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ClassicsOnline Home » BIZET, G.: Carmen Jones (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (1943) / Carmen Jones (1954 Film Soundtrack) (excerpts)
Music of Georges Bizet • Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Original Broadway Cast 1943 • Film Soundtrack 1954 (excerpts)
Although the tragic story of Carmen may show the perils of following your natural instincts too passionately, the musical Carmen Jones demonstrates the rewards of just such a path. When Oscar Hammerstein II sat pensively at his farm in Doylestown, Pa. in January 1942, his thoughts must have turned to the non-stop string of flops he had endured in New York, Hollywood and London over the past decade. Because not since 1932’s Music in the Air had the once triumphant lyricist behind Show Boat written anything that had met with favour from the critics or the public. As Hammerstein himself later put it, “After going through such disappointment trying to write what I thought the public wanted, I decided to write something just for myself”.
Hammerstein had been a lifelong opera fan and as far back as 1934, after witnessing a concert version of Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl, had suggested to MGM that it might make a smashing film. It only took twenty years for that to happen.
As Hammerstein slowly set to work that long, snowy winter, he was driven by his secret belief that opera could reach a much larger audience if it could only make sense to them. He felt that the artificial style of most productions of the time and the archaic translations that were employed stood in the way of their success. He came by his operatic passion honestly, because his grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, had devoted his life to the cause of popularizing opera and had spent several fortunes opening a series of eleven opera houses and going head to head in a war with the Metropolitan Opera. And now his grandson was willing to pick up where he had left off, listening to a recording of Carmen from La Scala over and over until he knew it by heart.
Hammerstein’s next choice was where to situate his adaptation. In a flash of inspiration, he realized that the blacks in the southern states of America had a unique culture, distinctive dialect and oppressive set of social problems, just like the gypsies in the original Carmen. America had just joined the Second World War the previous month and Hammerstein also realized the current wartime climate would perfectly mirror that of Spain in the period of Carmen. So the cigarette factory in Seville of the original was now transformed into a South Carolina parachute factory. Instead of Escamillo, the star bull-fighter, we now had Husky Miller, a prize fighting champ. The Spanish career soldier Don Jose became Joe, a black corporal in the U. S. Army. And Carmen? She became Carmen Jones, the same seductive outcast who would dance her way into any man’s heart and leave destruction behind.
Hammerstein went for his structure directly to the libretto of the original 1875 opera by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, which in turn was based on the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée. He later called it “a model of musical drama architecture” and only made slight changes to the basic plot and structure.
With over 65 years of distance bringing changing times and attitudes, some of Hammerstein’s lyrics for the black characters in the work may now seem contrived (“Love ain’ nobody’s angel child” in Dat’s Love, his version of the famous “Habanera”), but there are sequences such as Stand Up and Fight (Hammerstein’s answer to the “Toreador Song”) which still ring sound and true.
It took Hammerstein about seven months to complete his adaptation and shortly after finishing, he was united by the Theatre Guild with Richard Rodgers to start a new partnership and begin work on the musical version of Green Grow the Lilacs called Oklahoma! which would make theatre history. Elegant Broadway producer Gilbert Miller announced he would bring Carmen Jones to the stage late in 1942, but his funding fell through and no one else stepped in to fill the breach. Although disappointed, Hammerstein didn’t mind unduly, because he was deeply immersed in the new project with Rodgers. And after Oklahoma! became a giant hit following its opening on 31 March 1943, Hammerstein would find that anything he had touched suddenly became more attractive. The extravagant impresario Billy Rose got a copy of the script from Hammerstein, who held little hope that the man who specialized in aquacades and zany revues would enjoy the work.
What Hammerstein didn’t know was that Rose had a mother who adored opera and she had sung Carmen to him all during his childhood. When Rose finished reading the script, he called up Hammerstein and said “You’ve written the freshest musical anyone wrote and I want to produce it”. But easier said than done. The work called for a cast of over a hundred black singers capable of handling a score of operatic magnitude. Hammerstein enlisted the help of jazz expert John Hammond Jr who had deep ties within the black community and he found the cast heard on this original cast recording in some very unlikely places. Muriel Smith, the seductive Carmen Jones herself, was working in a photographic developing lab. Luther Saxon, the heartfelt Joe, was labouring in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Glenn Bryant, the powerful Husky Miller, took a leave of absence from his regular job with the New York Police Department to work on the show. Hassard Short, the veteran of many spectacular Broadway shows, came in to do the staging, aided greatly by the sensual choreography of Eugene Loring and the bold costumes of Raoul Pene du Bois which “colour-coded” every scene.
When the show opened on Broadway on 2 December 1943, the critics were unanimous in their praise, with Hobe Morrison of Variety capturing the tone best when he said that Hammerstein was at “the peak of his career”, and although not rivaling Oklahoma!, Carmen Jones still ran for an impressive 503 performances on Broadway. In an act still remembered to this day, Hammerstein chose the occasion of having two giant hits on Broadway to express himself with customary modesty. Placing an ad in the year-end edition of Variety, he didn’t mention his triumphs, but instead listed all of the flops he had created in the previous decade, following them with the line, “I’ve done it before and I can do it again!”
The original cast recording can’t capture the visual splendour of the production and—as noted before—some of the lyrics may now dwell uneasily in the land of appropriated racial voice, but the power of the overall vision, the thrilling voices and the splendid orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett still shine through. Also on this recording are five selections from the soundtrack of the 1954 film version, produced and directed by the tyrannical Otto Preminger. The filming process was a legendarily tempestuous one, especially between Preminger and his star, Dorothy Dandridge, who were having an affair during the shooting. As was the custom of the time, most of the voices in the film were dubbed, for those who couldn’t sing—Dandridge was voiced by a very young Marilyn Horne–and those who sang in a different style—Harry Belafonte subbed in for by LeVern Hutcherson who had played Joe in the 1946 revival. Dandridge and Belafonte can nevertheless be heard here speaking briefly in the final scene. Still coming through loud and clear and distinctive, however, is a decidedly undubbed Pearl Bailey, who makes Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum an exciting highlight.
Carmen Jones remains one of the most inventive and consistent attempts to modernize a classic opera and this recording stands as a solid reminder of its success.
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