Interlude: The Power of Great Art

Playwright, lyricist, theatre critic and all-round Renaissance guy David Cote asked his many followers the other day to identify “a work of art that had an actual, direct, political consequence . . . [a] work of art that led to political change.” Perhaps such a work exists, but the power of great art, in my opinion, lies in the power to change the individual. Exposing your soul to great art is risky–you can feel it in the anticipation, in the experience itself. The pulse quickens, the brain excites, and the world, for better or worse, will never be the same to you–the audience member–ever again. Such are the perils of engaging in The Conversation with a great artist. They change you. Truly great art–something that makes a profound connection with you–is both personal and rare. It was therefore purely by coincidence that days after reading David’s question, I found myself seated in the legendary Studio 54 for Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change.

More than a generation ago, and several blocks to the south, Kushner’s 7-hour, two episode, masterwork, Angels in America, had wrough an indelible mark on my person. It is safe to say that I never experienced the world quite the same way afterwards. But Caroline was something different–a musical. Could American musical theatre accomplish the same transformative effect? Could it rise to truly great art?

In a word: hell yes. I am not the only one to think so. TimeOut’s insightful critic, Adam Feldman, wrote in his review: “[Caroline] has affected the way I interact with people–in a positive way, on a daily basis–ever since.” And that might just be an understatement.

I don’t think that anything can truly prepare you for experiecing Caroline in person. I missed the original production back in 2003 when I was living abroad, but was determined not to miss this one. I barely made it: The production closes tonight. Two days later, I am still dealing with its after effects.

Much of the credit goes to Sharon D. Clarke, who gives a performance for the ages. Caroline is a harrowing role. A single mother raising three kids while working as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963’s Louisiana, beaten down by a broken heart, poverty, and the drudgery of her work. She is no Violetta or Mimi, who at least get to live, live, live, before they die at the end. Caroline never had a chance, but can she change with the times? Her friend and fellow maid Dotty is going back to college. Her eldest daughter has been swept up by the civil rights movement. Or is Caroline simply that proverbial rock, against which all change breaks?

Caroline shares top billing with Change, which is as much an omnipresent force in the play as the titular character. Change at first references the loose change left in an 8-year old boy’s (Noah’s) pockets. That pocket change is the representation of Noah’s rejection of the material world, having recently lost his mother to lung cancer. For his new stepmother, it is also a rejection of her–Noah prefers Caroline as a substitute mother, drawn naturally to her spiritual and physical strength. She will not abandon him as his mother did; she is his rock. The stepmother instructs Caroline to keep the change–a dollar here, a dollar there would be meaningful to someone she pays only $30 a week. Yet Caroline struggles with that instruction even as she struggles to accept the change that is winding its way through 1963 American society. Money, that corosive element of capitalism, begins to erode the social fabric of the Gellman home.

Naturally, the plan backfires at first: Noah sees this as an opportunity for him to initiate change in Caroline’s family. He starts purposefully leaving more change in his pocket, once he realizes that Caroline is taking it home to her kids. But while he imagines himself to be a hero to Caroline’s family, the truth is that they barely acknowledge his existence or that he is the source of the extra money.

The boiling point comes when Noah’s grandfather, a good Marxist from the Upper West Side, comes down to Louisana for Hahnukkah. During the dinner, he presents Noah with gelt: A twenty dollar bill.

What means this money, Noah Boychick?

You won’t learn this in artithmetic!

Money follows certain law,

It’s worth how much its worth becuase

Somewhere, something’s valued less;

It’s how our blessings come, I guess.

Golden, shiny, but never pure.

Think from whence your riches stem.

Think of someone who is poor.

And know you stole this gold from them.

Especially here in the Devil’s South!

You rip your gold from a starving man’s mouth!

Mr. Stopnick

Noah fails the appreciate the message and, predictably, he accidentally leaves the money in his pocket. Realizing this in school, he panics: Caroline will find the money and keep it. Change is one thing, but this is twenty dollars! He runs home, but it is too late. Caroline has found the money and taken in. A fight ensues and both say unforgivable things to the other. Money and class have risen their ugly heads, dividing Noah from his mother of choice.

Caroline faces a crisis of conscience:

Sixteen feet below sea level.

Caught tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea.

That money . . .

That money . . .

That money reach in and spin me about.

My hate rise up, rip my insides out.

My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go.

Spoke my hate to a child.

Pennies done that. Pennies done that

Pocket change . . .


Which leads to this, one of the great arias in the history of musical theatre.

Caroline may not change. She changes you.

For those interested, here is the Spotify link to the cast recording.

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