How deep is a musical allowed to get on Broadway? The daring, beautiful and profoundly moving Caroline, or Change has now transferred to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre after a sold-out run at the Public, and conventional wisdom says that it's endangered. Broadway, we're told, is in the middle of an overdue renaissance of musical comedy, after years of dreary fallow in the age of British megashows. The Producers, Hairspray and Mamma Mia! are hits of the New Broadway, tasty trifles that want nothing more than to entertain. This is a laudable goal, but a limited one; bubblegum shows provide only so much to chew on, and nothing to digest.
Caroline, or Change has a wise, bracingly humane libretto by Tony Kushner (the author of Angels in America, and arguably America's greatest living playwright) and an invigoratingly full and eclectic score by Jeanine Tesori. To my mind, it is certainly the most powerful show of the season. But the things we have come to expect in a Broadway musical—a perky heroine looking for love, a sexy young chorus, extravagant costumes and sets—are not to be found in Kushner and Tesori's ravishing and surreal examination of race, loneliness and economics in 1963 Louisiana. The show does not try to save face with an ironic wink at musical-theater conventions; it simply ignores them and starts fresh.
The result is a musical—really, a people's opera—that is unafraid to be serious, thoughtful and literally deep: Much of the show unfolds 16 feet below sea level, in the overheated basement of the Jewish Gellman family's home. The Gellmans' black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux (the extraordinary Tonya Pinkins), does laundry there, slowly drowning in sour frustration at the dwindling prospects for her life. Caroline is not one to put on a happy face—not with the sensitive eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), who idolizes her, and certainly not with Noah's well-meaning but awkward stepmother Rose (a perfectly pinched Veanne Cox).
The Change of the title refers to pocket change that Noah leaves in his pants, which Rose tells Caroline to keep so that Noah will learn the value of money. But in a broader sense it alludes to the civil-rights movement, which Caroline's fear and inertia prevent her from joining. Caroline wants to change, but she's limited by the circumstances of her life; she secretly hopes that her example will be ignored by her spirited daughter Emmie (the exquisite Anika Noni Rose, in a breakthrough role). Only toward the end of the show does Caroline fully confront her own failures, in a breathtaking number called "Lot's Wife." Like "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy, it is a searing, soaring aria of immobility, and it devastates the audience before rousing it to deafening applause.
Pinkins is nothing short of magnificent, and her soon-to-be-legendary performance alone would be worth the price of admission. But director George C. Wolfe has surrounded her with an astounding collection of singers, many of them in small, whimsical roles: Capathia Jenkins as a washing machine, Chuck Cooper as a sinister dryer, and a dynamic girl-group trio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller) as a radio. The engaging Chandra Wilson plays the closest thing to a real friend in Caroline's life, and Aisha de Haas presides over everything as the Moon.
Caroline has been tightened and tweaked for Broadway, and Wolfe's direction remains exemplary. All of which raises an unpleasant question: Why hasn't the theater community united behind this groundbreaking work? Half of the show's reviews at the Public were raves; the other half seemed puzzled or dismissive. One prominent critic, acknowledging Caroline's assets but regretting the absence of razzle-dazzle, bizarrely opined that it was "almost too good to be good." Broadway handicappers speculate that the show will have trouble pulling in the tourists demanded by New Broadway economics.
It took a consortium of 20 producers to bring Caroline to Broadway, despite predictions that it will lose money. If Broadway theater is to remain a force of any artistic consequence, it needs more producers like these—and an equally courageous audience. Caroline, or Change may not be for everyone, but it deserves to be seen by full houses of open minds. Because the show is indeed too good to be good—it's great. And there should be room for greatness, every once in a while, on the street still known as the Great White Way.