Eighteen years ago, as I was wrapping my work on the initial iteration of my book, EVER AFTER, I telephoned the composer Jeanine Tesori to ask what she was working on. I’d decided to conclude EVER AFTER, in a gesture of hope, with a look to the future via projects to come from composers I admired.
Jeanine answered me with a title: "Caroline, or Change." She’d been working on it for three years now with Tony Kushner, she told me, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Angels in America, who was writing the book and lyrics. The show would soon open at the Public Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe, who had also directed the original Angels.
The prospect sounded absolutely enthralling.
"I have to believe in the future," Jeanine said to me then. "I'm the mother of a six-year-old."
All these years later, I write firsthand about Caroline, or Change at the Public in 2003 in the new EVER AFER (just published): "A minor-key masterpiece that minutely calibrated the knotted tendrils of humiliation and nobility, empathy and racial discrimination, in the lives of a Black maid and her White Jewish employers in 1963 Louisiana... Jeanine Tesori’s vibrant score conjured African American music, from spirituals to Motown, while taking sharp, exquisite detours into lyrical Leonard Bernstein–like fancy-free flights. The lyrics, by Kushner, were the libretto because, contrary to Ms. Tesori’s protestations to me a year or so earlier, Caroline, or Change is pretty much an opera."
Acclaimed at the Public, Caroline, or Change moved to Broadway in 2004, where it only lasted three months. "Still," I wrote, "the show would be remembered."
To my delight, this past week, I returned to a Broadway theater for the first time in almost two years to savor a revival of Caroline, or Change. This production, which originated in London, had been scheduled by Roundabout Theatre Company to begin previews here in March 2020, but was scuttled by Broadway's pandemic shutdown. For more than 20 months (!) I'd been walking by Caroline, or Change's dimmed-out marquee, unchanging on the Studio 54 facade. Now, finally, I passed beneath that marquee and into the old theater's familiar confines.
The musical within once again overwhelmed me, as it did the first time with Tonya Pinkins starring as the maid Caroline Thibodeaux , in a titanic performance, opposite Anika Noni Rose, who would win a Tony Award as Caroline's fiercely liberated young daughter Emmie. The star this time round is British stage legend Sharon D Clarke in her long overdue Broadway debut, claiming Caroline as her own as utterly and as searingly as Ms. Pinkins did.
The show has only deepened with age and rage. How could it not — such an eloquent and incendiary racial protest musical, in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and all that we have been through (and continue to go through) in George Floyd's wake? The world around us has only deepened with rage as well.
Well, you know what? Having seen this revival, I now think that Caroline, or Change is, in fact, one of the great American musicals, up there in the pantheon with all those we know too well. I confess I didn't quite grasp this when I first saw it, though I knew it was damn good. I believed then, and now more than ever, that Caroline, or Change is also a great American opera, which does it no disservice as a musical. It simply never stops singing, in every conceivable American style. It is all Bess, with no Porgy. It is also all Mama Rose, with no Gypsy (though there are Mama/Daughter parallels). Back in 2004, Caroline, or Change also seemed a summation of where we had been, racially. Sadly, in 2021, it captures what we have reverted to, and what we must go through again, if we are to somehow move on. It is all Eliza, without a Hamilton, and it still burns.