Caroline or Change, the new sung-through musical by playwright-librettist and composer Jeanine Tesori, will get a Manhattan workshop starting Oct. 14, under the direction of George C. Wolfe, for The Public Theater.
The three-week workshop of this first draft of the show will likely culminate in private performances. The work, which draws on Kushner's youth, is expected to emerge on stage perhaps as early as 2003, though nothing has been announced.
Tonya Pinkins leads the workshop cast. Tesori previously said the show was written with the Jelly's Last Jam Tony Award-winner in mind. Pinkins played Muzzy in the La Jolla Playhouse tryout of Tesori's Thoroughly Modern Millie. She was also Tony nommed for Play On!
Kushner is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of the two-part "gay fantasia on national themes," Angels in America. Each part snagged the Tony Award for Best Play: Millennium Approaches in 1993 and Perestroika in 1994. Public producing artistic director Wolfe directed both parts on Broadway, winning a Tony in '93 and getting nommed in '94.
"The surprising thing about Tony's text," Tesori said during an Oct. 2 break from studio sessions creating the musical charts, "is that it's something you investigate rather than just 'set' [to music]. It's a piece that has revealed itself." The journey, as she calls it, has taken two years to the current script. "It's not an adaptation, so there's freedom within the box of the story to express and experiment," she said.
Tesori is also handling vocal arrangements. A handful of orchestrators are expected to be involved.
Pinkins wrote in her recent bio for the Merrily We Roll Along reunion concert that her next project was Caroline or Change, and Tesori had previously discussed the aborning work with Playbill On-Line in spring 2002, at the time of her Best Score 2002 Tony Award nomination for Thoroughly Modern Millie (alive and well at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway).
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 a Southern family, made up of a father, his new wife and the man's young son. 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.
"It's a very personal story by Tony," Tesori said in spring 2002. "It has gone through its shifts as we've worked through the first act and into the second act...I think his work is absolutely extraordinary on it. It's the first collaboration I've had with George. It's kind of like a dream. It's not an easy time, only because I think all of us are very challenging in the room. We're all strong and we all have a lot to say. All of that energy in one room, there's a lot of bouncing that goes around: ideas and thoughts and comments. But it's a joyous place to be."
Is it autobiographical for Southern-Jewish Kushner?
"It's semi-," she said. "This is really for him to say, but there are certainly parts that he's taken from his life and his knowledge of Lake Charles [Louisiana]. We are approaching it as a complete narrative that's somewhat divorced from his experience. It helps that I don't know him — I know him well now, but I didn't at the start, so I've brought a kind of new eye to it and a new way of storytelling that I have not done at all, or come close to. [The sounds] are so rich: It's Southern and it's '63 in the pop world and the world of black women and the Jewish household and the world of the boy. It's an embarrassment of riches [musically]."
At one time, the show was expected for the Public's 2002 03 line-up. There is talk that Caroline or Change may be co-produced by The Public and a not-for-profit regional theatre.
Pinkins' autobiography, "A Trial of Faith," will be published in 2003. Tesori's plate, meanwhile, is fill: She co-wrote to score to "Mulan II" for Disney for video release; she's writing Hoopz for Disney theatricals with Suzan-Lori Parks; and she and Millie lyricist- librettist Dick Scanlan are exploring other project ideas.