"Jeanine is very visceral, very emotional. Tony is completely intellectual. He could have an intensely long conversation about the meaning of every sentence in the play. And then George has to take her emotion, his intellect and turn it into something we can act and that an audience can engage in."
Pinkins and her collaborators gathered at the Public Theater Oct. 2 to present a few numbers from the sung-through musical and discuss the project, which marks Kushner's musical theatre debut and is the first work to emerge from Tesori since she was nominated for a Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Caroline, or Change takes place in Louisiana in 1963, just before President Kennedy's assassination and during the Civil Rights movement. Caroline is the black maid of the Gellmans, a Southern family, made up of a father, his new wife and the man's young son, Noah. The son's birth mother has recently died, and the stepmother is trying to establish a relationship with the child, who already has a close connection with Caroline. The title has a double meaning, referring to the myriad social changes swirling around the family and a family argument surrounding the spare change perpetually found in the boy's pants pockets.
The story is loosely based on Kushner's own childhood, though he has been cagey about calling it autobiographical. "Some of it is memory," he quipped. "Some of it is misremembered. A mis-memory play." However, Pinkins noted that she had talked to the woman who was the model for Caroline. Four songs from the score were performed for a gathering of reporters and photographers. The first—the fourth scene from the first act—begins with Pinkins and Chandra Wilson, who plays another black maid, both waiting for the bus to take them home from a long day's work. The two get in an argument over how the other one has changed for the worse. They are interrupted by the musical strains of the moon (played by Adriane Lenox), and the late-in-coming bus (personified by the deep-voiced Chuck Cooper), which arrives to mournfully announce the assassination of JFK.
The musical's characters also include a dryer, a washing machine and a radio. In another selection, Marva Hicks, Ramona Keller and Tracy Nicole Chapman took the stage. Together, they were the Gellman's radio, and performed the pop bluesy song that opens Caroline.
Tesori explained the purpose of these anthropomorphized appliances. "They don't talk in the sense that the cheese grater dances, as in Beauty and the Beast. The things don't have a life of their own. They're a reflection of the character of Caroline, who runs these machines. Her world is in this incredibly small, incredibly hot basement of the Gellmans, unusual for Louisiana, because nothing is underground. It's all water underneath. None of the houses in Lake Charles [where the Gellmans live] have basements except this house. The idea of what she has not been able to do, or wants to do, or dreams of, can not be fit into this small room. These machines are part of her."
The second number was a solo by Veanne Cox, who plays the Gellman boy's stepmother, Rose Stopnick Gellman, a native of Manhattan who was raised in a progressive household. The song features her in a comic, but sad phone conversation with her father.
It has been eight years since Cox performed on Broadway in Company, her last musical, and the prospect of Caroline made her a bit nervous. "I recently did The Boy Friend at Bay Street," she explained, "because you can't say no to Julie Andrews [the show's director]. But I also did it so I could know that I wouldn't die if I got up and sang on stage again. I was testing for this. I still have tremendous fear when I open my mouth to sing. The music is not easy. The text is tragic. It's almost all sung. It's recitative, which is good for me. Because I trust myself as an actress. The untrust comes in when I have to put notes to it."
The third number offered showed Caroline on the porch of her home at night, while Noah is longing in his bedroom. Though a town apart, they nonetheless communicate.
"I think she's a woman who is bigger than the life she is given to live," said Pinkins, examining her role. "Probably, she could have been a big person in the Civil Rights movement, but it didn't come through Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her struggle is she has all this power and capability, but her choices are very limited. The journey she takes is through the change, the money the little boy leaves in his pockets."
As Pinkins explains it, the stepmother is irritated by Noah's habit of leaving spare change in his pockets. Rose was brought up to understand the value of money, and is irked by the kid's seeming disrespect for it. Her solution is to ask Caroline to take whatever money she finds in the pockets and keep it; the boy is thus punished for his carelessness. Caroline resists the idea, but poverty impels her to retrieve a few coins here and there. When the amount of money Noah leaves in his pockets increases, however, the maid finds herself in a moral quandary.
On the surface, the new musical feels like an echo of Tesori's previous show, Violet, which also took place in the 1960s in the South, and dealt with black-white relations. Unlike Kushner, however, Tesori is no southerner. "In a past life I was in the South," she joked. "Something about the music that interests me."
Discussing her co-writer, she said "We very much complement each other musically, dramatically. At first, it was very scary to talk to him, because he's so smart. It took me about three weeks to think, 'You know, that thing he just said, it sounded really good, but, you know, I don't think that's right.'" She laughed. "After that, it was just two people with two cappuccinos going at it."
Caroline, or Change, begins performances Oct. 28 for an opening on Nov. 30.