theater review

The Time Is Now, Finally, for Caroline, or Change

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change, at Studio 54. Photo: Joan Marcus

Before I get to the overwhelming power of the revival of Caroline, or Change, candidate for the century’s greatest piece of musical theater … before I get to the performance of Sharon D Clarke, who peels the gilt from the Studio 54 ceiling with her voice … before I get to the perfection, even prescience, of this particular show’s appearance here in the cooling fall of 2021, I want to ask something important: Why the heck is there a comma in the middle of that title?

Even without it, the title of Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 musical that is secretly an opera is already playing games with words. In the plot, 8-year-old Noah Gellman teeters between affection for his family’s maid, Caroline, and his actual pocket change, while Caroline Thibodeaux herself is on the brink of change-as-transformation, swayed by the forces at work in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana. The punning title therefore prepares us for an evening thick with dualities, indecisiveness, and either-ors. But Kushner could have accomplished all of that without punctuation.

So I think his comma does (at least) three things. It recalls titles from another time, double-barreled old names like Twelfth Night, or What You Will. It exactly divides the title into two eight-letter groups, the stroke of the comma acting as the bar on a metric balance. And third, the comma makes you — literally — pause. These also happen to be the three gestures of the musical itself. In its queasy quasi-nostalgia, Caroline, or Change looks backward, both at Kushner’s childhood and our country’s adolescence. It weighs, carefully and respectfully, the heaviest moment of a life. And it stops us: It puts a restraining hand on our arm as we rush past. The pause is always sacred in Kushner’s work because a pause is a space for thought. Tellingly, much of his libretto happens in liminal hours, like at a moonlit bus stop or during the day’s one cigarette (its smoke curling up like a comma), smoked as Caroline waits for the laundry to dry. These are precisely the places a person can take the time to stop and reflect, just as this musical — as grand and thrilling and crammed with gorgeous music as it is — gives us the space to do the same.

“Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana / Cause they ain’t no underground in Louisiana. There is only underwater,” Caroline (Clarke) is singing in the Gellmans’ basement, but so are the personified Washing Machine (Arica Jackson), the threatening Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister), and the Radio, played by a tightly harmonizing trio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles). (In the Gellmans’ white household, everything that serves them — even the machines — are Black.) In just these first few minutes, Tesori’s music scrolls across the dial from delicious Motown pastiche to a modern, David Lang–ian sour-note opera. Throughout the nearly sung-through piece, Tesori’s compositional reach is incredible: The score will sweeten for the operatic Moon (N’Kenge), then thicken and bluesify for Caroline, then go all rollicking and klezmer when the Gellman grandparents (Stuart Zagnit and Joy Hermalyn) turn up for Hanukkah. In the show’s most complex numbers, people operating in totally different musical modes (and often at emotional, racial, and generational loggerheads) sing, and the genres, at least, intertwine.

Noah likes to join Caroline down among the appliances, even though she gives him little encouragement. She’s grouchy with him, but he worships her. Noah — his mother dead, a new stepmother, Rose (Caissie Levy), trying to take her place — clearly wishes Caroline could rule over him solely and absolutely. (Three actors alternate in Noah’s role. I saw Adam Makké.) His father, Stuart (John Cariani), doesn’t always remember how old his own child is, whereas Caroline has her children always on her mind, wondering how to stretch her $30 a week to take care of her teenage daughter, Emmie (Samantha Williams), and little Jackie and Joe. One day, feeling awkward about money, Rose decides to discipline Noah for his habit of leaving change in his pockets by telling Caroline she can keep anything she finds in the laundry. “It’ll be like a raise! Like Noah pays a share of your salary,” she warbles unconfidently. When Rose’s father visits, he notices right away that she has accidentally-on-purpose driven a wedge between Noah and Caroline, whose humiliation and need and rage add up and up, as do the quarters in the cup on the washing machine.

Michael Longhurst’s production has traveled far to get here. A rousing 2017 success at the Minerva in Chichester led to a run in London’s West End, and that (mostly recast) show and its star, Clarke, now comes to the Roundabout. All the performers here are superbly married to their material, matching strengths to strengths but also — and most movingly — flaws to flaws. N’Kenge’s voice as the Moon is soaring, pure, effortless, gorgeous. Cariani sounds strained when he sings to Noah but passionate and free when he’s playing his beloved clarinet. (Cariani is actually playing the clarinet, not pretending.) Tamika Lawrence, playing Caroline’s friend Dotty, and Williams both have voices like trumpets, as clear and untethered as their characters’ optimism. But Clarke’s voice seems to be dragged out of her almost against her will. You can hear weariness in it the bigger it gets; you can hear gravel and blood.

When the original U.S. production of Caroline, or Change came to Broadway from the Public in 2004, it was critically beloved but not financially successful. Perhaps the city is ready for it now. It certainly seems so exactly tailored to this moment that I kept checking the script. Had they changed it? No, Caroline always contained the image of a toppled and beheaded Confederate memorial, a Johnny Reb statue turning a bilious copper green in the wet Louisiana air. Longhurst and set designer Fly Davis make sure that statue is the first thing we see — it’s at center stage as the audience sits down, then vanishes when the musical starts. The British production does a bad job of evoking the heat of Louisiana (the dark turntable set seems weirdly chilly), but it does do a grand job of reminding us what sorts of villains are still standing around in the long grass. When we return from intermission, we briefly see the remains of the mangled statue. Like its lost cause, it is ruined and broken — but not gone.

In Caroline, Kushner wanted to write about the fraught interplays of Jewishness in the South: Rose’s father and the elder Gellmans certainly do not see eye to eye about what “the Negro” should do to elevate his lot. “Scary! Scary!” the Gellmans sing, hilariously, when Rose’s father starts a dinner-table jeremiad about abandoning nonviolence. Kushner was also treating the slow way the transformations of the civil-rights movement seeped into the Louisiana water table. What his two dramatic situations have in common is stasis: the hesitation of white liberals unwilling to act, the shocked inertia of a Black woman trying to move freely after a lifetime of restriction. The show’s climax is the searing aria “Lot’s Wife,” in which Caroline acknowledges her own inability to tear loose — from her past, her anger, her job, or her acquiescence to her white employers.

Eighteen years ago, the musical had a little more … hope in it. As Kushner has noted, the story has always been Caroline’s tragedy, but in 2003, it used Emmie and Jackie and even Noah to point at possibilities of the non-tragic to come. The musical still ends the same way, but in the audience, we know the U.S. continues to display its own immobility, its own dogged resistance to change. Longhurst’s production is therefore brave enough not to brighten, not even at the curtain call. The libretto does for a while pretend there’s a kind of slantwise equivalence between the bereaved Noah and the exhausted Caroline, but in “Lot’s Wife,” the show has admitted which grief is the unrecoverable one. “I’m gonna slam that iron down on my heart,” Caroline cries. “Gonna slam that iron down on my throat, gonna slam that iron down on my sex.” The sound in the room grows huge and unbearable as a woman gives up on her future, releasing energy like an atom ripping apart. The show can’t recover from this intensity; certainly, we cannot. Whatever comes after “Lot’s Wife,” whatever little grace notes the production gives to Emmie and Noah, we stay frozen in that song’s nuclear blast.

Caroline, or Change is at the Roundabout at Studio 54 through January 9.

The Time Is Now, Finally, for Caroline, or Change