A host of angels (the Broadway variety, some 15 strong) have brought Tony Kushner back to Broadway, recently setting him down at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in the last days of Tony Award eligibility. Most owe their past Tonys to this Tony — for both parts of his 1993 Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) — so the hope is that the Tony-streak continues for Caroline, or Change, his new musical written with composer Jeanine Tesori.
This is, as Kushner calculates it, his Second Coming. "I count Angels as one play — it's a two-year blur in my mind — but I got two opening nights and I got two Tony Awards, so I guess this would be my third." The 47-year-old playwright is happy to be back. "Broadway is both a genuinely commercial arena and kind of America's national theatre. There's a certain imprimatur, or seal, or cachet, that is given to a play or a musical that manages to make it to Broadway. Without it, it has a different kind of life."
The life in Caroline, or Change is akin to something Kushner lived as he was growing up, Southern and Jewish, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, under the watchful eye of the family's black housekeeper (after a fictional fashion, Caroline). The Change in the title is double-edged, referring to social change (the year is Civil Rights-racked 1963) as well as to pocket change. A wedge is driven through the happy friendship between the boy and his caretaker by his stubborn indifference to the value of money. To teach him a lesson, his stepmother instructs Caroline to keep any loose change the boy has left in his jeans. The first act is a question of quarters; the second ups the ante, moving the decimal point over two places and rupturing the relationship forevermore.
"The scarcity of the economy has always interested me," Kushner admits, "how, when money gets tight, people start to squabble over incredibly tiny things — and incredibly tiny things become metaphoric for enormous things. That was what attracted me to this idea — the idea of building a musical out of this incredibly insignificant situation. "I'd always wanted to write something about this particular set of characters and this particular idea. When I was in college and I decided I might at some point want to become a playwright — this was '76 or '77 — I wrote a list of plot ideas for plays in my journal, and this is the only one that became a play."
It became a play by way of opera, of all things. "The San Francisco Opera commissioned me to write a libretto for Bobby McFerrin, so I wrote this originally for him, then after I wrote it he decided that he didn't want to do an opera, and they gave me the rights back."
The Public's George C. Wolfe was Kushner's first, and most logical, choice for director, having won Tonys for helming Angels and the musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. "I thought, whether it's an opera or not, I wanted George to direct it. He said, 'I want to offer it to musical-theatre performers, not opera singers, so let's find a composer who writes for the musical theatre.' We thought immediately of Jeanine [Tesori], but it took us a year of wooing to get her to say yes."
The composer component altered the original libretto. "It changed all the time, working with her," recalls Kushner. "The structure is exactly as it was originally — 12 scenes and the epilogue. The plot hasn't changed, the characters haven't changed, but there are sections that are completely altered because she would ask me for words to fit a certain kind of musical form — or we would realize that the show simply needed something at that moment that the original libretto didn't give. There were things that I just hadn't figured out — like Caroline's big second-act number. That was the hardest thing to do."
Tonya Pinkins, whom Wolfe steered to a Tony for 1992's Jelly's Last Jam, is the play's strong-spined Caroline and, unofficially, its fourth collaborator. "Her big number in the second act was the last thing that we finished, really, because we kept changing it and changing it. It was completely a collaboration among me and Jeanine and George — and also, very much, Tonya. That sort of immense energy and veracity inspired us. She's a tragic actress, a tragedienne. The same thing is true of Linda Emond [of Kushner's Homebody/Kabul]. There are some actresses who are, simply, Garbo."
Kushner doesn't use a divining rod to find his plays — he admits he's susceptible to just about anything. "I'm interested in moments in history where a lot seems to be changing and people are either struggling to not change with the times or struggling to change with the times. Everything I have written has that. The thing that was interesting in Angels was that the reason the second play is called Perestroika is that the whole world was really shifting before we knew it was happening. An entirely new world system was beginning elsewhere, but people were experiencing it in this country in personal ways, through the Reagan presidency and through the AIDS epidemic. You had a sense the old world was coming to an end. Those things are always fascinating to me."
That philosophy keeps him from repeating himself. "I think that's a good strategy. David Lean once said, 'The best advice to an artist is never to pop out of the same box twice.'"
It's advice he's followed, and he repeats it like a master of change, both large and small.