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What's New on the Rialto

Talking to Jeanine Tesori
and Veanne Cox about
Caroline, Or Change
By Beth Herstein

At the Public Theater in Manhattan, a new musical is currently in previews, set for a November 30 opening, and is generating a lot of interest. Caroline, Or Change is the ambitious new collaboration among Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America); Tony Award winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk); and composer Jeanine Tesori, whose work on the Off Broadway musical Violet earned her Lucille Lortel and OBIE awards and a devoted following, and whose work on Thoroughly Modern Millie earned her a Tony nomination and increased her popular and commercial success. In addition, Caroline features a strong cast, headed by theater veterans Tonya Pinkins, Veanne Cox, and Chuck Cooper.

Despite the scope of its ambitions, Caroline tells a simple story - though it sets the story, quite pointedly, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with their broader, but in many ways parallel, ramifications. The play, which takes place in Kushner's home town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963, centers around Caroline, a divorced and unhappy mother of four, who feels trapped by her difficult economic and personal situation. To make ends meet, she works as a maid for the Gellman family: mother and father, who are both musicians, and their eight-year-old son Noah. Shortly after the mother dies of cancer, newly widowed Stuart marries his late wife's best friend Rose, who moves from her home in New York to Lake Charles to re-make a home for the bereaved family. Noah resents Rose's presence, and he attaches himself to Caroline, whom his mother liked very much. Rose, hurt by the rejection, becomes increasingly frustrated with Noah's habit of leaving change in his pockets when he drops his clothes in the laundry basket. She reasons that it is disrespectful to his father, who works hard for the money, and to Caroline, who is poor.

"Out of everything in this household that's right or wrong that she has stepped into, her focus goes to this one thing. Which is very human," Veanne Cox, who plays Rose, explains. "There's not a person alive who doesn't have something that irks them. And, for some reason, Rose has latched onto this one thing."

To correct his behavior, Rose devises a plan: Caroline can keep any change she finds in his pockets from now on. This way, she reasons, Noah will learn respect for money. And in a sense, Caroline will receive the raise that Rose and Stuart cannot afford to give her outright. The plan creates a new power dynamic in the household, changing the personal and economic balance, and it brings suppressed resentments to the surface. Also, Cox explains, "because of the ramifications, it becomes a catalyst for change. People do things like this daily in their lives, and sometimes they are not aware of the ripples, the waves - the way that it actually changes things. Because Tony is such a great writer, he has taken this point and fleshed out its ramifications."

Caroline is hard to categorize. It's a serious show with a conventional dramatic arc, but the appliances, the city bus, and the moon all talk. It began as an opera and is still a sung-through play, but, despite its operatic elements, it is not a bona fide opera. "Tony calls it an opera-cal," Jeanine Tesori says. "That term I like. But, I think it's a folk pop opera. It has operatic gestures, being sung-through, and there are certain places that it's aria-like. It fits in a lot of folk songs, spiritual influences of the forerunners of R&B and soul music, the music of Eastern Europe, the classical tradition, play songs, street songs ... [but also] it's kind of a musicalized play in a way."

When Kushner's original plan to write Caroline as an opera didn't pan out, he approached Jeanine Tesori to collaborate with him and George C. Wolfe on the project. Tesori, an admirer of both Wolfe and Kushner, agreed. She has been a part of the show for around three years.

Millie, Tesori's last production in New York, was quite different. "As most of my projects do, they co-existed. I was doing work on Mulan II at the same time that I was doing Millie, and the same time that I was doing this. I find it much easier to do that, because you can use different parts of yourself. Caroline required a much different set of muscles, emotions, than Millie. I kind of built a reserve while I was working on Millie, and therefore I was able to travel pretty seamlessly back and forth. Tony and I started working on Caroline right after we were finished with Millie in La Jolla [where the show had its out of town run]. We were starting to write while Millie was coming to New York. I've always worked best that way, as long as the projects are really different."

Though Kushner had a first draft of the libretto when Tesori came on board - "the structural ideas were all in place, the ideas of the appliances singing, the washer and drier singing were all in place," she says - the current version of the work represents a true collaboration. When choosing a project, "I don't want to have a bad time. Life is way too short. Sometimes directors have been brutal. I wouldn't work with those people again. I don't believe in it. You can be harsh on the work - I can be incredibly brutal about the working, cutting it and doing that stuff. But the rest of it - I don't get it. It's hard enough to do this anyway." It has been wonderful working with Kushner and director George C. Wolfe, she says; they make a great team.

The second and additional drafts of Caroline, in which the details of the show were worked out, are the fruits of that team's collaboration. At first, they did a lot of "general talking" about how to musicalize the piece and how to integrate the small family story with the larger conceptual one. "Then I just said, "You know, I'll never start it if I keep realizing what it should be," and she got to work, filling in various parts until she was happy with them, and then bringing all the pieces together and finding places to repeat and reprise them in act two. "It was hard," Tesori says. "It's really challenging."

Ultimately, she believes, the connection between the family story and the larger themes of the work is to be found "in the relationships of the characters. And, I think it was more our job to reveal them and to get their world across through the songs of the characters themselves, so that they can smash up against each other."

Though she worked hard on Caroline, Or Change, Tesori did little musical research. "I think, because I've done so much recording and so much world music, I already had a lot of it in my brain back there. I did listen to some Etta James, because Tonya's voice is so earthy, and while she was in L.A. I wanted to remind myself of that kind of power. And I did listen to some clarinet pieces because the father is a clarinet player, and I talked to a lot of reed players. They're interesting people, reed players. Their profession relies on a thin piece of wood. So, there's a lot of concern about if it's dry, if it's wet, if it's this, if it's that. So, that was much more what I did."

Tesori was able to write to the vocal range, strength, and personality of Tonya Pinkins - and, in fact, of all of the actors - because most of the cast has been involved with Caroline for the past two years and has participated in all four of its workshops. To the extent possible, she writes to the performers whenever she works. "It's like doing a musical sculpture of them, or fitting a beautiful suit," she explains. "It's not going to be perfection, but the attempt has to be perfect." The result is well worth the effort, she says. "When the cast is so perfectly matched to the material, it becomes something so rare that people in the theater feel that this isn't going to happen again."

During this period of development, everyone involved worked hard to keep Caroline private; only around 30 people attended each of the workshop performances. "So nobody knew anything about the show until we started previews. We chose to work way under the radar. I like working that way. I like working in private." It is more difficult to work privately, these days, because of the Internet - and, in particular, to postings in chat rooms, which can brand a show as good or bad while it's still being developed. Though it's sometimes frustrating for her, she still admires the passion of these individuals and has come to terms with the phenomenon. "I mean, it's freedom of speech. What are you going to do? At the same time, I think there needs to be a kind of ability to keep things private for a long time before word gets out. You're kind of working publicly now and I find that really challenging."

In addition to the work of the creative team, the cast has also participated in the show's development. Wolfe, Tesori says, constantly "opens up the room - inviting the actors and everybody, all of them, in." He asks them on a regular basis to share their ideas and input. "He doesn't ask them to leave part of themselves outside the door. They are the recipients, the interpreters of the material. And, he wants them to invest themselves in a very deep way in the material so they have ownership as well."


Harrison Chad as Noah Gellman and Veanne Cox as
Rose Stopnick Gellman

Photo: Michal Daniel
Performer Veanne Cox agrees. "[Kushner, Wolfe and Tesori] have put tremendous trust and faith in me from the beginning. It's a credit to them that they have faith in artists, that they have faith and trust in their people." Not just their encouragement, but their artistry, she states, has made her job easier. " People of their caliber, in my experience ... it's daunting, on a certain level, but ... you have one small daunting door, and then all the other doors are open. It seems actually less effortful in the end, with only that one obstacle, and all the other doors are wide open in terms of cooperation and artistic integrity and challenge."

In fact, she says, the entire cast and crew are wonderful to work with as well. "It's such a great and inspiring group of people - everyone from the lighting crew to the set crew that works with us every night, to the hair to the wardrobe. It's not just the cast but everybody here, the company manager included, the people who run the theater. It feels like a utopia so far."

Tesori agrees with this assessment. "People actually love each other, and not in a bullshit way. It's been a family. We believe in the piece, and we believe in the cast and they believe in us. There's incredible trust on both sides of the table, and that's been such a relief."

During my interview with Veanne Cox in the Public Theater's main lobby, it was clear that the group had, indeed, become close. Several times, we were interrupted briefly by people involved with the show who stopped by to say hello, tease Cox ("She's getting back at me for something I did earlier," she explained, with a laugh), or pat her affectionately on the shoulder.

On top of her work in musical theater, Tesori has scored three straight to video/DVD Disney movies, including the recent release Lilo and Stitch II and the upcoming Mulan II. Her affinity for children's movies is inspired by her relationship with her six-year old daughter, Siena. (She and her husband, conductor Michael Rafter, chose the name because they eloped in Siena. Tesori's mother teases her, "It's a good thing you didn't go to Hoboken.") "Siena's really been a part of my work. She came with me to L.A. when I went there to do Millie. She has such an intimate knowledge of the theater. Of course, she's not hanging at the theater, because it's really an adult place. But, she knows what my work is; she has first hand knowledge. She has seen me teach and lead seminars and conduct orchestras. So, when I tell her I'm at work, she doesn't have to reach into her imagination. She knows what I do. And, that's been really good for us."

Tesori thinks back fondly on Violet, her first major work, which is still performed regularly out of town and at colleges. "I love that piece," she says. "I also feel that I probably wouldn't be able to write it the same way today. At the time, I was very naive. It was my first show around the time I started to write music full time. It was so many things to me. It was the start of something and the end of something. At the same time, I got to take something that far - much further, actually, than I thought it would go." Last season, Violet was performed in concert as part of a series of shows inaugurating the new Playwright's Horizon space on 42nd Street. She particularly enjoyed the fact that for the Playwright's Horizon show, she could do the piece again, "revisiting it, and then letting it go." Although she would love for the show to be performed in the future, she doesn't have "a burning need to have it done. It's one of those shows that might be great for students to do at college theaters. It's had a good go of it."

There was no recording contract in place for Violet, however, and it was only through the persistence of Tesori and her collaborators that Violet got recorded. "There was no one who recorded smaller shows like that at that point," she explains. "And, with a show like that, if you don't record it, it becomes a memory with no record. So we decided to raise the money ourselves; we would raise the money and then record as much as we could until we ran out of money. I had just had a baby; in a way, it was sort of good that I was so sleep deprived I didn't even have enough strength to get bitter about it." It took them a year to complete the recording. There are definite plans to record Caroline. "We have an agreement with the producers to record it. That's a lesson I learned from Violet. So it will be recorded, but I just don't know when." For now, her focus is on getting the show ready for its November 30 opening.

Though currently ensconced in Caroline, Tesori has some ideas about her professional future. Through Siena, Tesori has also become more aware of children's stories in general, and hopes to work with Scholastic in the future. "They own the dramatic rights to a lot of their books, which I love." She also intends to work with Dick Scanlan, who wrote the lyrics for Millie, down the line. One thing she doesn't plan to do is write a whole show, words and music, by herself. "I'm really not a good lyricist," she says. "I would never do a whole show by myself. For me, part of the fun is being able to go back and forth. I really respect composer lyricists. But, I'm not one of them."

Cox has also worked hard during the development phase of the show. Now, it's primarily "a matter of confidence, which I get a little closer to having daily." Through the two-year process, she has gained a great respect for women in Rose's position. Although the interior story is small, Cox says, people should not dismiss it lightly. "Rose has been brought up by a [liberal] father with very specific political ideas. Her values were based on this political upbringing. And they drive what she believes in, which is that [forgetting to empty one's pockets of] change is inappropriate around someone who is poor," Cox states. "We just don't think that what drives housewives and mothers is politically oriented. And that's just not true. Because women, mothers and housewives - they're the beginning. They're the roots of what ends up becoming the world. We have to give them credit for that."

As for Rose in particular, Cox says, "She comes down south with great faith that she can make a family, which she's never had the challenge of doing before. And, I think that she achieves that. She doesn't walk away, she doesn't throw up her hands. And, she believes in what she's doing. And, she's undaunted. There are a lot of things that could have stopped her." After Caroline itself ends, Cox surmises, "Rose ends up being a great southern lady, probably."

Cox herself is a southerner, from Virginia, who moved up north - the reverse of the trajectory of her character Rose. Thus, she drew from her personal knowledge of the south in preparing for the show. In addition, she drew on her personal, as much as her southern, heritage. "We were not a wealthy family at all," she explains. "Much like the Gellmans - there's not a lot of money in that family. But they live comfortably, more so than other people. There was a period in my family when my brother was very ill, and he eventually died. My mother took on a maid at that point because she had three other children. I remember what it was like. My mother was a very liberal woman, a liberal voice. She had deep feelings about a system where everything was not equitable. Now I understand what my mother was going through, bringing in someone to help her. She needed it desperately, but it still spawned pain to have to take somebody on and not be able to make them a member of the family in terms of sharing equitably." Because of this, Cox recalls, "there were days that it was very difficult in the rehearsal process." In addition, she states, the fact that she lost a brother at an early age helped her to understand the Gellman's situation. "I know about loss and what that does to the family structure."

Another difficulty is one that the outside observer might not expect. Cox was nervous about singing on stage again. Having started her performing career as a ballerina with the Washington Ballet, Cox is a well-respected veteran actor with numerous theater, film, and television credits (and a 1996 Tony Award nomination under her belt for the Roundabout Theater's revival of Company). However, when she accepted the part of Rose in Caroline, she had not performed in a musical in eight years - since Company, in fact. In part to prepare for the rigorous role in this sung-through musical, last summer Cox accepted a part in the Bay Street Theater's production of The Boyfriend, directed by legendary stage and film actor Julie Andrews. The experience, she says, "was great, it was wonderful, and an immensely different experience from this. Very classic musical stuff. I don't know what I was thinking when I thought that would get me to this ... allow me to have the faith. But, sure enough it did. Because I got onstage and I sang and it felt a little comforting."

Caroline or Change, Cox and Tesori both state, has changed substantially over the course of its development; and, it has further evolved during the preview period. Once the cast began previews, Tesori explains, "the show had to find its legs. One night, the show just kind of popped open. It was as if it had been under water and I've never seen it happen to a show quite like this, but it literally popped. Right to the surface. Then we were able to start working on a new series of layers to take in and put out. That's been really gratifying and challenging." The end result? "I'm really pleased with it," Tesori says. "I'm really happy with how it's come together, the way it looks, seeing the work over three years that people have done with their characters."

Cox also has enormous pride in the work. "I think it is ushering in the next stage of American musical theater. Oklahoma was first, then Company and to an extent A Chorus Line. This is the next phase, or at least, could begin the transition. It's unlike anything else out there," she says. "I like to think that my career is filled with things that I've been proud of. You cannot survive in this business without believing in everything that you do. Whether it's really great or not, in order to get on the stage and do it eight times a week, you really have to believe in it. You have to believe in something that it's saying. In this piece, I believe in everything that it's saying, and that's what makes it really effortless."

"People should see it," she concluded. "It will hit a chord. Whether they like it or not, it will affect them."

_____________________________

Caroline, Or Change
Newman Theater at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 4th Street
Schedule and tickets visit www.telecharge.com


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