Caroline, or Change is the first post-Structuralist musical. This makes it a failure by definition, since a work that fends off audiences’ emotional access so aggressively isn’t likely to go far in the popular musical theater. But it is a beautiful failure, a failure in the Henry James sense: something that a success somehow ineffably isn’t. It’s full of passion and intelligence, with an unmistakable personal feeling that moved me, at moments, to an extent that, I have to confess, Kushner’s nonmusical works don’t. This is partly due to George C. Wolfe’s production, which is no kind of failure at all: Graceful and forthright, serving the words and music at every turn, it’s certainly the best directing he’s ever done. And its cast is beyond wonderful, a walking tribute to the glorious pool of gifted artists we live among here in New York, starting with magnificent Tonya Pinkins in the title role.
In fact, one reason to complain about the dislocations inherent in Kushner’s approach is that they hamper Pinkins just when she should be the center of our attention. And she doesn’t need any further hampering, having to compete for that attention with the likes of Veanne Cox, Chandra Wilson, Chuck Cooper, Adriane Lenox, Larry Keith, Alice Playten, Reathel Bean, and the dazzling Anika Noni Rose, who, playing Pinkins’s teenage daughter, nearly wraps up the show and walks away with it under everybody else’s nose. And that list, mind you, is only the cream of the crop, to which I should add a child, Harrison Chad, who inhabits a lengthy and difficult role with total assurance.
The time is 1963-64. Caroline (Pinkins) is a black maid, a divorcée with four children, working for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her employer, recently widowed, has married his late wife’s best friend (Cox), a liberal New Yorker adjusting with difficulty to Southern ways and to her stepchild, Noah (Chad), who instead channels all his imaginative affection toward the maid. Caroline, who has her own children to support—the oldest is away in Vietnam, an absence of which Kushner makes surprisingly little—strictly rations her response. Social change is brewing all around Caroline, but she shuns it as she does the loose change Noah habitually leaves in his pants pockets. To cure the habit, his stepmom says that from now on Caroline can keep the change, a notion with which Caroline, a devout churchgoer, must then wrestle mightily. She is underpaid, her own kids have needs, little Noah’s demands for affection grow increasingly insistent, and the inevitable crisis comes when he leaves a $20 bill—Hanukkah gelt from step-grandpa—in his trousers. Child and servant face off like Brecht’s Puntila and Matti, and each says something unforgivable which they later regret.
This is a short anecdote from which to build a full evening. Kushner’s solution is to expand it cubistically, largely with abstract social and psychological analysis provided by a variety of human and nonhuman figures. Caroline doesn’t talk so much as she is talked at by the appliances in the laundry room (Cooper plays the dryer), by the moon (Lenox), and by a more progressive fellow maid (Wilson). The Jewish family’s life is conveyed by Cox, wonderfully touching in her haplessness, telling us everything she doesn’t say to Caroline, and by her in-laws (Bean and the adorable Playten) singing us Kushner’s socialist version of what might be called the official Hadassah position on American Jewish life.
Interesting and informative as this fragmenting is (and Wolfe has staged it with careful clarity), it keeps pushing us away, redoubling the push we already get from Caroline’s tendency to stave off her feelings. Distanced as we are from the characters’ emotional life, our temptation is to start questioning its validity: Why is Caroline’s church, unlike other black churches in the South, seemingly apathetic to the civil rights movement? How does a Jewish clarinetist (apparently the father’s profession) earn a living in Lake Charles? Neither Caroline’s family nor her employers’ seems to have any connections to the larger community, and there is a sense of their living in a void shaped by theory rather than by a feeling of life, despite many little details that touch on the latter.
The abstractness is reinforced, albeit with abundant grace, by the work’s being almost entirely sung, in a Broadway-opera idiom that evokes Copland and Carlisle Floyd more often than Weill or Bernstein. Jeanine Tesori’s music is gorgeously constructed—often cunningly based on familiar items from the clarinet repertoire—but it, too, seems emotionally hemmed in by the context. A heroine who rarely opens her heart, and a world viewed through commentators rather than experienced directly, encourage music that favors the serviceable over the sublime. At its best, though, in a children’s game, an argument, or a confession, Tesori’s score offers an ethereal sympathy for the people onstage that suggests an angel viewing them from above. How I wish the burgeoning world that Kushner hasn’t quite created would open up and sing back, instead of being compelled to sit, like Pinkins on her laundry room bench, gazing at us through a beautiful, impassive mask.
“Tony Kushner’s Epic Theater of Identity” by Richard Goldstein