NEW YORK, NY.-
Settling into my seat at Studio 54, I let the sound design begin to transport me like a musical overture the chittering of creatures and the bubbling of water, echoing from tall grasses and low haze on the edge of a Southern swamp.
At each performance of Caroline, or Change, I look forward to this calming bit of preshow acclimation, even as a Confederate statue stands imposingly at center stage. And I keep my eyes peeled for the theaters COVID safety enforcer patrolling the orchestra, arms crossed, scanning the audience for any unmasked faces. Spotting him calms me, too.
When the lights dim, the statue is wheeled off, and in its place when they come up again is Caroline Thibodeaux, in the person of astonishing British actor Sharon D. Clarke, doing laundry in a Louisiana basement in 1963.
I didnt set out to see this musical masterpiece by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori seven times this season, but I have. For the record, I had been scared to see it even once scared the way you get when you cherish a work of art so fiercely that you dont want to risk finding it diminished.
It didnt matter to my brain that theaters habit of reinvention is one of the things I love about the form, or that this Broadway revival got rave reviews in London. Caroline is my favorite musical, and I was protective of my memory of it. I had been mad since 2004 that George Wolfes original Broadway production ran only a few months. (Hold a grudge much? Yeah, I know.)
Yet, Michael Longhursts gorgeous iteration, for Roundabout Theater Company, turned out to be just what Ive needed: a work of intricate beauty to savor again and again in this strange, uncertain season. After catching the first preview in October, I started telling people that I would see it three times a week if I could.
Sounded like I was exaggerating. I was not.
Inspired by Kushners own Louisiana childhood, Caroline is the fictional story of a divorced Black maid working for a Jewish family mired in grief and paying her what they know is too little to get by on. Comedy and fantasy leaven the ugliness and pain, but the music, the lyrics, the characters are complex. Its not a show to be absorbed in one swoop.
If this production had opened as planned in what was to have been the busy spring of 2020, theres no way I would have seen it as many times as I have. Repeated viewing at any scale is a rare luxury for me, and the chance to do it to such an extent with Caroline is a direct effect of the pandemic. In an unsettled season with a cascade of postponements and cancellations, lower ticket demand and fewer productions mean bargain prices and, if youre a theater journalist like I am, a lot more free evenings.
So, I have been taking advantage which I feel guilty admitting, because, of course, I could have spent that same time seeing deserving new work that I missed completely. Instead, Ive been giving one show a closer, longer look than usual, watching extraordinary cast members deepen their performances so far beyond that thrilling first preview that I cant honestly regret it.
Critics tend to see multiple productions of the same play especially in seasons when there seem to be 47 stagings of King Lear or 18 of The Tempest but not multiple performances of a single production, unless it transfers somewhere, usually to Broadway from off-Broadway or an out-of-town tryout. Even then, we only see the beginning of each run, while the production keeps changing after that.
In theater unlike films and TV shows, which stay frozen no matter how many times you watch them the ritual of repetition coexists with change. As in other kinds of live performance, exact duplication is impossible, and also not the point. Evolution is the hope, which Ive seen realized in Caroline.
It has been quite frankly exhilarating to watch the company get tighter and tighter, especially at a time when public perception is that Broadway in particular and theater in general are a pandemic shambles. At the matinee just this past Wednesday the matinee! Clarke gave a shattering performance, as alive to the text and the moment as any other I had seen, but with elements new to me: an inflection, a movement, a vocal fillip at the end of a song. Such are the many layers of her character.
I love dissecting it. I love it, Clarke exulted to me in an interview in October, the day after the first preview.
Three months on, with the musicals limited run set to close this weekend, it feels like she is still investigating.
The other show I revisited this past fall was Enda Walshs Medicine, but that wasnt because I had been wild about it initially. Walshs plays sometimes land with me and sometimes dont. This one chaotic, often funny, with Domhnall Gleesons understated performance at its heart did not.
I first saw it in November at St. Anns Warehouse. Six days later, in an interview, Gleeson told me that he had only just figured out how the show, which the company had performed elsewhere, worked in the St. Anns space. I gave it another shot because of that and because his passion for another Walsh play, The Walworth Farce, prompted me to read it, an experience that left me wide awake when I finished it after 1 a.m., my every nerve ending taut.
The second time I saw Medicine, in December, I watched it more deliberately, and it absolutely landed. Outside afterward, I walked through a patch of park and stood staring out at the East River, shaken. If the play had stayed in town longer, Id have gone again.
When I see a show repeatedly in the same run as I did with two of the plays in Phyllida Lloyds Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, at St. Anns Warehouse I tend to top out at three viewings.
Thats what happened with the Broadway productions of The Cher Show (where seeing Stephanie Blocks understudy at one performance made me realize Blocks particular power) and Sea Wall / A Life (where I listened ferociously to figure out what was sound design and what was sound bleed from outside). My curiosity about both was professional, though; going more than once was about reporting.
Jamie Lloyds 2019 revival of Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston, was different. Its first preview blindsided me: a Pinter play that could make me cry? I became fascinated with the geometry of emotion in the production with where Lloyd placed the characters on the set, and how their isolation signified. Determined to watch the staging from different angles in the house, I went five times in all.
When I told Lloyd about that, during an interview toward the end of the shows run, he inquired about the actors: And have you noticed variations in their performances? I still wonder which answer he might have been looking for: reassurance that the show had stayed lively or that it hadnt flown off the rails.
I would be a little heartbroken if Caroline had gone off the rails always my worry when a production runs for a while. As it is, when it gives its final performance Sunday, I plan to be there, seeing it for the eighth time.
After that, I expect Ill be in the market for a new obsession. Im thinking maybe Company.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times