The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre are reimagining their 2012 award-winning production of Caroline, Or Change, a musical about a black maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, set against the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights movement.
The show, now running at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre, is autobiographical, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, who was raised in Lake Charles, La.
The musical’s main character is Caroline, a single mother of four children, who finds her weekly salary of $30 inadequate. To help her, her employer suggests she keep the pocket change she finds in the family’s laundry, which creates a moral dilemma for Caroline.
In Caroline, Or Change, Kushner created complex characters who, according to one critic, seem to have sprung fully formed from the pages of the script. “So many musicals just skim the surface of character. Caroline, Or Change is one of those rare examples of musicals that don’t settle for surface,” said Mitchell Marcus, the founder and artistic and managing director of The Musical Stage Company.
“Rather than having huge tap-dance sequences and power ballads, it’s a musical that really takes its time to go deep into these people, to really explore the detail and the nuance of what it’s like to be that character.”
The role of Caroline, played by Juno award-winning R&B singer Jully Black, is considered one of the most powerful roles in musical theatre.“Caroline isn’t a perspective that we hear all that often, at least certainly in the theatre,” Marcus said.
“She is a black maid who spends her day in the basement, doing laundry. She doesn’t want things to change. She’s not a hero in a traditional sense. It’s quite a herculean role for anyone to take on.”
The relationship between Caroline and Noah (Evan LeFeuvre), the Gellman family’s eight-year-old son, who has recently lost his mother to cancer, is central to the show.
The score, composed by Jeanine Tesori, includes blues, R&B, gospel, classical music and traditional Jewish melodies. “When the family has a Hanukkah party, it’s original music, but it’s pulling from klezmer and traditional Hanukkah songs,” Marcus said.
Tesori gives each character their own musical voice, and she’s included different styles of music in the score, attributing them to different characters. ln Caroline’s basement, for example, the washer sounds like Aretha Franklin, the dryer sounds like James Brown and the music coming from the radio sounds like the Supremes.
The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre’s 2012 production of Caroline, Or Change, won four Dora awards and three Toronto Theatre Critics Awards.
Caroline, Or Change has within it a message for our time, more than it did in 2012, Marcus said. “It’s such a complicated time in the world right now. Everything feels so divisive. I think everyone really has this feeling of the need for change, something is going to give, and in that regard I think there’s really a lot in common with 1963,” he said.
“And the characters in this piece are really struggling with the question of how do you make change happen when it feels impossible.”
Marcus believes that musicals are uniquely positioned to change the world. “When someone sings, I feel like I have private access to what’s happening inside them. Naturally, by experiencing that, you’re feeling a sense of empathy,” he said, which allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
“An intelligent, thought-provoking musical allows an audience member to spend a couple of hours really feeling viscerally somebody else’s circumstances and that has a tremendous power to open up minds and open up hearts and perhaps make some change in the world.”
Caroline, Or Change runs at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto until February 15. For tickets, visit musicalstagecompany.com.