Caroline, Or Change

book and lyrics by Tony Kushner

published by Consortium

128 pages, 2004

Buy it online


Caroline, Or Change

music by Jeanne Tesori

Hollywood Records, 2004

Buy it online




Winds of Change

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


This is my third draft of this review. The first draft was all about me, and that's no way to tell you about this musical. You see, I was a 1960s kid in New Orleans, and Tony Kushner was a 1960s kid in Lake Charles. Two Louisiana cities. Two Jewish boys named Tony. Hmm.

The second draft started with all that and then segued rather awkwardly into an angry lashing out. But when I read through it, I didn't agree with my own assessment.

So, let's see if the third time's the charm.

Caroline, Or Change is a play masquerading as a musical. Set in 1963 in Lake Charles, in the days surrounding JFK's assassination, it's about a black maid working for the Gellmans, a middle class Jewish family. The mother has died, leaving a young son, Noah, his father and his father's new wife Rose. Caroline is the constant that links the households.

As a foil to the Gellmans, we see Caroline's home, too. She has four kids and is raising them alone. Years ago, her husband beat her once and then once more. When she fought back, he left. Now, at the age of 39, she earns $30 a week. How, she wonders, has her life come to this?

At the Gellman house, we have a husband who's checked out emotionally and spends a great deal of time playing his clarinet. At Caroline's house, we have a husband who's just gone. In both houses, we have women who are trying to cope with living inside a reality they didn't sign up for.

It's an interesting, rich parallel, but Caroline's true center is the relationship between Noah and Caroline. In Noah's world, he and Caroline are friends -- which in the South in 1963 is virtually unheard of. In his life, there's almost no recognition of color; it's as if no one has bothered to point out to Noah that Caroline is black. With his mother gone, Noah needs Caroline. She is the primary female force in his life. But in all likelihood Caroline would not wish to acknowledge such a thing -- or give it any emotional weight. Put simply, to Noah, Caroline is family; but to Caroline, Caroline is Noah's maid.

Their relationship is put to the test by the fact that Noah is leaving change in his pants pockets. Caroline finds it when she launders them. When she mentions this to Rose, Rose tells Caroline to keep the change; losing it, she reasons, will teach Noah not to treat money so casually. But Caroline, too proud to take it, instead collects it in a cup in the basement.

But the lesson isn't learned in the way Rose intended. Noah wants Caroline to take the change, so he starts leaving it in his pockets on purpose.

But then Rose's father comes to town and gives Noah a $20 bill for Hanukkah. It goes into the pocket -- and stays there. When Caroline finds it, her world shifts. For someone who earns $30 a week, this is big money, the kind of money she can use to send her son to the dentist and buy Christmas presents.

But just as Caroline is ready to take the bill, Noah isn't ready to part with it. And the scene midway through Act 2, when they face each other, is the musical's big moment. They fling invectives at each other, hateful, emotional bombs, and Caroline leaves. Just up and leaves. A few days later, she sings "Lot's Wife," the song that has become the musical's signature set-piece, and the rest of the musical plays itself out to a somewhat logical conclusion.

Caroline, Or Change isn't an easy to show to like. Act 1 and much of Act 2 are set-up for the confrontation. When it comes, it's a major, thunderous moment -- but it does seem to take forever to get there. The inter-relationships of the various family members -- Noah's and Caroline's -- isn't as interesting as it might have been. You get a real sense of this woman, and you come to understand her all the better when the conflict explodes -- but.

But. But you wonder what it's all for. In scene after scene, there are revelations, yet nothing much actually happens. There's a lot of important, even meaningful, backstory, but the on-stage action seems just a way to convey -- in words and music -- what happened before the play started.

I wish Caroline had been less talk, more action. I wish the action had been presented in flashback, in the days after Caroline leaves, as she reflects on what happened with Noah. The road to the confrontation would be fascinating because we'd know it's coming.

Of course, the moment is massive when it occurs. It's devastating, exploding all that's come before. But if you've already checked out, what's the use?

All that said, it's impossible to dismiss Caroline herself. She is an amazing character. Kushner has built a narrative that forces Caroline and her environment to come to terms with a choice. Will the world move forward with people like Caroline -- or will it change? Will Caroline remain sad and angry and removed -- or will she change?

What starts out as a story of forgotten pocket change becomes a story of massive sociological change.

While I admire and appreciate the wordplay, the idea of change in this period is a lot to deal with. No one is better suited, perhaps, than Tony Kushner to assemble the pieces and create something fiery and meaningful. No one is better suited to tell a small story that stands for a much larger one. But why, then, are you left with the feeling that we hadn't seen all there was to see?

As rich and unforgettable as Caroline, Or Change is, I wish Kushner and composer Tesori had worked to make it a little more accessible. I mean, Angels in America was eight hours long; it was complex and difficult, challenging and infuriating -- and completely accessible. You're hooked from the moment it begins. Caroline isn't blessed that way.

The music could have worked to the show's advantage, but more often than not, the music isn't about great and memorable melody. Indeed, Jeanne Tesori sometimes seems determined to avoid melody, for just as one gets going, she interrupts or abandons it. Here -- and it's an interesting choice -- the music is all about the rhythm of conversation, and sometimes even thought. But interesting choices don't always translate to music -- or a musical -- that's easy to listen to.

In the case of Caroline, the two-CD set now available contains the whole show, starring the breathtaking Tonya Pinkins as Caroline. Is it an easy listen? Not at all. But the pieces that mean something are here, from the hilarious opening as Caroline sings with the washing machine and dryer, to the set-up about the pocket change, to the confrontation, to "Lot's Wife," to the heartbreaking finale.

And Caroline's finale is something else. Earlier in the show, we hear about (but of course do not see) a statue dismantled one night by vandals, and the head disappears. We learn, eventually, that Caroline's oldest daughter Emmie was there, that she was involved in the vandalism. Considering Caroline's inability to change, her daughter's full embrace of this changing world is startling -- and this, I think, is the point of the show. I believe that Kushner and Tesori are telling us that while children inherit their parents' world, they'll make it their own. They remake it to fit themselves.

In her closing soliloquy, Emmie all but spells this out as she sings about her mother's rage and dreams, how so much flows down from stormclouds and into hidden veins, down and down to Caroline's children. There is profound hope, I think, as we realize that Emmie and her brothers will take from Caroline all they need to survive, that they will use her anger and her love to remake their world, to change it in ways that Caroline herself might never fully understand. | August 2004


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.