PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tony Kushner

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tony Kushner This holiday season, Tony Kushner is coming to a screen, stage and book store near you.
Playwright Tony Kushner
Playwright Tony Kushner

The book is "Brundibar," a children's literature collaboration with Maurice Sendak and Michael di Capua, based on a Czech opera that was performed 55 times by children in Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. The screen is HBO, where the Mike Nichols film version of Kushner's Angels in America is set to debut Dec. 7 and 14. And the stage is The Public Theater, where his first musical, a collaboration with Jeanine Tesori called Caroline, or Change, will officially open on Nov. 30. It all adds up to Kushner's busiest period since 1993, when both three-hour parts of Angels debuted on Broadway—and all done between persistent jibes at the Bush administration. The author-librettist-playwright-screenwriter-provocateur recently talked to Playbill On-Line about his many projects.

Playbill On-Line: I'd like to hear from you what Caroline, or Change is about.
Tony Kushner: Well, it's set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and it's about the relationship between an African-American woman who works as a maid for a Jewish family, and an eight-year-old boy, who is the only child of the family. There's no easy way to describe it, but that's the basic idea.

PBOL: Is any of it autobiographical?
TK: It's sort of loosely autobiographical. I grew up in the South, and this play is set in the town I grew up in. I was eight years old in 1963, which is the age of the little kid.

PBOL: And you had an African-American maid?
TK: Yes.

PBOL: And her name was Caroline?
TK: Well, I'm not really going to discuss much more than that. It's sort of partly based on a memory that I'm not entirely sure is accurate. It's not autobiographical in that there's a great deal of invention. The kid's mother in the play is dead and his father has remarried—this is not my life story; my mother lived until I was 34. PBOL: This is the first musical you've ever worked on. How have you found the experience of collaborating with a composer?
TK: I've really enjoyed it. I adore Jeanine Tesori. I think she's just extraordinary. We really love working with one another. It's been a beautiful collaboration, some of the most organic and stress-free collaborating I've ever had.

PBOL: How do you two work together?
TK: I wrote the whole thing out first as a play, basically. And then Jeanine read it and began working on various parts of it. Then we worked together on it, exploring it, changing some things. Some things have gone through rather elaborate transformations. It's mostly sung-through. It's extremely melodic. It's extraordinary theatre music. It's traditional in that sense. But it's not a traditional book with lift-out songs. The songs are very organic and integral to the piece.

PBOL: You've seen the Angels in America film. Are you pleased with it?
TK: Very pleased. I think it's glorious acting and Mike Nichols has done a fantastic job.

PBOL: What differences can we expect from what was seen on stage? Are there new scenes, or scenes omitted?
TK: There are a couple of new scenes and there are certainly cuts made. It's very similar in many ways to the play. All the big scenes are still there, and Mike has even done some doubling, so the actors play a variety of different parts. It's a very particular interpretation of the play. It's a very big play and you can go in any number of directions. This is a version of it that is very personal, very much about human relationships, very intimate. And really just astonishing acting.

PBOL: Jeffrey Wright is the only one from the original stage production.
TK: Right. Everybody else, we're all a little too old now. All the characters are in their early 30s, and pretty much all of us were our early 30s when we did it 11 years ago. And everybody's 11 years older. We had to make changes in that respect.

PBOL: There were many plans to make a film of "Angels" before Mike Nichols and HBO finally succeeded. You must have thought at times that it would never get made.
TK: I had sort of stopped caring. It wasn't something I felt had to happen. I worked with Robert Altman for a while. After that, there were a couple other people who indicated an interest and I even went so far as to write a film script for one of them. But it really was over and done with, and then Mike came and asked about it. That was a big surprise and a really wonderful one.

PBOL: You've been very outspoken against our current government. Do you think our theatre needs to be more political?
TK: Well, it's been very political during the war. I think that a great many American theatre artists were opposed to the war and there was a great deal of activism all through the theatre. In general, American theatre is very political. I think we sort of tell ourselves over and over again that we're not. I'm not entirely sure why we're so intent on convincing ourselves of that. If you look at the most prominent plays of the last several years, a lot of them have powerful political dimensions and address subjects politically as well as psychologically.

PBOL: You wrote a scene for a play called Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy which has been performed across the nation and published in The Nation. In it, First Lady Laura Bush—a former teacher—is shown reading to the dead children of Iraq. Have you gotten any response from the White House about that?
TK: [Laughs] No. They're not going to bother with me. I haven't been audited or anything like that. With John Ashcroft as Attorney General, the thought crossed my mind.... Direct censorship is really unlikely in this country at this point. I mean, I look both ways before I cross the street. It would be enormously exciting to think you had attracted the attention of people like that and made them angry. But that's not the reason the play was written. The scene's not simply a provocation, it's more complicated than that. And I think I'm actually nicer to Laura Bush than she probably merits.