relationship with the school as an alumnus and former trustee and his support of the theater department.

The people involved with the Conn show talked through that scene during rehearsal. Some thought Julie should say what she did in the original version because it represented what someone trapped in an abusive relationship might say. But, ultimately, the decision was made to have Julie say, “No, dear, it’s not possible for someone to hit you real hard and it not hurt at all.”

The idea is that Julie, 17 years later, now sees that relationship in a different light. Billy’s ghost hears what she says and now, too, understands things more deeply.

The Conn production has added a framing device solely through staging in which Louise is about a decade beyond her high school graduation, and she is looking back on these events and trying to figure out the true story of her parents’ troubled relationship.

Jaffe says, “Quite frankly, these kind of relationships exist now. They’re not dated. The complexities of being in a relationship where you love someone and they are abusive is something that I think our students can identify with and the communities around us can identify with. As long as we are transparent about it and we confront and question and talk through and discuss, then we make it a learning experience.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Carousel”

Where: Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, Mohegan Avenue, New London

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $15 general admission, $8 for students, military and seniors

Contact: (860) 439-ARTS

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