Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: ‘Caroline, Or Change’ Composer Jeanine Tesori Contemplates The Hope In Plans, The Lessons Of Plagues And How We Serve Now

Jeanine Tesori Polk & Co.

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.

Caroline, Or Change, the acclaimed West End revival of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical starring Olivier Award-winning Sharon D Clarke and directed by Michael Longhurst, was set to stage its first invited dress rehearsal at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 at 8 p.m. on March 12. With three hours to curtain, Broadway went dark, a historic action that now seems both prescient and a long, long time ago.

Soon enough, Roundabout announced that the production would be postponed until the fall, with Clarke, thankfully, on board. The announcement is, in its way, among the most encouraging bits of Broadway news since the shutdown. Plans, says composer Tesori, are beacons.

And Tesori has plans. In addition to the revival of Caroline, Or Change (the 2004 musical, set in 1963 Louisiana, examines the poignant, complicated relationship between black maid Caroline, played by Clarke, and the eight-year-old motherless white boy in her care), the composer recently collaborated with playright David Henry Hwang on a new Off Broadway production of Hwang’s Soft Power. She serves as creative advisor for the president of City Center, is a lecturer in music at Yale, and was recently commissioned, along with playwright George Brant, to write an opera based on Brant’s play Grounded,

Those projects will join a resume that’s among the stage’s most acclaimed and prolific: Fun Home, Violet, Shrek The Musical, and, of course, Caroline, Or Change. She produced the 2017 production of Sunday in the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal, wrote original or new music for Broadway’s A Free Man of Color and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and arranged or conducted many more. She wrote songs for the film Mulan II, and, along with Lisa Kron, became the first female writing team to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2015 for Fun Home.

Over two conversations, Deadline spoke with Tesori about the postponed musical, Broadway and the pandemic, with irresistible detours to topics that included reflections on the AIDS plague, the similarities and differences between the two catastrophes, and what personal responsibility means in an age of isolation.

The interview, conducted over two conversations, has been edited and condensed. 

DEADLINE: Caroline, Or Change has been postponed until next season. What does that mean exactly for the creative team and the cast?

JEANINE TESORI: With Caroline, it made sense. Caroline right now is frozen and it’s a matter of just adding boiling water. Once [Roundabout] determined that Sharon was available and Michael Longhurst was available, they decided they would let the other pieces fall into place.

DEADLINE: That’s good news.

TESORI: Any time that there is anything that additive, I’ll take it. I just taught my Yale class [by remote] and all the seniors… You know, I read an article about the collective grief of loss, and at every level students have had so much loss, so many things have been canceled. What they’d expected has been so violated. So any time there’s a plan for something in the future, those are beacons that we need.

But I’m inspired by my young students. They’re so fluent in this technology. I think that what we’re asking young people to do is serve. I was talking my daughter through this. It’s really hard for all of them for very different reasons, but I said, This is the way you serve. Staying apart is service. The way that you serve is being defined right now. And it’s a very odd to say “stay apart,” but people have been called to serve in many times and now your generation is being called to serve. And it’s hard.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the logistics of a postponed Broadway show. Caroline was basically ready to go when the shutdown came, but will you have to go back in and revisit things now?

TESORI: This is the fourth production of this production, the fourth version. Michael did it at Chichester, then Hampstead and then the West End. We had some great note sessions with Michael, but it’s really his show.

The theaters were closed at 5 o’clock [on March 12] and we were supposed to do an 8 p.m. invited dress rehearsal. We were about to start a preview period and it was just really about running the show. I was planning to be there for most of the previews.

Tony and I were in and out of the rehearsals because they needed time and not with writers hovering around. We weren’t making changes per se, we were just giving performance notes through the director. Caroline is very, in some ways, a very fragile show, and there are certain moments that really are what Tony always calls the penny drop moments. And so it does need feedback. I think that’s the great thing about that part of the process, that you come in with new ears and then the audience comes in with new ears, and we were just about to invite them in when we got called off.

Sharon D Clarke, ‘Caroline, Or Change’ Alastair Muir

DEADLINE: So you don’t expect there to be any additional work at this point on your end anyway?

TESORI: Only responsive. Hopefully everybody will be available and we’ll sort of go from there. I think we’re going to reconvene in a changed world. I don’t know what that means yet, and I think we should have to be ready to accept whatever that means. I’ve been taking it day by day, and sometimes 20 minutes by 20 minutes. But right now I want to make work for when people can get back to work.

Michael Longhurst Courtesy Production

DEADLINE: How are you keeping Caroline‘s momentum going?

TESORI: For our industry spring is everything. Everything happens in the spring, so it caught our industry at a particularly vulnerable time where things were just about to open. Look at Six. And it’s Sondheim’s 90th birthday. That’s really a hard one. The good news, here’s what I think – the good news is that so many shows – Love Life at City Center, Caroline, Or Change, Six, Company, 15 or more and that’s just above 42nd Street, there are tons more downtown, have had their process and they can quickly turn it up again. What’s really hard is to get that momentum when you have to get your rewrites in, to get the pre-production in. Caroline, Or Change, whatever happens to it, can put that back together very quickly

Jake Gyllenhaal, ‘Sunday in The Park With George’ Stephanie Berger

When we did Sunday in the Park with George at City Center and then moved to Broadway, there was a sort of muscle memory, and that goes a long, long way and it takes a while for that to dissipate. I was the associate on Big River in 1986 and there are still times when I hear a cue and I think conduct! Or that “Muddy Water” is 108 to the quarter note on the metronome. It’s just crazy how it gets ingrained.

And so I think that’s what we do have going for us, these little bullion cubes that we can add boiling water to. I just want to get people safely back to work as soon as we can.

DEADLINE: So many of the Broadway people I’ve spoken to mention mixed feelings about the shutdown – they feel terrible about it, but also a bit relieved. You?

TESORI: It was a moral imperative. My assistant was working remote, it was the fifth day that he was working remote. This has been coming. This was not a surprise. Our government is now reacting, as opposed to really getting ahead and monitoring the situation that started happening in January.

What I really admire about this industry is that it was very present for the plague of AIDS, when government wouldn’t even respond to it. It took, I think, five years to get a test. Not all of us survived. So this time there are a lot of people in charge here that remember, and didn’t wait for the government to shut them down. The government didn’t shut the theaters down, the theater owners and the producers and the unions did the right thing and then told the government what they were going to do. That’s the way it happened.

Tony Kushner Angela C. Brown

That one action they took, they bravely took and I say bravely because at the time it must have seemed, like, whoa. But if you talk to actors, no actor felt safe at that point in time. The thing was to act swift and sure, and that saved a lot of lives.

There is a strange feeling that a virus it a leveler. The virus doesn’t doesn’t know from class. And at the same time you can see how it’s revealing the structure of the way that every industry works. So I feel like everybody has to do their part and, you know, name what their part is, and then really do it. We have to.

I want to continue to make work. I was thinking, like, What can I do? Well, I can’t make a video. I can’t cook. But I can help organize. I can be there for people, my family, my students. And I can make work. That’s what I can do during this time. So when I finally was able to focus, I got back to writing.

DEADLINE: And you were delivering gloves today?

TESORI: No, masks actually. A lot of us [in theater] simultaneously had the idea that we had all of our shops about to close and our theaters were about to close, and we had stored some N95 masks. I thought, Oh my God, City Center must have masks. So Mark Mongold [Director of Production at City Center], a wonderful man and also a sailor, has a great sewing machine, and he’s making masks as well. So I went down to the [City Center] building and he walked me through all the places the masks would be, and then we took them to the hospital. Then he emailed me again and said there were more. So I went down and got them, and I met an ICU nurse online and we connected and I dropped them off at her apartment.

DEADLINE: You mentioned AIDS. I suspect these days are going to bring up a lot of feelings in those of us who lived through those plague years.

TESORI: The first call I made was to a friend of mine who is HIV positive. We’d worked together and had gotten very close, and he was the first call I made to say, How are you? I was telling my daughter about the panic of those early days, the “Oh, it’s in a teardrop, Oh, it’s in saliva, Oh, it’s skin by skin.” And the funerals and Reagan just wouldn’t even say the name because mostly gay men were dying. Anyone who has seen the documentary How To Survive A Plague and you see those warriors who went down…I went right there.

DEADLINE: Maybe there is a sort of collective memory, and this community remembers how to respond and pull together. That might be just a romantic idea, but it seems real to me.

TESORI: I think it is very real. I moved here in ’79 and we all know what New York was like then, some of us do anyway. And I remember after 9/11 it absolutely shifted. And then after the [2003] Blackout, it really shifted. I remember walking home and all the car radios were on so that everybody could hear the news as they walked home. And that was an incredible shift. The hard thing about this [pandemic] is that our natural inclination is to go towards each other. That’s what we did during AIDS. Everybody went towards each other and collected and got closer.

I always loved Craig Lucas’ Longtime Companion, and I remember the scene with Campbell Scott furiously washing his hands, because none of us knew, for a long time, how it was passed, and that mystery and that confusion is back.

But that was a time when everybody came together. Now we’re asking people to get closer together while staying so far apart and that dichotomy, that paradox, is really hard.

DEADLINE: Have you heard from your cast? What’s the mood like?

TESORI: I think they are like everybody else, just trying to negotiate the new reality that comes with every morning. We haven’t done anything with the cast yet, though I imagine we will, but we’re in a sort of wait and watch phase. It takes a while to metabolize this new way of living and just waiting for things to catch up. I know that I have only recently sort of re-entered my body, thinking Yes, get on this call and be prepared to talk about how you are going to write. To not be paralyzed by fear but stay active. I’m a parent so it was many, many personal things at first. And now I’m like, Okay, I’m part of City Center and helping with that negotiation in terms of its schedule. And just trying to really do my part for my neighborhood, for my building, making sure that the older residents have numbers they can call because we’re not taking the elevators anymore.

I feel like everyone has their circle, and we can and must take care of our circles. There’s a way to think of a cluster that’s not just about disease.

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