PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Raised by Wolfe, Caroline, or Change, Moves Uptown

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Raised by Wolfe, Caroline, or Change, Moves Uptown On May 2, Tony Kushner's past and Tonya Pinkins' future merged with a gorgeous Sunday evening sunset as the curtain at the Eugene O'Neill rose on Caroline, or Change, a kind of new day in Broadway musicals.
From Top: Tony Kushner, Tonya Pinkins, Jeanine Tesori and George C. Wolfe, Susan Egan, Peter Sarsgaard, John C. McGinley, Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, Jeffrey Wright, Denis O'Hare, Veanne Cox, Sean Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Larry Kramer, and Peter Dinklage
From Top: Tony Kushner, Tonya Pinkins, Jeanine Tesori and George C. Wolfe, Susan Egan, Peter Sarsgaard, John C. McGinley, Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, Jeffrey Wright, Denis O'Hare, Veanne Cox, Sean Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Larry Kramer, and Peter Dinklage Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"I suppose there were other people who could have played it," Wolfe admitted later at the post-party held at Gotham (nee Chase Manhattan Bank) at Broadway and West 36th, "but Tonya was the first choice because I knew her and I knew she'd be perfect for it."

This from the man who has already directed Pinkins to one Tony (for Jelly's Last Jam) and now, probably, another. The consensus among the first-nighters was that Wolfe wasn't crying wolf, either. Several folks express the regret that Pinkins had to go through the formality of a Tony vote before she got her just desserts. They were ready to throw it to her then and there after her big, heart-wrenching 11 o'clock number which goes on for seven minutes. Broadway hasn't seen such a scorching, surefire-award-winning work since Jennifer Holliday served notice in italics that she wasn't going in Dreamgirls. Whew!

Pinkins professed she doesn't know how she does it (never mind eight times a week): "I just get out of the way. That's my job — to get out of the way and let it come through."

It comes through loud and clear. "They stand up for her every night — absolutely!" said one card-carrying journalist and friend-of-the-court — Entertainment Weekly editor at-large Mark Harris, who is Kushner's partner — dispelling the excesses of opening-night ovations. "Her big number always gets really sustained applause. Funny thing is, there aren't many places in the show where you're allowed to applaud so the audience really goes for it."

Jeanine Tesori, who composed the largely sung through score (for Kushner's book/lyrics), estimated there are about 50 words in the whole show that are unnoted, just spoken. And she admitted she had a leg up on the score because she was familiar with Pinkins' voice and could tailor the music to her tones: "I had just done Thoroughly Modern Millie with her. She was Muzzy in our out-of-town tryouts so I got to know her voice very well from that. Tonya did the first reading — just the libretto, no music — so I really had her voice in my head, and, as we worked the material, I got to know it more." Yes, she said, Pinkins had suggestions as they went along —but, then, so did everybody. "George runs a very open room. He always says, 'How does it feel? What do you think?' Everybody contributes. I think the piece has an inevitability to it because they invest so deeply. They're asked to be present, as contributors, and that creates this great excitement in the room. You have to know how to handle it, and he does that very, very well."

The prestige of the piece brought out a full firmament of stars and celebrities. The composer's side of the room was Millie-silly with producer Hal Luftig, lyricist Dick Scanlan and the current title holder, Susan Egan. The latter arrived late, slurping a soda from a paper cup. "I got out of my show 40 minutes ago so I just shoved a piece of pizza and a soda down me so my stomach won't growl. It's a really glamorous life, isn't it.?"

Same story with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who arrived with a Starbucks cup and Peter Sarsgaard. (The latter flashed his famous, sexy crooked-nonsmile to the photographers.) "I came from work," she explained. "Work" happens to be the other Kushner epic that's going on at the moment: Homebody/Kabul, which will play the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre May 11-30 with Drama Desk nominated Linda Emond and the entire L.A. cast (among them Reed Birney, Bill Camp, Firdous Bamji and Rita Wolf).

"I went to school with Tony," John C. McGinley said a bit sheepishly by way of justifying his presence at the theatre. "We ate, slept and drank together for three years down at NYU." Was Kushner writing then? "Nonstop." McGinley is also catching some theatre and getting those juices going again. "I saw my friend Ray Liotta's play [Match] last night. I saw Josh Charles in Neil LaBute's play [The Distance From Here]. I'd love to slide into something as amazing as the two pieces I saw those guys do. I'd like to come back to the stage. Maybe when I get my next six-month hiatus from [NBC's] 'Scrubs.'"

Also in Kushner's camp was the primal pair of the evening: newscaster Diane Sawyer, who'd not seen the show before, and her husband, Mike Nichols, who embraced the playwright warmly at intermission. It was Nichols who turned Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America into a Golden Globe winning epic.

One of those Golden Globed was the lone carryover from the play (and a Tony winner for it), Jeffrey Wright. He flashed thumbs up for the Broadway Caroline: "There's always a question of whether a show will survive in the transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway, and this show has been served by that transfer in a way that I rarely see. It has become, in the new expansiveness of it, more intimate and available in a way that's really exciting."

He saw no immediate stage project on the horizon but said he has a couple of pictures coming out. The first is Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," updated to the Persian Gulf War and starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep (in roles originated by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury).

The other is the HBO movie which Wolfe wrapped just as Caroline was going into rehearsals and will be editing until the end of summer. "Lackawanna Blues" was originally a one-man-show written and performed by Tony-winning Ruben Santiago Hudson. Now, it has a cast of 30, almost all drawn from the rolls of The Public: Liev Schreiber, Rosie Perez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Carmen Ejogo, Jimmy Smits, Lou Gossett, Mos Def, Kathleen Chalfant plus Halle Berry. "Put in all those names," charged George C.

Another who felt that Caroline, or Change gained in its move uptown was one who was inside of it: Veanne Cox, whose comedy camouflages the fact she's a well-meaning do-badder who creates the crisis in Change in the first place. "I actually only just came into the life of Rose, my character, in the Broadway production," she confessed. "Down when I was doing it at The Public, interestingly enough, I think the space limitations there kept me a victim. I know that sounds odd, but it kept me apologetic. For some reason, getting on the Broadway stage give you a breadth of spaciousness. It brings out the magic in a girl."

Her hubby in the play is depicted as a still-grieving widower and ineffectual father by David Costabile. "There's something touching to me about somebody who tries so hard and is so misguided," he said. "It's great to play a guy that deeply flawed." And there's an extra dividend: The character is a clarinetist, justifying all those clarinet lessons. "Payoff!"

Also adept at the clarinet and the histrionics, Denis O'Hare did the first two workshops of Caroline and showed up to see how it came out. "It broke my heart," he said, but he can find some solace from the notices for Assassins in which he kills President Garfield — if only he read reviews. He hasn't gotten around to reading the raves he got for Take Me Out (but the Tony might be a clue for him). His partner, Hugo Redwood, keeps them from him, on orders. "He's got a great poker face. I can't tell what the review is."

A second Assassin in the room was Mario Cantone, who plays the guy who goes so demented on West Side Story that he tries to kill Nixon. In a Sondheim show, how is it that he gets to sing Bernstein? "Ah," said Mario the Smart, "but the lyrics are Steve's." Interestingly, JFK's assassination figures in both Assassins and Caroline, or Change.

Two casts of A Raisin in the Sun, a generation apart, came out for Caroline's Broadway coming-out: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee from the original run, and Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan from the current revival. Combs was practically giddy with relief from his opening-night nerves. "For me — I'm the new kid on the block — it's a learning experience," he said. "It couldn't have worked out better, based on the experience that I had. Day by day, it goes to such levels. It's like hunting for treasure, and you know you're getting so close to getting there. It has been a blessed experience. Broadway — there's nothing like it. And the theatre community has treated me great." There was also a large display of Public support, as in The Public — starting with Joe Papp's widow, Gail, who was delighted to have another Public show move uptown.

Yet another is in the works, too. Larry Kramer said, "We're getting close to moving The Normal Heart to Broadway." The play — technically, a Worth Street Theatre staging housed at The Public — set the long-running record at The Public 20 years ago, and its revival with Raul Esparza and Joanna Gleason is doing brisk biz.

New Yorker reviewer John Lahr, who collected a Drama Desk Award for pulling the right words out of Elaine Stritch for their Public-to-Broadway present, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, said the movie version of that show-and-some-documentary footage-beyond-that (by D.A. Pennebaker), will play the Tribeca Film Festival on May 3. "Oh, it's very good," decreed the critic. "They combined the footage of the filmed show in London with Elaine backstage in England doing her thing." Pennebaker's famous documentary on the Company cast recording calamities where Stritch stresses out will be showing May 6, with Stritch in attendance. Invitations have also gone out to Sondheim and Hal Prince.

Peter Dinklage, who's having a run of title roles lately on stage (Richard III for The Public this fall) and screen ("The Station Agent"), was among the first-nighters, as was his co star in the latter, Bobby Cannavale, last seen at The Public in Fucking A and currently lensing a new musical written and directed by John Turturro (!). "It's got a fantastic cast," he insisted, and he seemed to be right: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Tony Goldwyn, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Julia Stiles, Christopher Walken and Aida Turturro. The title is Romance & Cigarettes. It's decribed as "Pennies From Heaven" meets "The Honeymooners." Only in Bensonhurt, folks!

One final footnote: There appears to be honor about Pulitzer Prize winners. Kushner is not only playing the Eugene O'Neill, he's screenplaying him as well: "Oddly enough, I'm working on a script about Eugene O'Neill right now. It's on his early life, right after his sea plays and just before Long Day's Journey Into Night. That took place in the summer, and this [takes] place in January [of the same year]. It was something that happened to him when he was 23."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben