How Tony Kushner changed ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Change’ itself
The Broadway musical “Caroline, or Change” is set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963, in the early years of the civil rights movement, in the home of a Jewish family with an 8-year-old son, Noah and a Black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux.
The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the musical’s book and lyrics, grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the 1960s, in the early years of the civil rights movement, in a Jewish family that had a Black maid.
But while the musical, which originally ran off-Broadway in 2003 and then on Broadway in 2004 — where it was nominated for six Tony Awards, including two for Kushner’s book and lyrics — is based at least in part on his personal experience, Kushner says he had a major concern while writing it.
“I was writing dialogue for Black characters, Southern Black characters,” Kushner said over the phone, and it “felt transgressive. I was concerned about all the issues that have become big issues now. When you’re writing about people whose life experiences have been radically different from your own, you have extra anxiety about whether or not you’re getting it right. I didn’t want it to sound like minstrel show dialogue.”
So he reached out to Maudie Lee Davis, his family’s maid, to whom the musical is dedicated — “and who is still very much alive in Lake Charles,” said Kushner. “I wanted to make sure she was OK with it. And she said she was very moved by it.”
He also showed it to the Tony Award-winning African-American director George C. Wolfe with whom he had worked on “Angels in America,” which netted Kushner two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
“We loved working with each other. And I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to do ‘Caroline, or Change’ without George as director. I knew that I needed a colleague, a collaborator who would tell me if I was nailing it or if I wasn’t nailing it,” Kushner said. “I showed it to George, who is one of the smartest people on the planet and one of the great theater artists of our time, and whose politics are incredibly sophisticated and incredibly smart. I trusted George absolutely. That’s also what made it possible.”
In the musical, Caroline, a single mother of four, has been cleaning houses for 22 years and earns $30 a week. Her teenage daughter, Emmie, has become involved in the civil rights movement and has helped tear down a statue of a Confederate soldier, which makes the musical even more relevant than it was when it was first staged 2004.
“In a way, yeah,” Kushner agreed. “The original production was treated very roughly by critics when it first came out. There were a few critics who got it and thought it was really good, but there was a lot of nastiness.”
But then, last year, “a lot of things happened,” Kushner said. “George Floyd’s murder. The explosion of Black Lives Matter. Protests all over the country, including in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was a small march, but it was a march. And the taking down of Southern statues and the exposure of these Confederate monuments for what they really are. They weren’t put up right after the Civil War. They were put up during the worst of race law and Jim Crow segregation in the teens and twenties in the United States, specifically in the way of terrorizing the African-American population in this country.”
“We’re still processing what we’ve learned in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and what Black Lives Matter is teaching us,” Kushner said. “There’s a change in consciousness now about the virulence, malevolence and scope of racism in this country. And there’s been a great deal of anger about white liberals who deplore the police shooting of young Black men but who don’t do anything to help perpetuate change.”
And then, Kushner added, there is the economic foundation of racism. “I think people are interested in thinking about the role that economics plays in perpetuating social evils, and in solving social evils,” he said. “In the last five or six years there’s been a new interest in the question of economic justice. A lot of it comes down to money. And on one level, ‘Caroline, or Change’ is a play about money.”
“We’re living in a time of the greatest income disparity in the history of the country, maybe in the history of the world,” Kushner said. “The difference between the richest and the poorest is cosmic at this point, almost metaphysical.”
In the course of the musical, Caroline is told that to help Noah learn to be more careful about money, she can keep any spare change she finds in his pants pocket while doing the laundry. One day, she finds a $20 bill — two-thirds of her weekly salary — a Hanukkah present Noah has forgotten in his pants pocket. Caroline tells Noah it is now hers; he disagrees.
One of the complaints some critics had about the original production, among them Ben Brantley, then the chief theater critic of The New York Times, “was that the story was too small,” Kushner said. “It’s about a $20 bill. It’s about pocket change in the laundry. And it’s not a big enough subject to base a musical on. But a lot of what we’re talking about now is addressing social issues not just on the macro level in terms of legislation — which is of course immensely important — but also on the micro level, micro-politics. The politics of pronouns; the politics of how we speak to one another. Who gets to control the narrative.
“I think it may be that the fundamental gesture of ‘Caroline, or Change’ is consequences unforeseen — ‘Household rules and small decrees, unsuspecting bring us these secret little tragedies. Household rules and small decrees, unsuspecting bring us these costly, quiet victories’ — one of my favorite moments in the show. On a micro level, on a level that’s very easy to miss, monumental changes are always happening.”
In the musical, Noah’s mother has died of cancer, and Noah says he hates his new stepmom. So how autobiographical is it?
“Yes and no,” Kushner said. “When I was 12, my mother got breast cancer and had a mastectomy and was over-radiated, and as a consequence of the over-radiation was sick for about a year and a half. About half of that time she spent in New York having a succession of surgeries. My sister was 13 and my younger brother was seven. Thank God my mother didn’t die. She survived for another 30 years. But my siblings and I had an experience of traumatic loss when she got sick. My younger brother was about the same age as Noah. I watched him. I have a very strong memory of how much more frightening it was for him than for my sister, and I don’t think I was a good brother. I’ve never said this publicly before but I’ll say it now. I don’t think I really helped him very much. I was too freaked out on my own. Which is why I made Noah an only child.”
When it comes to discussing the musical’s views on Jewish-Black relations, Kushner is clear that it isn’t clear. “It’s a play, not an essay,” he said. “It doesn’t have any sort of messages. I think one of the reasons the musical has lasted and has a good shot at lasting a long time is that it’s rich and complicated. It doesn’t ever do what you expect it to do.”
The new Broadway revival, whose score was composed by Jeanine Tesori, opened at Studio 54 to a rapturous response from critics who used words like “overwhelming” and “electrifying” to describe it. Starring in the title role is Sharon D. Clarke, who won the best actress Olivier Award in 2019 in London for her portrayal of Caroline. Michael Longhurst directs for the Roundabout Theater Company, based on his 2018 British production.
Kushner, 65, a two-time Oscar nominee for the screenplays of “Munich” and “Lincoln,” has written the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s new film version of “West Side Story,” due out in December. (He has also co-written the screenplay for Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” scheduled for a 2022 release.)
How does the new “West Side Story” differ from the one that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1961?
“We based what we did on the original 1957 Broadway musical, more than on the film that was made of the musical,” Kushner said. “The song order is different. And in some cases I changed who’s singing the songs. Tony still sings ‘Maria’ and Tony and Maria still sing ‘Tonight.’ But there are a couple of songs that had a problematic placement issue. ’Cool’ is in a different place and sung by different characters. ‘I Feel Pretty’ is back where it was originally, after the rumble and ‘Somewhere ’ is sung by a different character than in the movie. When writing the screenplay part of my job was to figure out what was happening with each song in terms of the dramatic action.”
“One of the things I’m proudest of,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure everyone will agree, is that we honored the source material. We went into it with great love for the original material — and for the 1961 film. We didn’t make this film because we felt we wanted to correct or improve the earlier movie. It’s a great film. We thought there were things about the original material that we could bring out. We tried to complexify the characters a little bit. Give them a little more specificity. Take advantage of the progress that’s happened in the last 60 years that makes it possible to explore the politics of the story more thoroughly.
“One of the main mistakes people make when they think about ‘West Side Story’ is that the Jets,” who are white, “and the Sharks,” who are Puerto Rican, “are basically like the Montagues and Capulets in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ that they’re two sides of the same coin. But they’re not,” Kushner said. “In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ you can’t discover any differences between the Montagues and Capulets. They’re like the Hatfields and the McCoys. That’s part of the horror. Nobody knows why this murderous rage is destroying Verona.”
But in “West Side Story,” he said, it’s very different. What propels the rage is racism — the same racism inherent in the 1963 Louisiana of “Caroline, or Change.”
Three of the creators of “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim — and even to some extent the fourth, Jerome Robbins — “were very progressive,” Kushner said. “They didn’t think the Jets, who are anti-Puerto Rican and xenophobic and racist, were the same as the Sharks, who are struggling to find a place in New York, in the economy and in American society.”
In “West Side Story,” Kushner said, “there’s a villain — racism and xenophobia. And poverty. And we wanted to really dig in and make that even clearer than it was in the original.”
Mervyn Rothstein was a writer and editor for 30 years at The New York Times, where his positions included chief theater reporter and theater editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. He was a writer for Playbill Magazine for 30 years. And he was a member of the Nominating Committee for Broadway’s Tony Awards.