Caroline, and Change and the Prestige Musical


Sharon D. Clarke and Adam Makke, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Last night my friend and I caught a performance of Roundabout Theater's universally praised revival of Caroline, or Change. The reviews were so glowing that my expectations were high as I settled into my seat.

About two and a half hours later, I left having not enjoyed a second of the musical. There was plenty to praise -- the cast (especially Sharon D. Clarke as Caroline) was amazing --all of them could act AND sing their faces off.  Adam Makke (the Noah last night) was wonderful -- he was never just  "cute". The score by Jeanine Tesori was an eclectic blend of 1960s Motown sound, Jewish folk music, and good old-fashioned Broadway belting. It grows on you as the night goes on. "Lot's Wife" is one of the best musical theater 11-o-clock numbers. Full stop. The show cleverly makes household appliances like the washing machine and the dryer into a Greek chorus of sorts.

Yet the musical felt more like a prestige project than anything else. It checks all the boxes of what critics might look for: famous playwright, famous composer, a "deep" subject matter.  But I was never moved and never connected with what was happening onstage. To be honest, I was more moved by Moulin Rouge even though I knew that was a glorified jukebox musical.


Caroline and the household appliances, photo @ Joan Marcus
What is missing from Caroline, and Change? Tony Kushner's loosely autobiographical story of a young Jewish boy growing up in Louisiana and his resentful household maid violates the golden rule of musicals. You have to create a conflict or a journey the characters are going to go on early in the musical. Musicals often establish what journey the character wants to go on in the first 15 minutes with an "I Want" song. You can't have a musical if you don't know who the characters are, what they want, and where they wish to go. The I Want song is as much a part of the modern musical as it is for the classics -- Waitress's "What Baking Can Do," Hamilton's "My Shot," Book of Mormon's "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," Dear Evan Hansen's "Waving Through a Window" all clearly establish what the protagonist wants and where he/she wants to go in the first 15 minutes.

Caroline in the basement, photo @ Joan Marcus 
It's never clear what anyone in Caroline, or Change actually wants. This is a musical about inert characters who don't want to change. Caroline is resentful and dour as the maid. Noah is lonely because his mother died and he dislikes his stepmother Rose (Caissie Levy). But both of these storylines never generate much audience buy-in, because neither Noah or Caroline go on any meaningful journey. What's more, the relationship between Noah and Caroline is non-existent. Caroline doesn't like or care about Noah. If this is the story of their relationship, then there needs to be an actual relationship between the two protagonists. If you think about the dual-journeys of Eliza/Higgins, Hamilton/Burr, Price/Cunningham, Lola/Charlie (just to mention some musicals that follow two protagonists and their relationship), you realize how much is missing in the Noah/Caroline relationship.

The story can be summed up in one paragraph. Noah leaves loose change in his pockets. Rose is annoyed and tells Caroline to keep the change. Noah ends up leaving $20 in his pocket. Noah and Caroline fight about the change and they say horrible, racist things to each other. 

The wafer-thin storyline stretched into a 2.5 hour musical with long detours into JFK's death has a slightly narcissistic feel -- Tony Kushner is a great writer (as can be seen with Angels in America) but he needs an editor. Spoiler alert: nothing changes at the end of Caroline, and Change. Caroline goes right back to the basement maid job. Noah and Caroline don't even come to a greater understanding of each other. Caroline still dislikes Noah. Tony Kushner tacks on a cloying "happy ending" by having Caroline's daughter Emmie promise that she's going to change the world. 

The musical's best-known song is "Lot's Wife," an eleven o'clock number to end all eleven o'clock numbers. The music soars and thunders, and the lyrics are just as volcanic. A sample:

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!
Make me forget so I stop grievin.
Scour my skin till I stop feelin.
Take Caroline away cause I cain't be her,
take her away I cain't afford her.
Tear out my heart
Strangle my soul
Turn my to salt
A pillar of salt
a broken stone and then...

Sharon D. Clarke's voice is so amazing that you're pinned to the back of your seat. But the actual emotional impact of "Lot's Wife" was muted because Caroline's journey is so muddled. All this majestic proclamation, but how did Caroline get there? If you never cared about the journey, it's hard to care about the journey's final stop (which is what the eleven o'clock number is supposed to do). 

A Hanukah party, photo @ Joan Marcus
Oddly, the character who goes on a journey that audiences can actually follow is the "villain" -- Noah's clueless stepmother Rose. No one in the musical likes Rose -- she's condescending (she seems to be giving Caroline a "raise" by telling her she can keep Noah's change) and she's awkward (her attempts to bond with Noah are cringeworthy). But the story of someone deeply lonely and unhappy because the people around her ignore her is actually a worthy journey. Caissie Levy is an actress who generates a lot of warmth. She played Rose as the typical well -meaning but insensitive white liberal. I cared about Rose and hoped that she found people who loved and valued her. 

As I said, the performances are beyond amazing. The score is pretty good. But the musical itself left me completely cold.

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