This past week, as the media hype continued to build around the Roundabout Theatre Company’s upcoming Broadway production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s “Caroline, or Change,” I found myself reanalyzing and reconsidering this complex work.
“Caroline, or Change” follows the relationship between Noah, a young boy in a wealthy Jewish family and Caroline, the family’s Black maid and a single mother of four. It takes place in 1963, in the days of Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson and the civil rights movement. The work’s central conflict comes after Noah’s parents ask Caroline to keep the spare change that Noah keeps leaving in his pockets before putting them in the laundry. When Noah leaves a $20 bill in his pants pockets, he is forced to pick between giving Caroline the money or asking for it back. Noah’s feelings in this scene quickly devolve into anger. He exchanges racist insults with Caroline, leading her to quit her job. Noah and Caroline’s relationship is destroyed, their brittle friendship utterly shattered.
I’ve never had the chance to see this work live. I’ve studied the piano vocal score many times after getting into it a couple of years ago, both playing through it on the piano and following along with it while listening to the recording.
Yet the more I’ve studied, the more I’ve struggled to understand the work’s message. I find myself asking, what is it trying to teach me? What should I learn from this work? How should I be affected by this art? How should I act differently?
The ending to this show, after all, is not exactly hard to predict. Caroline and Noah’s connection is overrun by the race-based socioeconomic stratification endemic to Southern culture in 1963. The music is uplifting — a unique, joyous mix of blues/Motown and klezmer — though the cultural context that overshadows it all fills one with despair.
In talking to my friend about this show, I was reminded of another Jeanine Tesori musical about race, “Violet.” The department of musical theater presented this show in fall 2017 as that semester’s studio production. Unlike “Caroline, or Change,” “Violet” explicitly confronts race. It follows Violet, a young girl with a facial disfigurement, as she travels by bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma in 1964. She befriends a young Black soldier, Flick, and his colleague, Monty. The show’s interpersonal dramatic arc, as one might expect, is Violet’s attempt to overcome her prejudices and befriend Flick at the expense of Monty.
The analogy in “Violet” — the comparison between Violet’s disfigurement and Flick’s race — is almost obviously overt. And when I first saw the show, I was briefly obsessed with this concept. What an interesting means of confronting a delicate subject, I thought to myself, distorting the visual aspect to perceptions of race. But as I tried to analyze the work further, as I tried to move past this one dramatic device and delve into the intricacies of the musical’s message, I found little material to work with. “Violet” was an inherent criticism of judging others based on their looks, but it seemed to be little more than that. Audience members leave “Violet” believing that they should try to see past visual appearances, that they should, in a perhaps cliché manner, avoid the pitfalls of judging a book, or a person, by their “cover.” They leave assured that this was the impetus behind the work they just experienced.
“Caroline, or Change,” on the other hand, has no obvious meaning. It has no clear meaning from one’s first listening to one’s last. It has many individual meanings — many interesting devices that provide for individual meaning — but it lacks the hierarchy to pull them all together under one primary focus. Rather than just confronting the visual aspect to perceptions of race, “Caroline, or Change” pulls apart the intersection between race, religion, wealth and social class. And rather than providing audiences with a clear message or takeaway, “Caroline, or Change” raises many questions while providing few answers.
When I think about the means of consuming both works, too, I’m struck by the differences between the clarity of thematic material. “Violet” is easier to watch. It is short, entertaining and powerful. “Caroline, or Change,” on the other hand, requires more time, attention and emotional stamina.
But perhaps there’s some beauty in the ambiguity of “Caroline, or Change.” Perhaps there’s something to be said for a show that is difficult to understand, a show that demands multiple viewings with intense analysis in between. Though our natural inclination may be to gravitate towards clarity and simplicity of messaging, perhaps there’s something to be said about resisting this urge. Perhaps the obsession the show’s ambiguity provoked in me is something it will provoke in many of its viewers. And while this type of show may not guarantee commercial success, while it might generate positive feelings in relatively few viewers, it is the depth of these feelings that makes it all worthwhile. I have to believe there is a meaning beneath the show’s surface, at least for those willing to put in the time and track it down. And just because I haven’t gotten to it yet doesn’t mean that I am never going to.