WAITING FOR STUDIO THEATRE’S PRODUCTION,
Fond frozen memories of Caroline, or Change – from the Public Theatre to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and how a musical about a smoking, fuming, bitter maid changed me and taught me the lesson of “common cents.”
There will be beaucoup “joy” at Studio Theatre starting May 17th when Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical, Caroline, or Change opens. It’s a show close to my heart and proves once and for all that you can lose your “sense” (“cents”) and gain “common sense,” and if you work hard enough, you can “change.”
I was in New York City on Sunday, December 6 and 7, 2003 doing one of my three shows in 1 ½ days trips to the Big Apple. It was a strange weekend. My bus was stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel for three hours, and the bright sky turned very black as we approached the Port Authority bus terminal. Huge snow flakes started falling and visibility didn’t exist. It snowed like hell and 10 inches added up quickly. It reminded me of Buffalo, NY in the summer (where I grew up).
I saw The Exonerated on Saturday afternoon. Actors were forgetting their cues and lines, even though they had the script in front of them! If it were punishable by prison time, those actors would have gotten the chair and no exoneration. Later that night, I enjoyed David Friedman’s revue, Listen To My Heart, but there were only 15 of us in the theatre. The next day, the show closed, even though the critics liked it. (It did much better here in DC, when it was performed by members of The Gay Men’s Chorus two years ago.) David Friedman has written the music for Saving Aimee which will premiere at Signature Theatre, this spring).
The next day, Sunday, December 7th, a day that will live in infamy, started off with more heavy snow fall and ended with Broadway musical bliss.
I sloshed through the snow with my friend Dinah Reitman until we arrived at The Public Theatre. While Dinah was walking around outside, I walked in to sit in my seat, and immediately bumped into Tony Kushner. The man was smiling because his TV adaptation of Angels In America (soon to win 11 Emmys) was premiering that evening on HBO, and Frank Rich had just written a rave about Caroline, or Change in the NY Times. Not a bad day in the City for a very busy and suddenly over-extended popular playwright.
We chatted about the upcoming production of Homebody/Kabul that was opening at DC’s own Theater J. I gave him my business card and wished him well. He told me if I could get a large crowd from The Ushers to come to the show when he was in DC, he’d conduct a post-performance discussion. What a nice guy!
When Tonya Pinkins began Caroline, or Change with “Nothin’ ever happens underground in Louisiana / There ain’t no underground in Louisiana / There is only under water,” a slow moving chill crept up my spine. (How ironic that Katrina was not far away.) Two hours later, the crowd was on its feet cheering loudly because what we had seen on that frigid afternoon “changed me,” and I expect, changed others who were there.
The show refocused me and forced me into re-prioritizing my life. I was reminded how important family and managing my finances were. I was losing my cents – throwing out pennies (to me a useless coin). Now, I leave them in penny cups all over the area, hoping to help someone in need. I was reminded that tolerance, and respect for other cultures is how I was raised in a religious Jewish home, and I was never to forget these important lessons.
I was reminded how important my Jewish traditions were, how important and vital it is in my life to pick up of the phone and say hello to my friends, brothers, sisters, parents, relatives, mentors, acquaintances and Ushers members, and to remind them how important they are in my life.
I was reminded how unpredictable, unfair and ironic life can be, and the need to live each day to the fullest.
As a Jew, I laughed during the wild Chanukah scene, wept at the frustration of a mother and a stepmother who couldn’t make ends meet, whose male role models and fathers of their children/stepson were hardly anything to write home about, and who couldn’t communicate with their feisty children. (I was not an easy child either, and am not, at times, an easy adult). Sound familiar?
I took pride in the respect Caroline’s Jewish employers had for Caroline and her family, by sending home food for her children, and hearing Rose Stopnick, the new Mrs. Gellman and Caroline’s employer, talk to her father about being embarrassed that she and her husband could not pay her loyal maid, and a member of her family, a better salary. While trying to teach a young, sad, child about the value of money, Rose had helped to make Caroline and her family’s lives better. She teaches young Noah that giving is better than receiving, except on Chanukah.
Caroline, or Change is sung through a la Les Miserables and the score is intelligent, almost like a chamber piece. It captures many styles of American music: gospel, blues, klezmer, pop, and opera. It’s rare to hear such a complex and intelligent score in the theatre when the composer isn’t named Stephen Sondheim. The Light In The Piazza’s composer, Adam Guettel, was more successful a few years later with his Tony award winning lush and intelligent, chamber-like score. (Buy the Piazza CD! I listen to it everyday, and PBS is broadcasting the show live on Thursday, June 15th at 8 PM.)
After the show ended, the cast and I schmoozed until the snow stopped. Harrison Chad, who begins performing the role of the young Patrick in Mame at Kennedy Center on May 30th, and his parents were there. Chad’s mother was no Mama Rose. She was loving and patient and the doting den mother to the other children in the cast.
This is the part of theatre that audiences rarely see – the closeness and bonding of the cast and their families – the encouragement they give each other, and the dedication they all have to give the best performance they can when the lights go down, even if the critics don’t like their show, and the seats are not filled to capacity.
Adriane Lenox, who played the Moon, told me she was auditioning for a new play, Doubt, and that she had doubts about the success of the new play. (Boy, was she worrying for no reason.) That year, she left the moon for a convent and won the Tony as the mother of the “alleged” molested child in that year’s Tony Award for Best Play, Doubt. And how she “glowed” on Tony Night, when she accepted her award. Aisha de Haas replaced Adriane when the show moved to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. She also received “glowing” reviews.
I encouraged the cast to keep working hard and that I predicted it would transfer to a Broadway house. They thought I was a little crazy, but the show did transfer to the Eugene O’Neill, where it opened to mixed reviews and closed after only 136 performances. The national tour did very well in LA and SF, as many shows do when they leave. Ask The Secret Garden creators. They could tell you stories.
Caroline is not a happy camper. Look at the doleful Caroline that graced the outside of the theatre. It’s still on the Broadway production’s website . I must tell you I was aghast. I almost needed to take a Prozac when I walked past The Eugene O’Neill Theatre for the first time and saw that scowling maid up there. What were the marketing and PR people thinking?
I felt there was enough joy in the show that the marquis and the Broadway poster could have been happier. This ad campaign was actually worse than the disjointed marketing that was done for Side Show, that also led to the early closing of that show.
At the very end of the short run on Broadway, the producers of Caroline, or Change placed an ad in the Sunday NY Times Art and Leisure section that actually had Caroline smiling. I cut that picture out and it is proudly displayed in my home. I am willing to bet the entire production team was smiling as it bid an adieu to NYC and its poisonous critics. The show was way ahead of its time. I feel the NYC theatre community wasn’t ready for a show whose main character wasn’t happy and wasn’t dancing with utensils.
I am eagerly awaiting Studio Theatre’s production. Some of the power of the Public Playhouse production was lost in the cavernous Eugene O’Neill. The new Metheny Theatre at Studio is perfect for this show. It’s intimate and “in your face.”
Broadway actress and great cabaret singer, Julia Nixon, tackles the Herculean role of Caroline Thibodeaux. (Julia replaced Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls, and “I’m Telling You” this dream girl can sing.) Hold on to your pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters when Julia is on the stage. Adjust your hearing aids, please, and your pacemakers.
Can Ms. Nixon equal or surpass Tonya Pinkins’ “should have won the Tony” performance? (Tonya lost to the green witch in Wicked, Idina Menzel. Talk about Tony meltdown and being cursed.) You heard it here first. Julia Nixon will be magnificent.
Join me at Studio Theatre as Caroline, or Change rumbles and moves you in the Metheny Theatre. Maybe you’ll change, too.
As Carolyn Sings From “Sixteen Feet Below Sea Level”
“Hopes fine, till it turn to mud and some folks goes to school at night
and some folks march for civil rights
and I don’t! I aint got the heart! I cant hardly read!
Some folks do all kinds ‘a things
and black folks someday I’ll live like kings and someday sunshine,
shine all day! oh sure, it true, it be that way!
But not for me this also true, ya’ll cant do what I can do!
Ya’ll strong but ya’ll not strong like me!!!!