Tony Kushner & Jeanine Tesori’s great musical
I managed to miss Caroline, Or Change when it was launched at Chichester, and again when it moved to Hampstead Theatre. Now that it’s transferred to the West End, I wasn’t going to miss it again. So how did I find it when I finally caught up?
Well, I was a little disappointed but not by the musical which is great. I’ll explain my disappointment later. First the good news.
Tony Kushner’s lyrics are poetic and witty and punchy. Jeanine Tesori’s music goes straight to your heart. Whether it’s to make you happy, sad, worried or hopeful, Tesori is masterful. She composes in a range of appropriate styles- Motown, spirituals, klezmer. And it’s sung through, which means it’s a non-stop ride of emotion.
Then there’s the magnificent Sharon D Clarke, with her deep strong voice. You feel her pain and her rage. Her solid presence is so appropriate for the character who is at the centre of what happens.
Sharon D Clarke isn’t the only great singer/actor. Abiona Omonua as her daughter and Lauren Ward as the mistress of the house are both particularly impressive in a superb cast.
Caroline, Or Change is set in late 1963, in the South of the USA, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s a hundred years since the Civil War ended slavery yet black people are still subject to segregation and discrimination. A new generation is rebelling. Caroline represents the pivot point between the past and the future- not content with the situation but not a revolutionary either. As one of the songs says, ‘change come fast, change come slow but change is coming Caroline Thibodeaux’.
Caroline is a maid, trapped and worn down by her job. The story, though serious, is told in a quirky way. The domestic appliances talk to Caroline, as though she identifies with them. Michael Longhurst’s direction and Fly Davis’ design are wonderfully imaginative.
To add extra interest, her employers are not predictable white racist Southerners. They are a liberal Jewish family for whom the holocaust is fresh in the memory.
In this musical pain is personal as well as communal. The husband and son are grieving for a dead wife and mother, and the boy won’t accept the new wife (symbolised by a divided set), which is why he latches on to Caroline. She is in pain because her husband has gone. There’s a lot of feeling building up and ready to burst, both in the household and in society at large.
The word ‘change’ has a double meaning because Caroline is allowed to keep the change she finds in clothes when she’s doing the washing. She is humiliated both by the fact that she really needs what is loose change to her employers and by the condescending way in which she is being given it. This humiliation lights a fuse that burns until it sets off an explosion of feeling in the second act.
Caroline, Or Change offers a microcosm of a society in flux. It acknowledges that racism runs deep in society, among all ethnic groups, but it’s ultimately a story of hope. As Caroline puts it, in the stand-out song Lot’s Wife: ‘Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.’
For all that’s good about it, I wish I’d seen Caroline, Or Change in the smaller spaces of Chichester or Hampstead. The Playhouse doesn’t show the musical at its best because the large traditional proscenium arch stage of distances the emotions displayed in this intimate family drama with its low key incidents. Having said that, so many elements work that this is a show not to be missed.
Click play to watch Caroline, Or Change reviewed on One Minute Theatre Reviews