I have been waiting a long time to go down into the basement. Eighteen years, in fact. I’ve had the original Broadway cast album, a comprehensive recording of one of the most important musicals to come into my life, memorized since the early aughts, when I was nothing but a closeted musical theatre fag on Long Island. And last week, the lights dimmed, Caroline started humming, and I grabbed my best friend’s leg, immediately enthralled, finally seeing the show I’ve known by heart since 2004.
With an earthshattering performance by Sharon D. Clarke in the title role and nuanced, moving supporting turns by Caissie Levy and Samantha Williams, Michael Longhurst’s gorgeous revival of Caroline, or Change, now running at Studio 54, proves that it was well worth the wait.
An extremely powerful evening of theatre, the musical tells the story of Caroline Thibodeaux, a maid for the white Gellman family in 1963 Louisiana. The grieving father, Stuart (John Cariani, in a performance where he chooses to bumble for two and a half hours, but it somehow works), has married his late wife’s best friend Rose Stopnick (Levy), who is struggling to step into her new role as mother to Noah (Adam Makké at the performance I attended). Noah is enamored with the grumpy Caroline, who is too busy with housework to return the love, save for letting him light her daily cigarette. Noah has a problem leaving change in his pockets, so Rose tells Caroline whatever she finds in his laundry is hers to keep. “It’ll be like a raise! Like Noah pays a share of your salary!” she offers, nervously trying to justify letting Caroline take home a child’s allowance. But that extra change makes a difference to Caroline who, on just $30 salary a week (about $270 today), has to pay rent, take one of her boys to the dentist, and feed her family. When Rose’s father (Chip Zien) visits for Hanukkah and gives Noah a $20 bill, he accidentally sets the course for the destruction of Noah and Caroline’s relationship when Caroline discovers the bill in Noah’s laundry and, per Rose’s rule, takes the money home.
On top of all of that, we see Caroline’s relationship with another neighborhood maid, Dotty (Tameka Lawrence, fucking fabulous), deteriorate as Dotty over and over points out Caroline’s resistance to change and new ways of looking at the world which has held Caroline back for 39 years. Caroline’s daughter, Emmie (give Samantha Williams a Tony, give her the leading role in an A24 film, this gal is the future), is out with kids at school using modern lingo and learning to be unafraid to confront white people, no more evident than when she confronts Rose’s father at a Hanukkah party in Act 2 where she’s been hired for the evening to help out Caroline. We also see Caroline’s relationships with the various appliances in her life anthropomorphized–the Radio becomes an astounding trio of dynamo singers, the Washing Machine a kind, quirky lady, the Dryer a menacing bass, the Bus a mourning funeral attendee.
It is an overwhelming play, but Kushner’s lyrics and Tesori’s music pastiche nearly every imaginable music genre of the period to make it make sense. And Longhurst directs the show with a deft (if, at times, heavy-handed and over-literal) understanding of the text. Across the board, his production features the best acting I’ve ever seen in a Broadway musical. Every choice from the performers moves the plot forward and felt completely honest and dropped in. In fact, very early on in the performance, I had to make the choice to not let myself cry because I did not want to miss a single acting beat. It’s that good, folks.
Until we get to the showstopping “Lot’s Wife,” Caroline’s powerful 11 o’clock number (and arguably one of the greatest musical theatre songs ever written), I found myself wondering if the production was directed as though the story was being told from Noah’s point of view as a way of clarifying and highlighting Caroline. Clarke’s performance is a deeply lived-in portrait of a nearly broken woman, idolized by a child who only sees her strength. Since Noah idolizes her so deeply and since she is so clear in his eyes, everyone else is drawn a little more broadly. Stuart’s grief-stricken bumbling is mostly one note as he forgets Noah’s age or what grade he’s in, Rose’s passive aggressive attempts at doing her best at this whole mothering thing only really begins to find shades of feeling stuck in her marriage in Act 2, and Noah’s grandparents are played for the back row. Why else would the personified appliances look the way they appear onstage–in very literal costumes, designed by Fly Davis, with a bubble dress for the Washer and a menacing series of light-up heat coils for the Dryer? Caroline hates these appliances and I doubt she’d imagine them this way if she were asked to draw them as a person. By bringing Noah’s idolization of Caroline front and center, it causes her to become an almost larger-than-life figure. But there’s so much to her, revealed in scenes Noah isn’t privy to–where we learn of her surviving an abusive marriage, where we see her pray, where we see her tenderness bubble to the surface as she talks to her children–that Noah’s towering idol is brought back down to a deeply detailed and human level.
The entire production is in service of Clarke. Her performance will stay with me forever. Every choice, every inflection, every note out of her mouth was that of a woman tired of the life she’s been forced into by the society around her, a woman who’s given up on the hope that there might be more to life than the only basement in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is a mammoth accomplishment to pull off what she does in this revival.
The chance to see this show for the first time and to see it now, specifically, was such a thrill. It also gave me the chance to think more about my nerves and discomfort about being a person in a theater with other people again. And something I can’t stop thinking about is how the mostly white audience acted for almost the entire performance I attended. During moments of utter emotional devastation during the show, people were losing their minds with laughter, or cheering for big Broadway notes. I get that we’re excited to be back in these houses, but it also means we have to listen again. And perhaps this is on the direction of the show, but Caroline telling Noah that “Hell is where Jews go when they die” is not a knee-slapper, and the middle of an aria about a Black woman deciding change might not be worth it is hardly the time for a huge ovation. It was profoundly discomfiting.
I found myself wondering if anyone was listening, an interesting thought to have while watching a show that spends a good amount of time calling out white liberal inaction on racial and social justice issues. I was shocked for all the power that Caroline, or Change has, has had for 18 years, and has been deepened by the pandemic and its social equity movements, the audience still couldn’t sit still in the discomfort of the show brought up so masterfully. And I found myself wondering if this production and its demands of the audience was helping or hindering.
After what we’ve been through, after all we as artists and citizens have demanded, I realized something. The tragedy of Caroline Thibodeaux is that she settles for the status quo and returns to the same old system that has worn her down over her 20-year career as a maid. What’s to be said when it felt like the audience also wants to go back to the way things were? No, it did not feel like this audience wanted to be challenged to change. It felt like they wanted to be coddled.