SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Carousel" has opened on Broadway. The Rodgers & Hammerstein 1945 musical about an ill-starred romance between a carousing carousel barker and the mill worker who falls for him. Jack O'Brien has directed this revival, the first on Broadway in almost 25 years. Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry are drawing raves as the young lovers. And playing the role of Nettie Fowler, who sings two of the show's signature showstoppers - in a show that has so many - is Renee Fleming, the signature American soprano, National Medal of Arts winner and the only opera star to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Super Bowl. Renee Fleming joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
RENEE FLEMING: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: And we got a note, as a lot of the reviews have. There's an especially resonant message here in these times because Billy Bigelow, the carousel barker, hits Julie Jordan.
SIMON: Now it's not your character. But - so why does Julie stay with a man like that?
FLEMING: Well, he also hits his daughter Louise. So there's domestic abuse in the show. There's also suicide in this show. And Julie stays with him - well, you know, it's sort of presented as it's because she loves him. And this goes back to a time when "Stand By Your Man" was a hit, when - oh, my man, I love him so. This was a kind of thinking in that time. You made your bed. You lie in it. I remember all of these phrases from my childhood as something that we kind of accepted.
And nowadays, I think it's fair to say that this is a man who has lost his job. He struggles. He is not able to find his way. He has no dignity. And she is dependent. They're both living with me - with my character Nettie. And, you know, it's one of those challenges that people face every day. It's worth discussing because it still exists. And some people feel that they don't have a way out. They don't have a great alternative. And so they end up staying.
SIMON: Let me ask you about your two showstoppers - "June Is Bustin' Out All Over." I have to tell you this is not - in a great show, this was - until the other night - and I saw you sing it - heard you sing it - this was not one of my favorites. But there was something - you know, this prolonged winter in April for most of the country. And I think this song just drilled through to me for the very first time.
FLEMING: Oh, I'm so happy to hear that.
SIMON: So is it a song about June or a time of life - time of the seasons?
FLEMING: Well, I think it's - June actually is sort of a euphemism in this production for romance and for people coming together.
SIMON: And romance is kind of a euphemism to for...
FLEMING: Exactly. For June - right (laughter) - spring, you know. For me, the song is absolute joy. It's 100 percent joy. I love doing it. And, you know, I'm like you. I wouldn't have expected to enjoy it as much as I do. And I absolutely love it. It's like a shot of adrenaline.
SIMON: Yeah. It was terrific. And then, of course, "You'll Never Walk Alone" - you sang this at the Obama inauguration too, didn't you?
FLEMING: Yes, and also the 9/11 memorial a year after the attacks. It is one of those iconic pieces that people know and don't even realize it comes from a musical. It's kind of like "Amazing Grace" or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It's just - it has a life much bigger than its original intention. And it's about resilience and hope in the face of darkness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE")
FLEMING: (Singing) When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high...
SIMON: You must know how much hope this song has given probably millions of people over the years.
FLEMING: You know, I've gotten so many letters from people who've said, you know, this was my, you know, father's favorite song. We've played it at multiple funerals. It got me through this particularly dark time. And I've always appreciated that. But I have to say. Singing it in the context of the show adds a much deeper meaning because this is a shocking tragedy that befalls certainly Julie but also the entire town when this young man takes his own life. And she is the one that everyone turns to - and especially Julie turns to when she has to find the words to make her understand that there will be a future for her unborn child.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE")
FLEMING: (Singing) Walk on. Walk on with hope in your heart...
SIMON: When did you realize that you had that voice?
FLEMING: Very late, I have to say. I knew I had musicianship and certainly a work ethic and a desire to succeed. I was hoping to have a career based on some of those other qualities and then finally one review said, hey, Renee Fleming has a beautiful voice. And I brought it triumphantly into my voice teacher's studio and said, look. Look. Somebody thinks I have a nice voice.
SIMON: So there wasn't a moment when you were - I'm just going to guess - 9 or 11 or 13 when somebody said, oh, Fleming, you take this.
FLEMING: I don't recall that. On the other hand, you know, certainly, my social success came from singing, you know, whether - by the way, I sang "My Fair Lady" twice in seventh grade and 11th grade. And you know...
SIMON: You were Eliza.
FLEMING: Exactly - Eliza Doolittle. And then in college, it was really more through jazz - but always something about music and singing that kind of made me feel like I had a place in the world. Especially as a very shy person, it helped me a great deal. And then ultimately I kind of just kept going step by step.
SIMON: How is being on Broadway different than, say, the Met or La Scala?
FLEMING: You know, I thought that it would be - you know, the biggest thing would be the eight shows a week, which is a tremendous difference. I mean, you know, we are the Hothouse Flowers of singers in opera and in classical music. And that's because we're not amplified. So we'll perform typically twice a week. And we need those days off for recovery. But because on Broadway we're amplified, it's a less athletic style of singing - or more athletic sometimes for people who belt and who have to do things that are so challenging that the amplification makes it possible. And I have to say, I'm loving it. I'm home for the first time in my adult life for a period of months and the better part of a year. And I'm really enjoying that.
SIMON: Renee Fleming in "Carousel" on Broadway. Thanks so much for being with us.
FLEMING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.