There's an excellent documentary series on the history of Broadway musicals currently airing on PBS (check your local listings!) and when it inevitably got around to Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL I got to thinking. Compelling though it may be, CAROUSEL is a world class downer.
Let's look at the show for what it is: a Stanley Kowalski-esque carnival barker falls in love with and marries a pretty young millworker. Upon tying the knot the barker becomes physically abusive to his wife who continues to love him anyway. His violence gets worse and worse, and he returns to associating with the sordid local criminal element. Then his wife informs him that she is pregnant. The barker's tender nature is passionately expressed in song as he is empowered by the thought of having sired a boy, but he really gets gushy when he considers the possibility that his child may be a girl and immediately decides to get a lot of money — by any means available — to raise her with luxuries. When a robbery attempt goes horribly wrong, the barker commits suicide rather than face a life sentence (that was changed in the movie to him falling on his own knife while fleeing from a cop); skip ahead fifteen years and our "hero" is allowed to leave purgatory for one day to tie up any unfinished business, so he checks out what became of his wife and child. The wife has grown older in lonely misery and their child — a daughter — leads an even more miserable existence bearing the stigma of being a criminal's offspring. The wife can sense the barker's presence and pines for him, while the barker tries to inspire his daughter; that encounter leads to him slapping her in the face. Anyway, it all ends with the girl being a bit more self-assured, the wife is still miserable and the barker returns to purgatory.
Pass me the cyanide.
After CAROUSEL introduced the downer musical, many others followed with dark elements such as racial prejudice (SOUTH PACIFIC), prostitution (SWEET CHARITY), Nazism and decadent sexuality (CABARET), cannibalism (SWEENEY TODD), and even choreographed rape scenes (SWEENEY TODD again, and MAN OF La MANCHA). Yet while these elements render their respective shows edgier than most, they are still not as flat-out, stick-your-head-in-the-oven depressing as CAROUSEL. So what I wanna know is are their any musicals that can compete with it as a sheer tour de force tear-jerker? If any of you out there are experts on the history of Broadway shows please write in with your opinion on this.