Book review: Round in Circles – the story of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

A fascinating in-depth look in at one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s enduring musicals, Carousel, Barry Kester’s book is surely the last word of the evolution of this show.

Utilising papers from both composer and lyricist, plus original research, interviews, and reflections on past and future productions, Kester’s book is both scholarly in scope and accessible in tone.

I’ve always found Carousel (and the play on which it is based, Liliom, by Molnár) to be a fascinating piece of work, with its circus folk and mill-workers, and an unsympathetic ‘hero’.

Kester notes the need to revisit the problematic areas of Carousel, issues relating to domestic violence and extreme poverty, and although this book was completed before the 2021 Regent’s Park production, it includes an interview with its director Timothy Sheader.

Also of interest are the mechanics of creating a musical and how Carousel evolved through early drafts and lyrical changes. Hammerstein was a meticulous recorder of his process, and his papers are generously quoted. The way in which Round in Circles peeks into the writing mechanics of this pair is lovingly detailed.

Kester’s book argues that classic musicals do not need to be presented as originally written and directed to remain relevant. Using the National Theatre’s production by Nicholas Hytner in 1992 as an example, he demonstrates how a text can be reinterpreted for contemporary audiences to enjoy.

I always enjoy books which focus on one production, whatever the angle taken. Here, it is more about the evolution, the history, and the process than the backstage shenanigans of the first or subsequent showings of Carousel. It is essential reading for musical fans whether you appreciate this show or not.

You can now purchase Round in Circles: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel by Barry Kester from the usual booksellers or direct from the publisher, i2i Publishing. You can also follow Kester’s blog here.