In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review Classic Stage Company’s revival of Carmen Jones. Here’s an excerpt.
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The history of the Broadway musical in the Forties is in essence the story of Oscar Hammerstein II. After going for 11 anxious years without a hit, Hammerstein finally teamed up with Richard Rodgers. The duo then knocked out “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” back to back, and Hammerstein spent the rest of his life counting money. Yet he also scored another hit in between those two legendary smashes, this one without Rodgers: “Carmen Jones,” an all-black modern-dress version of Georges Bizet’s much-loved opera, came to Broadway in 1943, ran there for 503 performances, toured the country, and was turned a decade later into an equally popular film. No opera has had a longer Broadway run. But “Carmen Jones” dropped out of sight after Otto Preminger’s screen version opened in 1952, and Classic Stage Company’s slimmed-down new revival, directed by John Doyle, is its first New York staging of any consequence since the original production. The result is a major find, a show that deserves to return to Broadway and will surely end up there.
So what happened to “Carmen Jones” in the meantime? It came to be regarded as a racially condescending period piece. James Baldwin famously roasted Preminger’s film version, dismissing it as “tasteless and vulgar…ludicrously false and affected” in a 1955 Commentary essay that was long taken to be the last word on Hammerstein’s transformation of Bizet’s opera into a tale of love and death in a World War II parachute factory….
All credit, then, belongs to Mr. Doyle for realizing that Hammerstein’s English-language adaptation of the most popular of all 19th-century operas, far from being condescending, is in fact a completely straightforward translation of Bizet’s opera into contemporary terms….
As for Mr. Doyle’s small-scale staging, performed by a cast of 10 and accompanied by a six-piece band, it is simple, subtle and wonderfully lucid, and features a performance of the title role by Anika Noni Rose for which the word “hot” is a wan understatement. No doubt you could strike matches off Ms. Rose’s blood-red dress, but you wouldn’t need to: They’d probably burst into flame all by themselves….
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Read the whole thing here.
Simon Callow talks about his 1990 Old Vic revival of Carmen Jones: