This post is about the limited-run, Broadway revival of the musical CAROLINE OR CHANGE, which the MWC is attending on November 3rd. Members, look in “Sign-Up” or SLACK or in an email with sign-up details. Tickets are $125.00.
Although CAROLINE, OR CHANGE lives in that murky region between a musical and contemporary opera, in the hands of the extraordinarily talented playwright Tony (“Angels in America”) Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori it’s a delectable dilemma to try and figure out. First produced in 2003 at the Public Theater and transferred to Broadway and then London it’s an apt time for this to be revived. Our country’s anger- and hate-fueled politics are put into historic, personal relief here which makes them more manageable to examine. Sharon D Clarke, who headlines this revival after having done so in several productions in England, is a stand-out as Caroline, a Black laundress and housekeeper in service in Civil Rights-era Louisiana working for a well-to-do Jewish family.
“Change” is a multi-pronged metaphor here; it refers to: the coins often found at the bottom of your purse, social change such as came about when the US was grappling with its mid-century wave of integration, and the change of children growing up and maturing. The plot jumps off with Caroline being told she can keep change left in the pockets of clothes sent to the laundry. This is meant to teach a lesson to the young son of the Gellman household (Noah) to be more careful with his money but it has meaningful, harmful repercussions for everyone involved. For Caroline the pocket change is both needed and humiliating. Noah (a role once played by an 11-year old Ben Platt) unintentionally betrays her and sets up the essential conflict of this work while also bridging two very different classes and minority groups. This is the basic plot structure upon which Kushner and Tesori hang a mash-up of cultures and values.
There are aspects of CAROLINE which will remind you of “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” where the Black housekeeper, Calpurnia, often acts as a surrogate mother to two young children whose mother has died. Same thing goes for “HAIRSPRAY” which also focuses on integration and has a trio of Supremes-like singers advising the main character. With parallel narrative strings and cultural references and a correspondingly complex score which incorporates elements of jazz, Motown, opera, gospel, pop, blues, classical and klezmer (!), CAROLINE could easily have been a crazy-quilt of messages. But in the hands of Kushner and Tesori they support a cohesive story of an era and self-awareness.
Check out the YouTube video to get a feel for this important work.