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Sweet Sounds 

The music of Caroline, or Change may tell more of the story than its words do

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
A few weeks after the musical drama Caroline, or Change opened on Broadway last year, Tony Kushner, who wrote the book and lyrics for this semiautobiographical work, described his disappointment over the lumping of the play into the "musicals" category in the 2004 Tony Award nominations list. "Caroline has as much in common with the shows it's up against, some of which I really like, as marquetry has to do with Olympic tobogganing. It makes me nuts," wrote Kushner in an e-mail to John Lahr, senior theater critic at the New Yorker. Most celebrated as a dramatist for his plays Angels in America and Homebody/Kabul, Kushner saw Caroline -- a musical drama setting the relationship between an African-American maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, and her white, middle-class Jewish employers, the Gellmans, in 1963 Louisiana against the political and social upheavals of the era -- as being "more like a play" than a musical.

Indeed, Caroline, brought to San Francisco with much of the original Broadway cast intact, isn't your typical musical. At no point does the central character, an embittered divorcee and struggling mother of four, fall in love with a handsome stranger, sing a showstopping number in a sequined bikini surrounded by a chorus line of scantily clad nymphets, or carry out a violent murder with a hatchet. The show's biggest criminal incident revolves around a fight over a $20 bill. The flashiest song 'n' dance number is a nursery rhyme about an ill-fated urchin by the name of Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw sung by a trio of kids. The closest Caroline gets to a chorus line is a bunch of household appliances that come to life in the basement of the house where the maid spends most of her working life. And unless you count the infatuation of the Gellmans' 8-year-old son, Noah, with the grouchy maid, there is no love story to speak of, only a profound sense of futility and loss.

Yet the music of Caroline so thoroughly permeates Kushner's narrative that it's impossible to imagine the work without composer Jeanine Tesori's overpowering score. Charles Darwin and Richard Wagner saw music as the source of language (a controversial idea that received strong opposition from the likes of philosopher Herbert Spencer, who believed music derived from speech), and watching the cast and orchestra breathe life into Kushner's words through Tesori's music is to understand something of Darwin and Wagner's ravings: Primeval forces -- more basic than words -- really are at work here. You get a clear sense of those forces about halfway through the first act, when Chuck Cooper (personifying a passing bus) announces President Kennedy's death. The baritone's rumbling dirge, accompanied by clashing atonal piano chords, evokes the same level of cataclysmic foreboding as the arrival of the ghostly Commandant at the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

In fact, the play's music isn't just an accompaniment to the story; it is the story. Kushner himself grew up in Lake Charles, La., in a musical household. In Caroline, Stuart Gellman (David Constabile), Noah's father and Caroline's employer, is a professional clarinetist. We learn that Noah's deceased mother, like Kushner's own mother, played the bassoon for a living. Occasionally, the mournful sound of the bassoon can be heard from the pit, suggesting loss, even as Noah's stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), bustles about trying to be a worthy substitute for her unhappy stepson (played alternately by Benjamin Platt and Sy Adamowsky). Similarly, Tesori decorates her score with ribbons of virtuoso clarinet playing, splicing bubbly excerpts from Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto in A Major" with wailing klezmer melodies. When contrasted with the driving funk coming from the kitchen where Caroline (Tonya Pinkins) prepares the Gellmans' Hanukkah supper, the music serves as a powerful metaphor for difference -- the cultural, economic, and racial divides that separate Caroline from the Gellmans and, at a macro level, blacks from Jews.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Caroline's innermost thoughts are brought to life by a radio, a washing machine, and a dryer. Without music, the dramatic conceit would be ridiculous, like something out of a bad absurdist play. But Tesori -- with the help of Cooper as the Dryer, Capathia Jenkins as the Washing Machine, and Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Kenna Ramsey trebling up as the Radio -- gives us a flavor of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and the Supremes all in one go. The dialogue between these household appliances and Caroline isn't just a bit of daft musical pastiche; it demonstrates her imaginative inner life. The device sets her apart from other characters, whose only outlet for the expression of inner feelings is conventional asides.

In a work that examines the opportunities and ravages brought about by some of the most tumultuous events of 20th-century America, from the Civil Rights movement to the development of the A-bomb, Tesori's restless score, like the character of the Moon (Aisha de Haas) floating above the stage with her eerie lyric, "Moon change, moon change," also underpins Caroline's central theme of metamorphosis. The composer's soundscape ricochets effortlessly among a multitude of styles, from Negro spiritual, klezmer, and classical to blues, funk, and gospel. Abrupt swings in mood and tempo abound: When the sweet but insensitive Rose, whose lyrics are often accompanied by a cartoonlike leitmotif of ticktock strings and saccharine woodwinds, tries to help the maid by insisting that she keep any loose change she finds in Stuart's or Noah's pockets, Caroline responds with venomous fury. Pinkins' eyes flash, her voice cracks and howls in disgust, while deafening drumbeats and blaring brass accentuate her indignation.

Director George C. Wolfe couldn't have assembled a more magnificent cast to communicate Tesori's music and Kushner's words. (The performances were so engaging that I couldn't help wishing Riccardo Hernández's clunky, constantly trundling set would get stuck in the wings and leave the singing and acting to set the scene themselves.) At the center, a colossus astride an ironing board, stands Pinkins. Dressed in a matronly white maid's uniform with a scowl permanently fixed to her face, she makes an unlikely heroine. Her voice -- honeyed in the upper register, growling down below -- relates Pinkins' Caroline more closely to the great tragic heroines of opera, like Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, than to, say, the central character of a musical, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita Perón.

Awards ceremonies are, as we all know, a notorious waste of time. There's little point to them besides, for the producers, the potential for future financial success and, for us spectators, a chance to glimpse the latest designer frocks. It's no surprise that Caroline, or Change -- which resists categorization -- won only one Tony (Anika Noni Rose garnered Best Actress in a Featured Role -- Musical for her feisty performance as Caroline's daughter, Emmie). But to consider it as being, in Kushner's words, "more like a play" than a musical is to downplay the melodies and harmonies that make it truly great. Perhaps the Tony committee should consider adding a category for "Best American Folk Opera" in 2005.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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