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American Theatre Wing Production Seminar: How Did 'Caroline, or Change' Change?

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Composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tony Kushner's Tony Award-nominated musical, "Caroline, or Change," is all about "change"—literal and metaphoric. Set in 1963 in Louisiana, "Caroline" looks at how society is changing and how people are adapting to the shifts occurring in their world. During the course of this almost through-sung musical, some of the events are of global proportion—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Others are more personal—a boy learning to love his new stepmother, a woman whom his father married shortly after the death of the boy's own mother. For the play's title character, a housemaid, change is nearly impossible. At 39 and divorced, the life she imagined for herself is (she believes) out of reach, and bitterness and resentment have set in. When a new rule about the child's pocket change is made in the house where she works, more transformations occur.

Given the play's theme, it's not surprising that, at an American Theatre Wing "Working in the Theatre" seminar held on Thurs., May 6, Kushner and Tesori, joined by actresses Tonya Pinkins and Veanne Cox (who play Caroline and the mother, Rose, respectively) and choreographer Hope Clarke, spoke extensively about the concept of "change," discussing the musical's development and production.

The constant in "Caroline" has been Kushner's desire to tell the show in musical form. He said that it was "a story I've wanted to do for a long time. The idea to do it as a musical gave me permission to start working on it," adding that the piece is one where "words alone would not be able to get to the emotion."

From here, though, transformation has been key to the piece, including, for a brief period, the thought of finding another composer. (Tesori was Kushner and director George C. Wolfe's first choice for the show, but she initially declined.) After having accepted, Tesori found that her relationship with Kushner transformed quickly, bypassing usual niceties and going straight to, as she put it, the "Oh my God, you have spinach in your teeth!" stage.

While these two agreed that the structure of "Caroline" hasn't changed, they both freely admitted that the possibilities of the script (seen during developmental readings) have allowed for many changes in it musically. For instance, it wasn't until they heard the piece read that they discovered that the pit clarinet could emerge as a character (the father in the musical plays the clarinet). During the seminar, Tesori also described how a tune hummed by Caroline during the play's opening moments is heard at the end of the play on this instrument. This is only one example of the mutability of music in a show where musical traditions are colliding and being appropriated by the characters.

Though the roles of Caroline and Rose were written with Pinkins and Cox in mind, the actresses both talked about the rewrites they were given during the show's gestation process. Pinkins said that there had been 17 versions of "Lot's Wife," her "11 o'clock number." She said ruefully that her favorite had been one from sometime last June, adding playfully that it was hard to still have this melody in the show and not be able to sing it.

Cox described how the move to Broadway has helped her to change in performance. In the intimacy of the Public's Newman Theater, she admitted to feeling a need to "apologize for my character" because some of Rose's thoughts seem so harsh. Uptown, however, she described how this instinct disappeared because the larger space has allowed there to be a "release from the horror" of Rose's actions.

The transfer to Broadway, all of the participants admitted, has changed audiences' reactions. Pinkins noted that downtown, she could look out and see "them wrecked." Now, the performers' feeling is that the audience has its reaction more "privately."

The spirit of the collaboration that has created the piece that inspires these reactions was best summed up in an anecdote Pinkins told. She said that, after working with Wolfe on a scene without Tesori's music, she would look at Tesori and say, "You can't give us a pause there." When she recounted this, Tesori laughed, joking, "And that's how she'd say it, too." It would seem that not all change must be painful.

Staged before live audiences at the City University Graduate Center in Manhattan's recording studio, the American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre seminars were taped for television, and are being aired regularly on CUNY-TV (Time Warner channel 75 and RCN channel 106).

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