Nov 16, 2004

Sweet "Caroline"

Further proof, if proof were needed, that Broadway is a musty museum: When I saw the vibrant, stirring musical Caroline, or Change there last spring, it seemed out of place. Indeed, it seemed to come off a little pretentious, a little tenuous, as if book writer Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori were tweaking musical theatre orthodoxy out of a mix of snobbery and ignorance. It felt as if they were saying: We don’t know how this is done but we don’t care because we have important things to say with our musical. I admit that I had a mixed reaction to it, personally—I was alternately moved and reserved about its mix of anger and ebullience. But solidifying the impression that this was dangerous musical theatre heresy was a loudmouth show queen in an adjoining seat, who popped up after the show and announced to a friend, and everyone in earshot, that it was the worst musical he’d seen in years. “Give me a tune, anything!” he said, and said again and again, in various ways, on the slow shuffle out the door.

What is affirmed on second viewing, in the new production at the Ahmanson Theatre (which apart from some youngsters is the same show, with an identical cast, as in New York), is that, freed from the straitjacket of Broadway expectations, Caroline, or Change is a serious contender in the Great American Musical sweepstakes. It's the best new American musical since Ragtime, at least, and perhaps not coincidentally it also addresses the terrible American legacy of racism, but with the kind of complicated, soulful blend of provocation and pleasure that is the signature of playwright Tony Kushner. I'll consider Homebody/Kabul a forgiveable transgression—a noble attempt that no one close to Kushner apparently had the heart or the stones to edit or challenge—and point to Caroline, or Change as a hopeful sign that Kushner remains one of our essential storytellers. And if the experience of my plus-one for the show is any indication, this is also a musical for people who don't usually like musicals. Let the Broadway babies have their way. Caroline is here to stay.

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