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An Exclusive Interview With Jack O'Brien And Justin Peck

Broadway Inbound

Seventy-three years after it was first produced, Rogers and Hammerstein’s beloved classic Carousel is back on Broadway. We sat down with director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Justin Peck to find out more about this new staging of a timeless classic.


BROADWAY INBOUND: Carousel was originally produced in 1954. What makes the show so timeless?
JACK O’BRIEN: I think Steve Sondheim said it best: “Oklahoma! was about who gets a picnic basket… Carousel is about life and death.” I think I have that right? The musical stands on the immutable shoulders of a great European classic play, Lilliom, which has haunted audiences and critics for generations, but has the grit to never to be denied dramatically… It gave [Rogers and Hammerstein] an enormous canvas upon which to create, and create they did! Almost beyond the world’s expectations—they managed to eclipse the original work with their musical passion.
JUSTIN PECK: It’s one of the greatest American scores ever written. It’s also a magnificent representation of a golden-age musical that still resonates with audiences today.

BI: How did the rehearsal process for this show differ from other shows you’ve worked on? What was the impact of that?
For one thing, given that Scott Rudin wanted the brilliant new choreographer Justin Peck to create the dance life for the show, we were afforded considerable pre-production time and resources to explore just what an extended carpet of dance might mean and offer to the show itself. Being, as it has been, so long dominated by the individual brilliance of Agnes de Mille, this was bound to be a crucial addition of both impetus and vocabulary to a story that had long been in a kind of creative lock-down. So Justin and I were able to align our ideas, our enthusiasms and our vision over a series of months and events. This gave us great confidence in taking the chances we took.

BI: Justin, you usually work with the New York City Ballet. How is choreographing for Carousel different than choreographing for the ballet? Are there any challenges? Similarities?
The major differences are in scale. When I create a ballet for New York City Ballet, it usually takes me about 6 weeks and rarely incorporates any major scenic elements. The style is typically more stripped-down, focusing on the interrelationship between music and movement, and (usually) around a 30-minute running time. For a musical like Carousel, the scale is enormous, and involves a large cast, major scenery, extensive costume design, a 2 1/2 hour running time, and collaborating with what feels like a small village! Both worlds offer great challenges and wonderful rewards, and I wholeheartedly love creating for both the ballet and the theatre.

BI: When working on a classic show like Carousel, how do you navigate between honoring the original material and reinventing it for this production?
I made sure to take a moment early-on in the process to watch the major choreographic versions of the show that have existed before me (Agnes De Mille, Kenneth Macmillan). Then, once I had completed that research, I never revisited the archival material again. I began to carve out my own vision for the production, and I'm proud to say that we are presenting a brand-new version that incorporates more movement than has ever been seen in a production of Carousel. Yet it still honors the pioneering artists who developed the show in the first place.  
JO: That is very tricky territory: Nothing remains as it once was… You cannot literally reconstruct “what was” and hope to make it live vitally. One can, however, look carefully at the past and the present and do one’s best to make the experience as relative as possible. You have to listen most carefully to what must be included, and what might be avoided. In the case of Carousel, the material is known to be incendiary, and our current political climate is especially sensitive, so we didn’t wish to add more conflict to a very delicate scenario, and spent hours discussing and mulling over the various cuts and/or additions. We felt necessary to be faithful to the piece itself without “rewriting” it.

BI: What do you like to do around New York City when you are not working? Favorite places to eat, shop, explore?
JP: I love spending time in the parks (Central Park, Riverside Park), seeing dance and theatre around town, and--most importantly!—taking advantage of NYC's infinite food scene! Some of my favorites are Union Square Cafe (a frequent hangout for the Carousel creative team), Ippudo, Los Mariscos, Roberta's, Txikito, Cafe China, the Fat Radish, Badshah, and Momofuku Ssam Bar.
JO: I eat museums for breakfast… Just to sit before “Water Lilies” as MOMA, for example, is to take in a mini-vacation of consequence.

BI: We hope visitors to New York will see as many shows as possible, but if they can only see one show, why should they see Carousel?
JP: Carousel is the quintessential musical experience. It’s a timeless masterpiece of the form, and a great representation of a show that ties together incredible orchestral music, lyrical singing, big ensemble dance numbers, and a fascinating storyline that explores the extraordinary range of the human condition. 
JO: Carousel is endemic to us and to our culture. There are monuments in our history that define who we were and who we’ve become. The works of Miller, Williams, Sondheim, and yes, Rogers and Hammerstein are charts of creative DNA as specific as anything coursing through our veins. The last major revival was 23 years ago. When again comes such another? I’d book today!

A huge thank you to both Jack O’Brien and Justin Peck. This incredible new production of Carousel is not to be missed—click on the show page link below to book your tickets now!

Author: Christine Nyland