Inside the Triumphant Broadway Return of Caroline, or Change

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Caroline or Change

When Caroline, or Change opened on Broadway in 2004, critics hailed its unique blend of personal history, gorgeous music, and a title role with the epic scale of Gypsy’s Mama Rose. Set in late 1963 and loosely based on librettist Tony Kushner’s childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the musical centers on an African American maid employed by a Jewish family. Sixteen years after its Main Stem debut, this groundbreaking show, featuring music by Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori, is headed back to Broadway in a triumphant revival led by Olivier Award winner Sharon D Clarke and directed by Michael Longhurst. Previews begin March 13 at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54.

“I’m excited, because this is very much the show we wrote, and yet very much its own vision,” Tesori says of the new production, which began in 2017 at England’s Chichester Festival before a sold-out West End run. “It doesn’t copy the original, which Tony and I loved — the original can’t be copied. But with the freedom of doing something the second time, Michael came to the material with such a hunger and such a joyous theatricality. He was able to sit with it, and then put what he heard on the stage. The capacity for joy in this production is quite wonderful.”

The many forms of “change” in Caroline, or Change are sparked by a seemingly benign lesson in thrift: Eight-year-old Noah Gellman’s stepmother, Rose, declares that any coins left in his pockets will be given to Caroline, who is raising three children (with an older son in Vietnam) on $30 a week. Noah resents Rose, a transplanted New Yorker, and idolizes Caroline. Meanwhile, the exhausted maid spends her days doing laundry in a blisteringly hot basement, only to return home to the disapproval of her feisty teenage daughter. Everyone on stage is changing, the country itself is changing, and Kushner’s sung-through lyrics capture the turmoil of 1963 in a way that feels utterly fresh in 2020.

“I wanted to write about race relations, the civil rights movement, and African Americans and Southern Jews in the early 1960s, a time of protean change sweeping the country — and to write about these things from the perspective of a small, somewhat isolated Southern town,” Kushner explained in his introduction to the musical’s printed text. To pull those threads together, Caroline would need to be a commanding presence. Originated by Tonya Pinkins, the role is being given transcendent new life by Sharon D Clarke in what Kushner calls “an unmissable performance.”

“She is a titanic figure,” Tesori says of the English singer and actress, who will make her Broadway debut in the show. “Her Caroline is very warm. You can feel the love for her children, you can feel the sacrifice, you can feel the anger — the spectrum is astonishing. And, again, because the material was set, Sharon was able to take a deep dive and approach it in a way that’s all her own.” In a happy coincidence, Clarke will share the Studio 54 stage with Frozen’s Caissie Levy as Rose Gellman; the actresses previously costarred in the 2011 London production of Ghost.

Tesori’s seamless Tony-nominated score flows from klezmer (during a Hanukkah scene) to gospel, blues, and Motown-flavored pop (for the singing appliances in the Gellman basement). “Tony had that idea from day one,” Tesori says of the sassy washing machine, dryer, and transistor radio, whose arias reflect Caroline’s shifting emotions. “When I was [a student] at Barnard,” she adds with a laugh, “there was a dryer that would hop across the laundry room during the spin cycle, so the dryer was the first appliance I wrote.”

The show’s musical styles vary to fit each character, including Noah’s father, a professional clarinetist; the deep-voiced city bus that takes Caroline to and from work; and even the moon shining above the bus stop. “Music itself is a character in the house,” explains Tesori, whose theatrical résumé includes Fun Home, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Violet, and the recent Off-Broadway hit Soft Power.

Kushner’s childhood memories inform every line and note in the show, which he has repeatedly called his favorite project ever. “Tony’s gift is that he is one of the great prescient writers,” Tesori says of the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Angels in America. “He’s a scholar of history, and sometimes what he writes has to wait for time to catch up. Caroline was of its time, and yet [a plot point about] taking down the statue of a Confederate soldier ricochets against your ears in a very different way in 2020.”

Tesori, on the other hand, approached Caroline and its heroine as a new parent. (Her daughter, Siena Rafter, is now 22 and assistant-directed the 2018 Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God.) “I entered this as a mother who relied on another woman to help me raise my child while I was working,” she says. “Americans have a complicated relationship with women of color and the white children they raise. Tony reveals those complications and emotions — the love and the anger and [Caroline’s] feeling that she has to shut herself down so her children can thrive.”

Reflecting on her surprise and delight at re-experiencing Caroline, or Change more than a decade after its debut, Tesori says, “If you saw the show before, you should come back, because you’ll be amazed at what else there is to see and hear. It’s vibrant, it’s filled with awe, it’s joyful, it’s angry, it’s hopeful, it’s beautiful, and it’s super-groovy.” Life in midcentury Lake Charles, with its singing appliances and struggling maids, is revealed in all its complications. “Inside this one house is the music of three generations,” says Tesori. “All kinds of music. And that’s what makes it astonishing. That’s what America is, all under one roof.”

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