1. The show had an all-black cast
Starring Murial Smith in the eponymous role, this all black cast production sets the story of doomed lovers during World War II in Chicago. The original opera is set in Seville, Spain in 1820. We go from Bizets’ tobacco factor to Hammerstein’s parachute factory where Carmen Jones is a parachute maker and Joe is the Air Force man she seduces and later rejects.
2. The famous film adaptation was produced independently
Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge star in the hit film adaptation of Carmen Jones that hit cinemas in 1954. Otto Preminger saw the musical adaptation and was not a fan of it, but agreed that it had potential for the screen. He saw many
failings in Hammerstein and Bizet’s renditions of the story and, instead, utilized the book that Bizet adapted as his source – Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen. Preminger produced the film independently since no-one would get on board with an all-black cast musical film. He even submitted the new script to the NAACP to receive their approval. Originally, Dandridge had doubts about her ability to play Carmen and backed out at the last minute. Otto went to her home to convince her otherwise (which he obviously succeed in doing), and the two became lovers. Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, but she lost to Grace Kelly.
3. Bizet’s original music was maintained
Hammerstein translated the French opera into English and kept the majority of the songs Bizet wrote. Of course they were adapted to fit the background of the African American community in Chicago in the 40’s. Parle-moi de ma mère became “You Talk Just like My Maw” – for those of you who know French, that’s a pretty accurate translation. The exquisite Toreador song (only one of the most famous opera songs) became “Stan’ Up and Fight,” and the iconic “Habenera” sung by Carmen became “Dat’s Love”:
4. Only one member of the original Broadway cast was a trained actor
Can you imagine coming to your first day of rehearsal for a Broadway show and finding out that none of the other cast has ever been on stage before? That’s what Murial Smith encountered during the first production of Carmen Jones. The director certainly had his work cut out for him!
5. Singers Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge were dubbed in the film!
You may be familiar with Harry Belafonte’s famous calypso songs (see: Beetlejuice), and we all know the man can sing! So who knows why the creative team behind the Carmen Jones decided to dub his singing voice with LeVern Hutcherson’s. Dorothy, too, was a popular singer in the 40’s, but they chose Marilyn Horne to carry the tunes. I’d love to hear how the two stars would have sang the numbers.
Check out the trailer for the 1954 film here: