Kushner glad ‘Caroline’ gets new chance

Kushner glad ‘Caroline’ gets new chance

JEFF FAVRE SPECIAL TO RAVE!

There wasn’t a hint of false modesty in Tony Kushner’s voice when he said he was pretty sure his seven-hour “Angels in America,” would appear for a short run in 1991 at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, and that would be the end of that.

Of course, his two-part theatrical opus had a bit more life, which eventually led to two Tony awards for best play, a Pulitzer Prize for best drama and 11 Emmy awards for its HBO version.

So you can imagine that if Kushner had little hope for “Angels” and strong expectations for his first musical, the musical must have taken New York by storm. Only it didn’t.

After extensive workshopping, “Caroline, or Change” went to Broadway, where it ran for less than 160 performances, despite several rave reviews and six Tony nominations. Kushner honestly has no idea why the show, which Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe called “the first great piece of musical theater of the 21st century,” was at best a mini-success its first time around.

But Southern Californians will get to decide for themselves. The Broadway production, directed by George C. Wolfe, opens Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre. It stars most of the original cast, including Tonya Pinkins, Veanne Cox and Anika Noni Rose.

Though this is Kushner’s most recently produced work, the characters for “Caroline, or Change” were some of the first he ever created.

“When I was at Columbia, and I was beginning to think about becoming a playwright, I wrote in my journal that I wouldn’t be worried if I could come up with 12 ideas for plays in an hour,” Kushner said by phone from New York. “So I came up with 12 ideas in an hour. One was about an African-American woman who works as a maid for a Jewish family in the Deep South. It’s the only one of those ideas I have ever used.”

Defined by The New York Times critic Ben Brantley as the “brooding person’s ‘Hairspray,'” Kushner’s musical (or opera, as it is sung entirely), concerns the civil rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the larger scale. At the core, it deals with a relationship between a young white boy and the black family maid.

The origins for “Caroline” began with a failed collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, who despite a respected career as a composer and conductor, still is best known for his 1980s anthem, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

“I had been hired by San Francisco Opera to write an opera libretto for Bobby McFerrin, which I did. But he didn’t like it very much,” Kushner said. “I came up with another idea and I told him the story first because I didn’t want to do it if he wasn’t interested. He liked the idea, but when I wrote it, he decided that he didn’t want to write an opera.”

Kushner got the rights back. Wolfe, having already been contacted as a possible director, suggested that Kushner turn the libretto into a musical.

That’s when the playwright turned to Jeanine Tesori, whose string of hits includes the score for the Tony-winning “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Kushner, who doesn’t write music, handed the composer his libretto, which fluctuates wildly in style, from rigid rhyme schemes to segments without any rhyming verses.

“I have never enjoyed working with someone more than I have with Jeanine,” Kushner said. “She has written what I think is one of the most melodic, beautiful scores ever.”

Tesori also influenced several changes in the script, including a new first-act climax.

“Caroline, or Change” was workshopped and revised for two years, most of which was done with the same cast. Last fall, it premiered at the Public Theatre, and this spring it moved to the Eugene O’Neill.

“With ‘Angels’ and with ‘Homebody/Kabul’ I understood why somebody might not want to watch it,” Kushner said. “But ‘Caroline’ is so accessible, and it’s joyful, and the music is so beautiful. Several critics loved it, and audiences gave it standing ovations every night.

“But some critics dismissed it, and some people just hated it. I don’t know why. But ‘Porgy and Bess’ didn’t do well its first time around, either. I’m glad that ‘Caroline’ is going to have a longer life. “I feel I can say this because I am just the co-author with Jeanine. I think this is a great show.”

* Jeff Favre is a freelance entertainment writer based in Los Angeles.WHAT: “Caroline, or Change.”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with 2 p.m. weekend matinees through Dec. 26.

WHERE: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

TICKETS: $25-$90.

INFORMATION: 213-628-2772 or www.taperahmanson.com.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.