Caroline’s imperviousness at first tips the balance of the show’s sympathy toward Noah, whose fantasy of being centrally important in her life is excused by his youth and his grief. (If he is something of a martyr, perhaps it is not insignificant that Kushner sets the semi-autobiographical story at 913 St. Anthony Street.) In a more typical musical, the fulfillment of his needs would fulfill Caroline’s as well.
Instead, Noah (Jaden Myles Waldman on the night I attended) precipitates the show’s crisis, unwittingly egged on by Rose (Caissie Levy). Recently married to Noah’s feckless father, and trying to assert authority in the awkward situation, she imposes a new rule: Caroline should keep any change she finds in Noah’s dirty clothes. When Noah, in response, starts leaving money deliberately, Caroline must fight with herself about taking it; the emotional underpinnings of the household, which Kushner equates with economics, very quickly collapse. Change causes change.
And that’s barely the half of it. “Caroline” is as full of incident as Kushner’s “Angels in America,” but hugely condensed and then heightened by song. The wonder is that it is never less than thrilling to experience. This being a musical, the music is part of that; Tesori’s wondrous score is like the search function on a car radio, picking up snippets of every genre on the dial. The sounds of klezmer, blues, Broadway, Motown, Mozart and girl-group pop, among many others, pinpoint each character but also serve as expressive vehicles for the larger ideas the story is assembling.
Those ideas start small. It seems merely an irritating infraction, for instance, that Rose mispronounces Caroline’s name as Carolyn — until you notice Clarke wincing as if struck when it happens.
And Noah’s fantasies, which at first seem merely sweet, soon grow ridiculous and grandiose. He imagines Caroline’s children — teenage Emmie (Samantha Williams) and her younger brothers Jackie and Joe (Alexander Bello and Jayden Theophile on the night I attended) — praising him over dinner for his largess: “Thank God we can eat now!” In reality, they do not think of him at all.
Caroline does, if no longer as a pitiful boy then as an ethical dilemma, an heir to the exploitative ways of even liberal whites. Nor does she see Rose as anything more than a tightfisted employer. I’m afraid I almost did, too; it’s a rare miscalculation that she is made the villain of a piece that doesn’t need one. (Surely Noah’s father, Stuart, a musician who in John Cariani’s performance is as mournful as the clarinet he plays, is just as culpable.) In any case, the force of the characters’ needs, once set in motion, is more than enough to do the damage.