Kushner Addresses Caroline, Producers, Critics in League Speech

By Robert Simonson
May 12, 2004

Playwright Tony Kushner delivered a speech May 11 as the keynote speaker at the League of American Theatres and Producers Spring Road Conference.

Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical was on May 10 nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Kushner is well known for his rambling, entertaining, and often highly political speeches and had become a sought after speaker at college commencements and similar events.

Playbill On-Line has obtained a copy of a the League speech. It follows:

"I’m thrilled to be here at 9:30 in the morning talking to you. I think it’s a very good idea to start things early. "I only wish it had been a 7:30 speech, because since I intend to punish you for making me get out of bed at this hour by free associating remorselessly on any number of seemingly unrelated topics, pursuing every digression with fanatic indefatigability and passing by no opportunity to share with you my violent opinions on virtually every subject without any regard or seemingly any awareness whatsoever of the passage of time – it will be, in other words, like watching one of my plays – well if we’d started at 7:30 we might be finished before lunch.

" No really I will only talk for my allotted 15 minutes. And making a speech at 9:30 AM, before my agent opens her office, who knew such a thing was possible? Well, it’s an adventure, and I think one should always be up for any adventure.

"I’m actually an early riser. Every morning at around 6 AM my inner demons stick their pitchforks into my heart and I leap up in a wild state of terror thinking about deadlines and mortgages and failure and fraudulence and old age and bodily debility and senility and death and the high cost of dental work and I rush to my desk my head aflame and I begin writing. At 6AM! Fortunately there isn’t an audience – well, there’s my partner, but he’s used to it by now, he can sleep through anything.

" I am in truth very happy to have been asked to come to talk to you this morning. Honored, even. We’re in the same business, you and I, our job is the same, namely to make theater happen; though we come at it from different angles – your job is to try very hard to make theater a profitable enterprise, and I like to think that my job is to make your job as difficult as possible. Though I call myself a socialist – and that’s one way I like to make your life difficult, when you take my show on the road, as I hope will happen with Caroline, or Change, for reasons I can’t sufficiently explain I will feel compelled when I give interviews in local papers to call myself a socialist, a gay Jewish socialist, and you will have to send in SWAT teams to rescue the actors from the angry mobs that have assembled outside the theater – though I call myself a socialist I have great respect and affection for entrepreneurs, impresarios, producers, investors, anyone with a modicum of what my aunt Martha calls tserchl – a Yiddish word, you can call my Aunt Martha if you want the exact translation but I think it means something like common sense or, in this context, business acumen – even socialists admire people who actually make things happen, and you make theater happen in the United States of No Public Funding for the Arts, you make it possible for theater artists to make a living doing theater – and in pretty much any century, that’s something of a miracle. My second-favorite playwright Bertolt Brecht, also a socialist, said, when he was desperately broke, in exile from Hitler and living in LA, where no one wanted his plays or screenplays and he hated everything, even the sunshine and taste of the local oranges, "I despise anyone who can’t use his head to fill his belly." I don’t despise people who can’t do that, and I think we should have a world win which all bellies are guaranteed their healthy share, but I admire people who can. I want to be a person who can. I want to be a commercially successful artist. Do I contradict myself? Big Deal who doesn’t? What playwright worth his or her salt doesn’t contradict him- or herself? Contradiction – it’s what we do for a living.

" I think my producers, the immensely brave and gifted and wonderful people who produced Caroline, were nervous about what I would say to you. I imagine if any of them are here this morning – and some of them are, I know they wake up early, I wake them up, I call them at 8AM every morning to ask if we sold tickets – if they are here, they may still be worried. It is, let’s face it, award season, scary season, tourist season, tour season, everyone’s jumpy, I am jumpy, you are jumpy, I didn’t know what I should talk about, I know everyone’s interested in what I mean by socialism but that’s not the main reason you’ve gathered at the Crowne Plaza and I should I think strive for topicality, relevance. So I will talk about writing my first Broadway musical.

" I was recently asked to fill out a questionnaire on the subject of writing my first musical. I was in a mood that day. Here are the questions, and my answers:

"Q: What inspired you to write Caroline, Or Change?
A: Memories of my childhood in Louisiana, my mother's death in 1990, curiosity about writing a musical, hopes of striking it rich writing a musical -- in other words delusion -- and all the usual stuff: trauma, guilt, revenge.

"Q: How does Caroline, Or Change differ from the traditional Broadway musical?
A: I don't know what that is, a traditional musical I think CAROLINE's in the tradition of what I love in the Broadway musicals I love: it celebrates and works variations on American musical idioms from blues to klezmer, it's funny, it's sad, it's historical, it's political, it's personal, it's about love and loss, you leave humming the tunes, it's indebted to Rogers and Hart and Hammerstein and the Gershwins and Bernstein and Sondheim. The traditional musicals we treasure have mostly been pretty untraditional.

"Q: Did the prospect of writing a play set to music intimidate you creatively?
A: What intimidate? I loved it! Singing and music all day long!

"Q: How did it affect your creative process?
A: I had to buy a rhyming dictionary. And I got to write with a partner, Jeanine Tesori, with whom I am now so deeply in love that if I wasn't gay, there'd be trouble.

"Q: Collectively, your plays can be seen to comprise a political movement. If so, what is your ultimate aim?
A: To take over the planet, and then to lose 25 pounds.

"Q: It's been said that in polite conversation, one should avoid religion and politics. Do you agree?
A: No, I don't. I think in polite conversation one should avoid talking with food in one's mouth or saying things like "You're having SECONDS?" or "We saw your new play - the last one was better." But since when is it polite to be boring? People who avoid theology & politics are boring. Being boring is RUDE.

"Q: You've been described as a playwright and an activist. Is it possible to be both?
A: My day job is playwright. My citizen job is activist. That's every citizen's job. I succeed and fail at both my jobs , but I try to do them both. It helps having a split personality.

"Q: While Caroline, Or Change is set in a slightly distant past, what message does it have for contemporary audiences?
A: I don't write plays with messages. Bottles found on the beach sometimes have messages, fortune cookies have messages. I want people to be entertained. I want them to be moved to thought, to questioning, and also moved.

"Q: What conversation do you envision people having as they leave the theatre?
A: "WOW that was GREAT! "
"I feel moved to thought. I have questions! I need a kleenex do you have any?"
"NO, use your sleeve. I bet Aunt Trista and Uncle Luigi would LOVE thisI"
"A Singing Washing machine! How do they come up with this stuff?!"
"I can't stop humming the tunes!" "Let's buy 700 tickets for our closest friends!"

"Q: What's next for you?
A: I will be running a fruit smoothie concession at the Republican National Convention.

"Caroline, or Change tells a story I’ve been thinking about for many years. It’s partly based on an incident from my childhood, grounded in memories from my early life. I’ve wanted to write about race relations, the civil rights movement, and African-Americans and southern Jews in the early 1960s, a time of protean change sweeping the country; and to write about these things from the perspective of a small, somewhat isolated town in Louisiana. I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana during this period. Change was taking place, of course, but in a more subterranean fashion, and at a different pace, than elsewhere in America. I took notes over the years and dredged up various recollections but I couldn’t find the right vessel for the story I had decided to tell.

" I decided to write Caroline when San Francisco Opera asked me to do a libretto for an opera. I am an ardent opera fan, and I come from a musical family: my parents and my brother are professional musicians. I think getting a commission from an opera company made it possible for me start to write the play. Since I would be writing lyrics, I had permission to write... well, lyrically, to use a loose, rhymed verse instead of prose, and this immediately recommended itself as the ideal voice for the play I’d wanted to write. And writing text for an opera connected the story I wanted to tell with music, a central component of my childhood, and perhaps the missing key to my memory of this incident, these characters, that time. I’ve been writing lyrics, or well at least rhymed verse, for many years. Here’s an early example, written after my first play was panned:

" A Song for Playwrights, In Self-Defense

"Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh,
the drama critic's in a stew;
he holds his breath till he turns blue.
He doesn't like the work we do.

"Tell us, critic, tell us true,
whence oh whence your bilious spew?
Is it some trauma's residue?
What did your parents do to you?

"You carp and pick and misconstrue,
besmirch the world with critic-poo;
less welcome than the Spanish Flu,
the sort that decent folk eschew;
and you're reactionary, too.

"Perhaps its time that you withdrew,
doffed your cap and bid Adieu:
defenestrate, or swallow glue,
take up a knife; your breast, imbrue!
We wish for you a passe-partout:
Transplant yourself to Ouagadoo–
Goo, Honolulu or Corfu!
Say tally-ho and toodle-oo,
We promise we will not pursue!
You will not do, you will not do,
your meinkampf love of rack and screw,
your brute brute newsprint heart, ach du,
we are no longer reading you!
Daddy, daddy you bastard etcetera.

"Note: This poem refers exclusively to those drama critics who fail to appreciate my work; all others are enthusiastically exempted.

"I brought the first draft of Caroline to George C. Wolfe, hoping he’d help me as I worked on the script, and hoping also that he’d want to direct it. George wanted to work on the project, but he felt that the script would require a cast of actors rather than opera singers. He suggested that we work on it as a musical theater piece. The intended composer for the opera, meanwhile, decided he didn’t want to write an opera after all, and so George and I began to search for a theater composer. Our first choice was Jeanine Tesori; we both loved her musical, Violet, and her score for Nick Hytner’s production of Twelfth Night. Jeanine turned us down, for a variety of reasons. She felt script was too complete, assuming I wouldn’t do rewrites – this was before we’d met, before she learned that me and rewriting, it’s like The Red Shoes, I can’t stop.

"George and I, disappointed, spent another year looking for a composer, not agreeing on, not even finding any other suitable candidate. Then Jeanine and I were asked to write a score for a musical adaptation of a film, Don Juan DeMarco. I agreed because I love musicals, I have always wanted to try it, and also there was good money in it and I think Johnny Depp is cute. He was in the movie and wouldn’t be in the musical but he is cute and sometimes even catacorner is enough. And I wanted to work with Jeanine. We wrote a couple of songs together, she realized that I like rewriting, we realized we liked each other, we decided that we didn’t want to continue with Don Juan De Marco – sometimes catacorner is not enough – we loved working with one another, at which point I proposed that she take another look at Caroline.

George, Jeanine and I have been working on Caroline for the past four years. I have never enjoyed a partnership more, nor have I ever felt prouder of the results. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be working with such spectacular artists. Their vast experience with musical theater has been essential to the shaping of the piece, compensating for my embarrassing awkwardness in a medium in which I can claim nothing in the way of expertise – it was like starting over, I felt, I still feel like what I remember it felt like writing my first page of dialogue, my first play – waiting for the Fraudulence Police to kick down the door and break my pencil. The project began with my play, and I have always worked alone as a playwright until now; I’m a reasonably friendly person but I’ve never felt an urge to co-author anything. Jeanine and I have written Caroline together. Ours is by leagues my most intimate working collaboration, and the most pleasurable and productive; we’ve shaped each others’ work on the piece in an atmosphere of an almost preposterous harmony. It’s required struggle and effort, a lot of that – but also real joy. I knew Jeanine and George would enjoy working with one another, and they have. George is incomparable, astonishing, utterly brilliant, utterly original, and very brave. I already knew from Angels In America how smart he is about dramatic structure, language, the human heart, political struggle; what’s been a revelation to me is how exquisite his musical ear is, how beautifully he’s been able to contribute to the musical life of our work.

" I consider Caroline my best work to date, and I’ve learned more from my partners in this endeavor than from any other work I’ve done. I’m enormously excited about doing a musical. I intend to remain a playwright, but after this transformative experience I hope I’ll be able to continue growing as a lyricist and writer of musicals as well. In the workshops we’ve done so far, in watching George work with the fantastic singer/actors we’ve gathered together – and we have an unbelievable cast, starting with the great Tonya Pinkins in the title role – when I brought the script to George he said "I know who can play this, I know who you wrote this part for" – in my long sessions with Jeanine, I’ve learned hugely important things, I suppose primarily about the relationship of sound and sense, the emotional and the rational. There are places inside only song can reach. Words can do all sorts of things, obviously I’m a big big fan of words, of speech, of language, words can say what words can’t say, the right combination of words can do that – and that’s thrilling, that’s magical; the apt description can describe the indescribable. But as someone who has spent all his adult lifetime trying to move audiences with words alone, I have advice to offer to someone who cares about such things – try a musical. What I have to struggle arduously at with words, words which betray the arduousness of the struggle, Jeanine’s music seems to offer up with an organicity and shapeliness and spontaneity that must be what we mean when we say that something possesses grace. Words can be graceful, but music is grace itself, it is a blessing that enters the soul through the ear. Jeanine that rare knack of writing a tune that makes all the doors and windows of the heart fly open and all sorts of weather to rush in, I think she has that Italian opera gene, I think I was very smart to find a composer whose name ends in a vowel, I’m a huge opera queen and so I knew: Donizetti Rossini Bellini Verdi Puccini – look for the vowel at the end of the name. My mother, who was a great bassoonist, used to play in the pit for New York City Opera and she always hated doing Madama Butterfly because it’s hard to play the bassoon when you’re sobbing. It’s thrilling beyond my ability to describe it to begin to explore these places, and to explore them in such magnificent company.

"My little niece, Ciara, who lives in Vienna, has listened all her young life to opera, my brother is first horn of the Vienna Symphoniker and so Ciara has heard, since she was embryonic, great operas, Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, Schonberg, Tchaikovsky. But recently the Vienna Symphoniker played West Side Story. Now we sing Tony and maria duets together, Ciara and I – she’s six, she lives in Vienna, she knows nothing of New York nor of American racial strife nor, as is appropriate for any six year old, much about strife period, so why did West Side Story get inside her so instantaneously, and why is she now running about singing My Fair Lady and Oklahoma? I remembered the early and overwhelmingly powerful spell these shows cast when, an adult, I watched the New York Philharmonic do a concert version of Sweeney Todd for Mr. Sondheim’s 70th birthday, and feeling the entire audience of jaded, battle-weary adult New Yorkers levitate out of their seats borne aloft on a cloud of compound vapor in which terror and glee and sheer sensual delight were indescribably and perfectly blended – it was ecstasy, pure and simple, and we’ve all felt it, in the presence of great musical theater – at six or at six hundred, it is instantly recognizable, Bacchic joy, and as close to irresistible and universal as anything other than Shakespeare or Mozart.

" Musical theater is also, I hardly need to tell you this, a capital-intensive art form, and I think in this fallen, woebegone world, , in this troubled country, maybe that’s part of the magic of it: The money it costs. It shouldn’t be the only attractive ingredient, the money it costs – we’ve all seen shows like that! – but maybe part of what stirs us and seems miraculous is the mobilization of human energy, including economics – for what else is money (we learn this from socialism!) but a form of human energy – maybe we respond to the vast mobilization and organization a musical requires, the huge communal effort which, in this world, means money – but money spent for the purpose, ideally, of delivering Bacchic Joy, food for the hungry mind and the tormented soul.

"And so this tormented soul has come to you this morning, you mobilizers and organizers of human energy, you bringers of Bacchic Joy, you people without whom theater in this fallen world, in these troubled times, would not exist – and since I believe, as probably all of us in the room today believe, that good theater can in some small way redeem the fallen world, at least offering an occasion for hope, and that’s not nothing – since I believe this, I am here to say thank you, and good morning."