Tony Kushner’s vision tends toward the epic. His landmark play “Angels in America,” coming soon to a cable box near you, illuminated the personal, cultural and political forces that shaped, and were shaped by, the terrible advent of AIDS. It clocked in at seven hours onstage. Kushner’s most recent play, “Homebody/Kabul,” was an equally intellectually expansive examination of the tortured history of Afghanistan and its pivotal place in the politics of Western imperialism. That one timed out at four hours.
Turning to musical theater, Kushner has wisely put himself on a slimming diet. “Caroline, or Change,” a new musical with book and lyrics by Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, runs a happily un-Wagnerian 2½ hours. But while his running time has been reduced to Broadway-friendly proportions, Kushner’s imagination is not so easily tamed. The playwright’s searching mind cannot resist melding the personal and the political, exploring the various ways in which human lives are warped by forces outside their control, ideologies of class, culture, religion and politics that turn sympathetic hearts to stone.
The result, unfortunately, is too diffuse and dramatically inert to make captivating musical theater. There are fine things in “Caroline, or Change,” including a truly outstanding performance from Tonya Pinkins in the powerful title role. But the human story that could be the musical’s focus, detailing the relationship between a Jewish boy and his family’s African-American maid, gets blurred amid complex considerations of the factors — emotional, cultural and, most potently, economic — that corrupt their affection. Kushner has written, in the title character, a role of wonderful stature and complexity, but she is encased in an often predictable, many-footnoted sermon on the socioeconomic inequities of the South on the cusp of the civil rights era.
The play is set in Louisiana as 1963 is giving way to 1964. In the show’s inventive opening sequence, Caroline Thibodeaux sings her story to her primary companions, the washing machine, dryer and radio in the Gellmans’ sweltering basement. (The machines sing right back — the radio is represented by a Supremes-style trio.) Divorced at 39, with a son fighting in Vietnam and three kids at home to feed and clothe, Caroline, who describes herself accurately as “mean and tough and strong,” is too preoccupied with making ends meet on $30 a week to pay heed to the social unrest getting ready to happen on the streets outside, let alone to lonely little Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad, a bright young talent), whose daily thrill is getting to light Caroline’s cigarette.
Noah’s mother died of cancer, and his anxious stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), can’t seem to find her way into the affections of either her stepson or her maid. Hoping to curb Noah’s habit of leaving change in his pockets, Rose hits upon the idea of letting Caroline keep any coins she finds. The proud, truculent Caroline scorns the idea at first, but a quarter means a lot to her kids. She can’t resist, humiliating though it is, and her dependence on the little bit of extra money subtly feeds antagonism between Caroline and her inadvertent benefactor, the forgetful Noah, until a fight over a $20 bill ends in an exchange of hateful words and Caroline’s sudden withdrawal.
The word “change” has many meanings here, however, and it sometimes seems Kushner focuses on the wrong ones. He spends much time sketching in political background that we’re familiar with: Reactions to the Kennedy assassination play a prominent role. Caroline’s indifference to, or fear of, the changing political climate for blacks in the South is contrasted with that of her forward-thinking friend Dotty and her daughter Emmie, roles sung with vibrant fervor by Chandra Wilson and Anika Noni Rose, respectively.
The social changes being sought by African-Americans are supported by the politically liberal Gellman family, who, as Jews, are themselves oppressed by the reigning culture of the area. But Kushner is also careful to note that the different faiths of Caroline and her employers plays a role in their complicated interaction.
As a result of Kushner’s natural (and admirable) tendency to find and explore complexities where others might be content to settle for simplicities, the relationship between Caroline and Noah is often relegated to the background. There are too many other relationships — between Noah and his remote father, Stuart; between Stuart and Rose; between Rose and her liberal firebrand father with professorial tendencies; between Caroline and her recalcitrant daughter — that get in the way. (Tellingly, the most extended exchanges between Noah and Caroline are dream sequences.) It’s hard to see how the sudden interjection of an economic interest in the relationship between the boy and the maid works a profound change in it, because not much of a relationship has been established.
This is no doubt intentional. Kushner is scrupulously unsentimental in his depiction of what could be a stereotypical friendship between a white boy and a black surrogate mother. Debunking the myth of the contented, big-hearted, black underling, Kushner makes clear that differences in race, gender, class and religion will defeat the natural affection that might bring these two lonely souls together. This may be honest, but it creates an emptiness just where the heart of the musical should be. (In their final exchange, Noah asks of a future day, “Will we be friends then?”; Caroline answers, “Weren’t never friends.”) In the absence of a compelling narrative, there’s nothing else to give the musical a strong focus.
There’s Caroline alone, of course, and the show is most compelling whenever she is center stage. But you may get the uneasy sense that Caroline simply doesn’t belong in this musical — maybe in any musical — even if, given Pinkins’ thrilling, superbly sung performance, you hardly like to point it out. Kushner has written the character with such uncompromising clarity that her smoldering sense of pain feels out of register with the rest of the evening, which is not long on musical comedy diversions, to be sure, but includes a funny sequence set on the eve of Chanukah: “Chanukah oh Chanukah,/Oh Dreidl and Menorah!/We celebrate it even though/It isn’t in the Torah!,” the family sings, in one of Kushner’s funnier lyrics. (Kushner may not be a natural lyricist — there’s a prosaic sound to much of his writing — but there are few clunkers, a remarkable feat given that the musical is nearly sung-through.)
Tesori’s music is an appealing gumbo of musical styles, drawing most successfully on various genres of African-American music. Her pastiche of klezmer music for the Chanukah sequence is fun, too. It’s when Tesori strays away from ethnic influences that the musical sometimes sounds dry and uninspired, full of random stepladders of notes supporting dialogue that often doesn’t gain from being set to music. The composer’s many fine contributions would have more of an impact if these passages were left unscored.
The musical seems to be leading to an epiphany on the part of Caroline. Her resistance to change is repeatedly pointed out, by Dottie and Emmie, and the show also includes fanciful interludes in which the moon, sung with stylish radiance by Adriane Lenox, sings of the need for transformation. But when Caroline’s self-revelatory aria finally comes, it is more along the lines of an anti-epiphany: “Some folks do all kind of things/And black folks someday live like kings/And someday sunshine shine all day/Oh sure it true/it be that way/But not for me/Not not for me!”
Tesori and Kushner gives Pinkins a rumbling, raging, soulful aria in which Caroline sings of a desire for self-extinction: “Murder me God down in that basement/Murder my dreams so I stop wantin’/Murder my hope of him returnin’/Strangle the pride that make me crazy … Tear out my heart/Strangle my soul…”
Your average 11 o’clock number it isn’t. Caroline is, in fact, a tragic character, a woman too embittered by life and circumstance to open her heart to new possibilities, and fully aware of what she cannot become. Pinkins brings an uncompromising, fierce intensity to the part that gives it its full due — it’s an indisputably great performance. But a musical tragedy is not what Kushner, Tesori and director George C. Wolfe have assembled around Caroline, and the conflict between this scorchingly drawn character and the more conventional and predictable aspects of the show might be its essential, possibly insurmountable, problem. Caroline is without question the finest thing in the show, but she’s also, paradoxically, a drag on it.