PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeanine Tesori

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jeanine Tesori
 
Critics and audiences have been trying to define Caroline, or Change, the new musical, since in began at The Public Theater in October 2003.

Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori

Sung-through and overflowing with metaphor and tension, is this tiny yet expansive tale of a black maid and a lonely Jewish kid a musical? An opera? A chamber musical? Is it a new form? Are definitions even important?

Come April 13, the show that brought together librettist lyricist Tony Kushner, composer Jeanine Tesori and director George C. Wolfe will get a wider audience — more people discussing the nature of "change" — when it moves to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Opening is set for May 2. The cast, headed by Tonya Pinkins in the title role, is expected to move uptown intact.

Caroline, or Change allows Tony Award nominated composer Tesori to play with all kinds of musical flavors, from R&B to aria, jazz to klezmer and beyond. The woman who brought musical life to Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway, Violet Off-Broadway and Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center Theatre said she finds definitions "difficult."

Caroline, or Change continues an extended run at The Public Theater's Newman space, to Feb. 1, prior to moving to Broadway.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: In pop culture we all want to define work: We want to call Caroline, or Change an opera or chamber opera or musical. Do you get hung up on terms?
Jeanine Tesori: No, I don't. PBOL: How do you define the show?
JT: I just call it a piece of theatre. Labels are difficult only in that then I think there's an expectation in going into see something. Labels, in a sense, are about comfort. We get caught in the language, understandably, because at this point you're trying to synthesize what is from what was. Many people have been searching for a term for it, and basically I've been saying, "Go see it and experience it and don't worry about a name." Someone will come up with something; they did for "symphonic form." [Definitions] tend to happen afterward. It's not something we honestly thought about when we were cooking it. We just kind of kept doing it, which was not how I usually work. It was a very scary and really exciting way to work.

PBOL: I'm curious about the way you and Tony Kushner worked on this together for the past couple of years. When we spoke in the past, you talked about how highly-charged the room was with you and Tony. What effect did director George C. Wolfe have on the energy in the room?
JT: It's a challenging room only because I think the questions are challenging. "Muscular" is a really great word for the collaboration because there are deeper questions about what's really underneath everything...and [letting] it discover itself the way you discovered it...and [letting] the actors play, and if that makes you crazy then leave the room. [George] above all really holds onto process much more that I've ever been able to. Process, as much as I love it — and I do — it eats away at my stomach lining. It's very scary to not watch something immediately. He's a great teacher of allowing something the time that it needs. He does use the preview process...to continue the rehearsal process.

PBOL: How did the project begin, textually, from Tony to you? Did he give you a treatment? A first draft?
JT: It started as a first draft. It was all lower-case. It's written, of course, in verse, but there were very few spaces. Physically, it was really quite something to read through because I'm so used to the distinction between the book of a piece and the lyrics and Tony defies that tradition. He said, "I don't believe in upper-case, I don't know what that means." He's tremendously careful about punctuation, he's just a caring and careful writer that way, in terms of language. We would discuss beats, ad nauseam, about what exactly we thought this character was going for and why there might be a stop here. It was a kind of directing. It was so f------ tedious and wonderful at the same time. I would have him read things to me a lot, so I could hear his intent, not as an actor but as a writer, and that I found tremendously helpful. I did that a lot with the actors. I had them read, read, read, so I could really find out. George did that a lot in the very beginning.

PBOL: You had the good fortune of many workshops and rehearsals to create the piece over time.
JT: The great thing about The Public, which is why it's such a vital institution, is that it's all under one roof. We workshopped it and we had rehearsals and then we moved downstairs. There's a seamlessness.

PBOL: At the top of the show, a radio, a washing machine and a dryer sing and fill in the world of Caroline. Later, a bus heralds news of the death of JFK. When did the idea of making the inanimate animate come into the project?
JT: That was Tony right away. He came into the room with the structure. The first draft changed drastically because of our collaboration, but I must say, the structure and the story, they never changed: The idea of her scene partners being these inanimate objects, that was all intact when he brought it in.

PBOL: Caroline is a woman who remains steadfastly her own person; she doesn't change, as far as I can see.
JT: I think for me what happens is, a consciousness is raised and then rejected. I thought about the process of change a lot because of my personal history and also being a parent. It's always been a mystery to me about how change comes about. Literally, how does it? For me, I've discovered, that first step has to be awareness so that you just acknowledge what's possible, or what you want to change. The lenses suddenly get very clear. And she decides not to do it anyway. To me, the tragedy of the piece is not that she doesn't change as much as she acknowledges is that it's impossible for her to, for many, many reasons.

PBOL: Though her kids embrace change, and suddenly it's as if we're projected into the future, and that's the hope of the story.
JT: That's exactly right. That's how we feel. I think the point of the piece is not that the story ends with the boy and the maid. Their story ends there. The story of the play doesn't end until the next generation moves forward. Were there to be another piece written, it starts there — it's their show.

PBOL: Between Off-Broadway and Broadway, will you revise or refine moments?
JT: Oh, sure. We never "took it out of town." It was very scary to put it out down [at The Public] and last through the first wretched weeks of previews where people were extremely loving and extremely rude. We have some great stories that will never make it to print. I don't wish it on anyone. It's not coal-mining hard. It's just artistically difficult to exist while people are taking apart your work loudly in the lobby. That was our "out of town." There was a point where George said, "This is what this is going to be at this point. I know we have ideas. Now we stop." With a second incarnation, we acknowledge that we would look at certain sections again.

PBOL: Do you listen to music when you go home?
JT: No, never. Literally, never.

PBOL: Not even guilty-pleasure, cheesy, bad music?
JT: Nope. I never. I only listen to live music now. I feel like my head is one of those little slot banks, it just gets full. I find a lot of calm in the silence.

PBOL: You listened to early Louis Armstrong for the 1920s, jazzy sound of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Did you listen to anything specific before Caroline?
JT: I did talk to some clarinet players to see what the problems with the instrument are [Noah's father is a clarinet player]. Talk to any reed player and they're obsessed with their reeds. I did listen to some of them in relationship to what they would practice and how they would practice. Otherwise, I listened at the very beginning, a little bit, to Etta James, because I love her, but because her voice reminds me of Tonya so I just wanted to get that timbre in my head.

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