NEAL CONAN, host:
Now, many consider Tony Kushner to be the best American playwright working today. He's best known, of course, for Angels in America, the two-part drama that won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous Tony awards on Broadway, and then a flock of Emmys as a TV production. His plays are politically controversial, and are not always cheered by the critics.
A semi-autobiographical musical called Caroline, or Change got lukewarm reviews on Broadway. Four years later, a revival is playing to glowing notices, packed audiences and standing ovations at the Studio Theatre here in Washington, D.C. The playwright joins us today to talk about that show, about his work in general and to take your questions. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Kushner joins us now from New York City. And thanks very much for joining us today. Hello?
Mr. TONY KUSHNER (Playwright): Hello?
CONAN: There we are. The right switch has been thrown. Nice of you to be with us.
Mr. KUSHNER: It's nice to be here.
CONAN: Before we go on, I wanted to play this small excerpt from the beginning of Caroline, or Change. And this is the central character - the title character rather - Caroline, a maid in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
(Soundbite from play Caroline, or Change)
Ms. TONYA PINKINS (Actor): (As Caroline): (Singing) Nothing ever happened underground in Louisiana. Because there ain't no underground in Louisiana. There is only under water.
CONAN: Tonya Pinkins is Caroline from the Broadway production of Caroline, or Change. And Tony Kushner, that line has such tremendous resonance after Hurricane Katrina. Obviously, you wrote it years before.
Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah, and actually Lake Charles was severely damaged not by Hurricane Katrina, but by Hurricane Rita a few weeks later; which kind of made landfall in between Belmont, Texas and Lake Charles, and sat for a few hours and took the roofs off of every house in Lake Charles. So Lake Charles had a bad time, too, but New Orleans certainly went under water.
CONAN: And I was, to some degree, surprise by the show. There's a lot of geography in this musical and the explanation how the Great Plains of America drain through down the Mississippi and through - well, now underground in Louisiana, as you point out.
Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah, well, I've always loved that fact. I mean, because you think of these two areas of the United States - the Great Plains and the bayou country in Louisiana - as being completely unrelated to one another, but in point of fact, the Great Plains simply drop off into the ocean, into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. That's sort of the terminal point of that whole sort of stretch of land, so it makes a connection that I find moving and kind of exciting and mysterious.
CONAN: To what do you attribute the differences in the lukewarm reception the show got in New York four years ago and the terrific reception it's getting now?
Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I wouldn't call it a lukewarm reception in New York. I might sort of take issue with that.
Mr. KUSHNER: I mean, there's an unfortunate situation in New York. That The New York Times chief drama critic - the opinion of the chief drama critic of The New York Times, especially if you're dealing with a musical that has any sort of Broadway ambitions - and it's very hard to do a musical in New York now without moving to a Broadway house. Because it costs so much to run a musical every week that, if you don't do it in a house that holds at least 800, 900 seats, you can't really run a musical. So you sort of have go to Broadway with one. And if you're going to Broadway, it really matters that you get a rave review from the chief drama critic of The New York Times.
We did actually get a rave review from Frank Rich in The New York Times, but he's no longer the chief drama critic. He took exception to Ben Brantley's genuinely lukewarm response to the show by saying that he thought that it was wonderful. But we also got a number of really extraordinary reviews when the play opened in New York, from The New Yorker, from Time Out New York, from The Observer, from The New York Sun, from The Washington Post. Peter Marks reviewed it in New York.
I mean, if you buy the published version of the script you'll see about, you know, twenty - from USA Today, I mean, on and on and on and on. It really got reviewed very enthusiastically; just Ben Brantley didn't like it all that much and so it had a hard time.
And, you know, I mean I think it's - it's not a musical that's going to pull at audiences the way that something like Wicked would do. It doesn't have the kind of name recognition that Wicked had. And it's a sad show. It's a kind of a tragedy, in a way. So I think that that - and its something new, and I think that all, you know, in a way it's an opera, it's through-composed - and I think all of those things made for the - for it having a difficult run on Broadway.
I actually think we could have played - we played for three months at the Public, down, the New York Shakespeare Festival, and four months on Broadway. I believe we could have really kept running on Broadway for quite awhile, but our producers felt otherwise. And in the dead part of the summer, when the Republicans were coming into town for the Republican National Convention, they decided to close the show, and that was their decision.
CONAN: It's also a show that, at least in part, about you.
Mr. KUSHNER: Well, it's the most autobiographical - it's not completely autobiographical. I mean, it's not a memoir. I don't want to get into...
Mr. KUSHNER: ...James Frye kind of trouble. But it's the closest thing to an autobiographical piece I've ever written. I was approximately the same age as the boy in the play at the time that the play is set in 1963, and I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana in a Jewish family. My father is a clarinetist, and my mother was a bassoonist. My mother is dead now, but she actually didn't die when I was a little kid. She died in 1990.
So I didn't lose her - thank God - when I was a little boy; although she had cancer when I was a little kid, and so that's in part autobiographical. And then the main character of Caroline is based on a woman who's still very much alive, and the play is dedicated to her. Her name is Maudie Lee Davis(ph), and she still lives in Lake Charles.
CONAN: And here we're going to hear the child in the show, named Noah, talking about - singing about, actually, coming home and singing about Caroline.
Mr. KUSHNER: Great.
(Soundbite of play “Caroline, or Change”)
Mr. HARRISON CHAD (Actor): (As Noah) (Singing) When I get home, they're all on. Washing machine and radio. Down the basement steps I go. Caroline, our maid. Caroline, our maid. Caroline, Caroline, Caroline, the President of the United States. Caroline, who's always mad. Caroline, who runs everything. Caroline, who's stronger than my dad.
CONAN: And hilarity ensues. The show, as you say, is sad. And part of the real commanding aspect of it is the relationship between that little boy and that woman, who, as he said, is always mad.
Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah. I mean, it's sort of a relationship and sort of not a relationship, in a way. There's a connection there, but its not, I think, at all the kind of relationship that people expect in, you know, between an African-American woman who's working as a maid and a little white kid. There's a, I think, in - I think that that was, in fact, one of the things that caused problems for some of the critics, was the power of the myth of this kind of nurturing...
Mr. KUSHNER: ...caretaking, black woman, who, you know, I mean, the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who've come up to me after seeing this show, people who really loved the show, but who come up afterwards and say, you know, well, I was - that's my story, too. I was raised by a black woman. I was raised by a Caroline. And in - it's sort of odd, because in the - in a very important way, this is emphatically not that. This woman does not raise this little boy, and doesn't want to.
Mr. KUSHNER: And, in fact, at one point in the show, tells him that she doesn't consider him a friend. And they have a very delicate, tentative relationship that gets kind of obliterated in the course of the play.
CONAN: They - yeah, they do tell each other both terrible things, and recoil from their own ability to say that.
Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah, by the end of the show. Although at the beginning of the show, there's something going on, there's - she's willing to sort of put up with him and extend a certain amount of solicitude towards him, because he's lost his mother and he's only eight. And she is a decent person who feels sorry for him. But she keeps him at arm's length.
And he has a whole intense fantasy life about her that comes from, you know, among other things, the loss of his mother, and the fact that his father has now married a woman that he doesn't like and doesn't want to have in the house. And so he's developed this kind of fantasy relationship with Caroline, but it's not a - it's a very, very delicate and easily disrupted relationship. And a slight change in the household rules kind of throws it off its moorings.
CONAN: We're talking with playwright Tony Kushner about his show, Caroline, or Change, which is running now at the Studio Theater here in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's get a caller in. This is Briane(ph). Briane calling us from Rochester in New York.
BRIANE (Caller): Hi. I'm very interested in what drew you to work with Maurice Sendak on the children's book Brundibar. I've heard a lot of debate about his accuracy in all historical arguments. But I haven't heard anything on the actual project on the collaboration and how it came to be.
Mr. KUSHNER: Well, actually I don't think - I think you're a little confused. There is no debate about Brundibar, thank God, and historical accuracy or anything like that. You're probably talking about the film Munich, that I made with Steven Spielberg, which...
BRIANE: Oh, I'm sorry. I thought it was about the play that came out of the children's book.
Mr. KUSHNER: No. The children's book is actually based on an opera that was performed in a Theresienstadt concentration camp by the children inmates at Theresienstadt. It was written by a Jewish Czech composer named Hans Krasa, and it was - who was killed by the Nazi's, murdered in Auschwitz. And the opera was performed, as I said, in Theresienstadt. And Maurice asked me to do an English-language libretto for Krasa's opera and for a stage production of it, that we did in Chicago a few years ago. And then, after I did the English-language version of the libretto, Maurice asked me if I'd like to turn that into the text for a children's book, and I did.
And then, the book was published; and then, this year, we brought the opera back to the New Victory Theater in New York, along with a new little play that I wrote with it, as a curtain raiser for it. And that's been actually completely uncontroversial. I don't think anyone's had any complaints about Brundibar at all.
The film that I did about the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich, called Munich, with Steven Spielberg, has been without question the most controversial thing I've ever done.
Mr. KUSHNER: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's been tough. But those are two separate projects and they have nothing - except for the fact that they both have Jewish themes, are not really connected to one another.
CONAN: Well, let me ask you, first about the collaboration with Maurice Sendak. That shows up, again, in Caroline, or Change, in the way you make characters out of - we heard that little clip, a radio and the Washing machine, the drying machine - they're all characters.
Mr. KUSHNER: Yeah, there's - I mean, I, I don't know if the washing machine and the dryer feel particularly Sendakian, and I think that the biggest influence that Maurice had on Caroline is probably in the character of the moon.
Mr. KUSHNER: There's a singing moon who sort of sees the events of the play from a kind of celestial perspective. And I've been an ardent Maurice Sendak fan since I was a little kid, and moons always appear in his work. So there's definitely - and I think that there's a certain - I mean, one of the things that I like about Caroline is that, at various points, the story is being told by a 39-year-old woman, or a 16-year-old girl, or an eight-year-old boy, and/or a group of kids. I mean, different people sort of take over the story without anyone actually narrating it. It's - nobody ever turns to the audience and says and then this happened and then this happened. But it's - but the play shifts, in terms of its perspective.
And when it's a kid's perspective, its definitely influenced by Maurice, because I've learned a lot from both reading and admiring and looking at his work, and also from my - the last twelve years of being his friend and working with him. So...
CONAN: All right. Well, then let me ask you about the other part, what Briane called about, and - well, she could talk about this, but anyway, the film Munich. You're a gay socialist whose got politics in every one of his plays, and the film about the 1972 massacre and its subsequent results, that's the most controversial thing?
Mr. KUSHNER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's, you know, the film is a - I think it's a really wonderful film. I'm enormously proud of it. And I had an extraordinary experience working with Steven Spielberg on the film. It engendered a real - I think what you could accurately describe as a firestorm of controversy from people who felt that we - I think it was upsetting to people from all sorts of perspectives.
There were people who felt that we were too soft on terrorism; people who felt that we weren't hard enough; people who felt that we were too hard; people who felt that we were too pro-Palestinian; people who felt we were too anti-Palestinian; people who felt that we were defaming Israel; people who felt that we should have done more defaming. You know, on and on and on.
It's really a very reasonable, temperate film, that, I think, landed right in the middle of - as I sort of knew it would, I can't pretend I was taken by surprise - it landed right in the middle of I think the most, you know, I mean, of a kind of a political arena that nothing else compares to, in terms of just polarized opinion and passionate angry opinion.
It's so much easier dealing with gay politics now then - because, you know, people who are homophobes, people who are opposed to the enfranchisement of gay people, are, at this point in history - I mean, after many years of the gay and lesbian and bi-sexual and transgender movements struggling to get it to this -to get society to this point, I think at least in the West - even in America, it's now really not okay to be a homophobe. I mean, there are still people like that...
CONAN: I'm afraid we're just going to have to leave it there. We're out of time.
Tony Kushner, thank you so much for being with us today.
Mr. KUSHNER: Oh, great. All right, thanks very much.
CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.