Lake Charles, 1963. A Jewish family and their poor, black maid struggle to get along against a backdrop of racial strife and national turmoil. Sounds like a natural subject for -- a lively Broadway musical? Somehow Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul has taken his semiautobiographical story of a wounded young white boy's relationship with his family's weary, black housekeeper in early 1960s Louisiana and turned it into one of Broadway's most energetic and inspired recent musical productions, Caroline, or Change.
Kushner's libretto is almost entirely sung, and set to Jeanine Tesori's vibrant, melodic score -- an evocative collage of Mozart, Motown, klezmer music and gospel -- it lends itself well to the two-disc, 53-track CD recently released on Hollywood Records. Caroline, or Change is, in essence, a fully realized opera, and the strength of the piece rests almost entirely on the virtuosity of its vocal performances. While the direction of George C. Wolfe (who staged the Broadway production of Angels in America) will obviously be lost on listeners, it's possible to hear only the recorded version and still appreciate it for the sheer scale of its ambition and accomplishment.
Caroline Thibodeaux (played by Tonya Pinkins), is a 39-year-old divorced mother of four. She has worked as a maid for 22 years for the Gellmans, a Jewish family in Lake Charles, "for 30 dollars every week," she moans over the literal humming of the washing machine. "Thirty dollars every week," she repeats, incredulous. "I am mean and strong and tough but 30 dollars ain't enough."
The major forces in Caroline's life -- the washing machine (Capathia Jenkins), the radio (a fabulous trio of Supremes-like singers played by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller), the moon (Adriane Lenox), the bus (played by the devilish Chuck Cooper) -- are all rendered as real characters in full voice. Caroline, or Change opens with these performers sparring in what sounds like a soul opera, as they trade bits of pop, R&B and gospel in songs full of hope and change. Afraid to think of all the trouble such changes might bring, Caroline tries to tune them out, fiercely resisting their influence.
Through Caroline and the other human characters, Kushner seems to be exploring the arbitrariness of influences in each person's life, and the stark musical contrasts that accompany his lyrics are perfectly suited to this investigation. The music continually modulates between present and past, with the Motown-inspired harmonies churned out by the washing machine leading seamlessly into a clarinet crying out sorrowful klezmer tunes before bringing us back to the pop music of 1963 again. Kushner focuses not on the euphoria of change, but on the inertia that often precedes it -- what it feels like to be stuck in the interim, whether it's between cultures, eras or paychecks. In Caroline's case, she's caught in a cross section of all three. The changes taking place in the world around her only dredge up her fears and desires -- or, more accurately, her fear of her desires -- and she knows ultimately she'll be forced to confront them. As she sings in her sorrowful, spiritual refrain, "Nothing happen under ground in Louisiana / 'Cause there is no underground in Louisiana / There is only under water." That refrain blows through the performance like a foghorn repeating its warning: Everything here is happening right in front of you, and if you don't deal with it while it's still floating on the surface, it will surely drown you.
In a place where slavery's legacy still casts a long shadow, the notion of "discipline" carries with it mostly corrupt associations, and it is precisely discipline -- both imposed and self-directed -- on which the plot hinges. Caroline has formed a reluctant bond with the young Noah Gellman (presumably based on a young Kushner, played by Harrison Chad), who has grown even more attached to Caroline since his own mother died of cancer. The trouble starts when Rose, Noah's stepmother, tries to enlist Caroline as an accomplice in her efforts to break the boy of his habit of leaving change in his pockets. In trying to discipline her stepson, Rose gives Caroline permission to keep the change instead of leaving it in a cup for him to reclaim, as she's always done in the past.
"In time you'll appreciate how I taught you to care," Rose tells Noah. "It's not what you're used to, but things change." At first, Caroline protests -- "A grown woman got no business taking pennies from a baby," she tells Rose -- but she can't help but think of all the things extra money could buy for her own children. Noah, however, sees this as an opportunity to help Caroline and begins to deliberately leave money for her, but the awkward dynamic that results threatens to destroy their friendship.
Kushner's easy verse allows him to deftly tackle larger issues as well, and he evokes the era's key historic events -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement -- with poignant wit. In one particularly charged exchange, Emmie, Caroline's spirited oldest daughter (played by Anika Noni Rose, who won a Tony for her performance) challenges Mr. Stopnick, Rose's father, a staunch New York socialist, as she and Caroline are serving the Gellmans their Hanukkah dinner:
Mr. Stopnick: "Just like we predicted, back in the '30s; all the negroes got to do now, is stop this nonsense about nonviolence / Yes, I know, it worked just dandy for that Indian Mister Ghandi but with respect for Martin Luther King."
Emmie: "I think it's a negro thing, a Southern thing, a Christian thing; mister you don't understand, how Dr. King has got things planned."
Mr. Stopnick: "Oh, Jews can be non-violent, too. There's nothing meeker than a Jew! Listen girlie we have learned; nonviolence will get you burned."
Although Caroline is horrified by her daughter's forthrightness, Emmie provides the only tonic to her mother's despair, the only one who can uproot Caroline from her "sediment topsoil blues, alluvial Delta-silt saltwater ooze" as the washing machine calls it. Emmie doesn't want to reject her mother outright, but doesn't want to learn the same hard lessons she's learned, either. "I want a big old house, like this one, but everything new," she sings hopefully in "I Hate the Bus." "I ain't waitin' no more / You just wait forever, if you can't say what for."
In "Lot's Wife," the final aria, Caroline unleashes all the buried regrets and desires of every woman who's ever worn that same look of weary resignation while waiting -- whether it's for the bus, for the laundry to finish, or for her man to come home. "Murder my dreams so I stop wanting, tear out my heart, strangle my soul set me free, don't let my sorrow make evil of me." This last wish is sung so sweetly, and with such surprising sincerity, that it comes as a revelation after the violent explosion of emotions that preface it. Tonya Pinkins gives a heart-wrenching performance here -- when I saw the live production, just about everyone around me in the theater had tears rolling down their cheeks, including Pinkins herself. But Caroline, or Change is no weepy melodrama, and in spite of its few campy moments, this is a serious and weighty work. In the end, we're reminded that things hardly ever change just because we want them to -- things change because they have to. As the moon repeatedly promises Caroline, "Change come fast, and change come slow, but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux."
- Lake Charles native Tony Kushner focuses not on the euphoria of change, but on the inertia that often precedes it -- what it feels like to be stuck in the interim, whether it's between cultures, eras or paychecks.