Open Rehearsal: The Court Theatre Blog

August 21, 2008

Nothing ever happens underground

by Jack Tamburri in Artist Post, Rehearsal, 2008/2009 Season, Caroline, or Change

Charlie Newell, addressing the cast of Caroline, Or Change at First Rehearsal:

‘Welcome, everyone! The start of the season is always a peculiarly exciting time, and this year is my 15th at Court Theatre. It feels to me like it really took us 15 years to get to this room with this cast doing this show. Everything happens in its time. I can’t imagine a more appropriate show to open our season.

Caroline, Or Change is the largest single production that Court Theatre has ever attempted. We tried to do it in the past, we tried to figure out when and how, and only now have the stars aligned to make it possible. Don’t do Hamlet unless you know who’s gonna play Hamlet. With Miss E. Faye Butler we have our Caroline. The first time I ever worked with E. Faye I put her on roller skates and threw ping-pong balls at her. (E. Faye: “I thought you were insane. But I did it.”) When E. Faye and I worked together on Little Foxes we found that her character turned out to be the heart and soul of that entire production.

‘When we knew we were ready to do Caroline, we got an email from Tony Kushner, saying, essentially, “I’m so glad it’s finally happening in Chicago and I’m especially glad it’s gonna be at Court Theatre. Can I do anything to help?” Now, I mostly deal with dead playwrights. And we talk all the time, but not like this. I called Tony and he gave me incredibly helpful advice, insights, thoughts about how the piece developed, what’s happened to it—it’s been all over the world. He’s seen many other productions besides the original Broadway that George Wolfe directed. I have not seen any productions of this piece. Actors and musicians will hear from Tony throughout rehearsal, as I took detailed notes during that conversation. For today’s chat I want to share the following: Tony wrote this story out with no caps, no punctuation, single spaced; 12 scenes with an epilogue, and he handed it to Jeanine Tesori. She went away and she composed the first draft. Tony characterized his relationship with Jeanine as “psychotic admiration.” She took his autobiographical story, this incredible text that he wrote out, and she created this completely sung-through story with music. Doug and I are only beginning to understand the level and depth of the leitmotifs—there are phrases/ideas/themes/melodies/gestures/words that are established and then return in different ways by multiple people throughout the piece—variations on variations, and the density and complexity, as Tony said, is like Wagner. It’s the complexity of opera.

‘In a letter he wrote for the London production, Tony says, “I never like to say what a play of mine means or what it’s about. I certainly don’t write plays to make this or that point. I began Caroline guided by a sense of loss, both personal and political.”

‘He doesn’t want to talk about what it means, but I’m gonna take a stab at it.

‘So, change. One of the ways we define ourselves as human beings is through an understanding that change is constant. We are constantly in a place of change. Kushner, through his own sense of loss, his own politics, grapples with a very complicated idea about how we humans handle/manage//respond to change. Most difficult is change you can’t control yourself. I’m a director, so I’m a control freak. So I often say, “I love change! Let’s try something different! We already did that, we’re gonna do something new!” But then I encounter change I can’t control; change I have to manage in all my ridiculous stupid humble doubt. And this piece taps into that in so many complicated ways. Don’t make any mistake—it ain’t just about Caroline’s managing of change. It’s about all of the people in this world. Everybody is dealing with change in profound ways. Everybody is dealing with profound loss. Loss is the kind of change you can’t control. Clearly Kushner & Tesori were interested in creating a musical which, at the eleventh hour everybody doesn’t end happy. It doesn’t end like a fairy tale. It’s a very mature, human story that carries you all the way to the end through music. And we’re taking a risk because people want musicals to do something else.

‘I’m a visual guy, so I look at the score—and it’s dense. On any given page there’s four things going on at once, just in the vocal lines. And that density is what excites me.

‘I want to be clear, even as much of this story is catalyzed out of loss, just listen to the music. It’s an incredible affirmation of human capacity—a celebration (I use that word carefully) of life as we deal with these complicated issues. That spirit infuses the piece from the top, a celebration of life even as these human beings are managing change.

‘We have a lot of work to do. We’re gonna have a hell of a good time. We have an open rehearsal policy, so there will be people around, observing. And if you come to watch, I’m gonna ask your opinion. Because we’re always pushing to the next place, making it better, clearer, and more complicated.’

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4 Responses to Nothing ever happens underground

Mmmm, I am so proud to be a part of this process.  Charlie’s words are as inspiring on screen as they were in person, if not even more so.

By Barbara on August 22, 2008 at 1:10 am

After reading this, I’m even more excited about seeing this play. I can’t wait until I’m back in Chicago!

By Grace on August 22, 2008 at 2:20 am

I wish I could see this production. Caroline,Or Change is one of my favorite musicals and it looks as if your company is handling this delicate piece as carefully as it should. Kudos! This blog is now in my favorites as I look for more updates.

By Larry on September 10, 2008 at 2:33 pm

found out a long time ago E Faye is a great actress, use to work with her when she was working away from the stage. The vibrant personality you see on stage is the same off stage. After reading about the play, can’t wait to come home to Chicago to see.  By the way, tell Faye I said hello.

By Marcus Lucas on September 10, 2008 at 9:32 pm