“I’ve never had a West End production. This feels kinda cool,” says Tony Kushner, looking down from the Playhouse Theatre’s dress circle on to the set of Caroline, Or Change. He has arrived in London on a whirlwind trip from New York just to see the production.
But this is odd. The man who wrote the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America, most recently revived in London at the National Theatre starring Andrew Garfield and who could reasonably be described as America’s greatest living playwright, has never had a show in the West End?
“Normally my plays in London are at the National or the Hampstead,” says Kushner, 62, though he could add to that list the Young Vic, the Tricycle (before it was renamed Kiln) and even The Bush, back in the day.
“But I’m now staying in a West End hotel, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is what everyone I know talks about, but I just haven’t done’,” says Kushner with a humility that belies his status as a titan of American drama and, these days, Steven Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter too (He was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for Lincoln).
“I would call it an unmissable performance. Think whatever you think of the show but you shouldn’t miss her doing this.” And it is hard to imagine anyone who has seen Clarke’s poise and power disagreeing.
Set in 1963 against the backdrop of the gathering Civil Rights movement, the musical, composed by Jeanine Tesori, is inspired by Kushner’s childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Clarke plays the maid to the Gellmans, a liberal Jewish family. They are only an approximate version of Kushner’s family. And Noah, the eight-year-old boy at the centre of the show — whose relationship with Caroline is strained when his mother tells her to keep any pocket money she finds in her son’s trousers — is not really Kushner. But Caroline is very much based on the Kushners’ maid, Maudie Lee Davis, to whom Kushner is still close.
“Maudie might come to London to see the show,” he says. “She’s 88, so I’m not sure about the trip but we’re talking about it.” Apparently Clarke — who was shortlisted for Best Musical Performance at the last Evening Standard Theatre Awards for the show — is thrilled at the possibility of meeting the original Caroline.
But for now, after seeing the production, he wings it back to New York to work on the latest draft of his screenplay for Spielberg’s hugely anticipated remake of West Side Story. The Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim classic has been a part of Kushner’s life for a long time. At home in Lake Charles he had the original Broadway cast album, which he would “listen to over and over again”.
He adds: “It was one of the first things that Mark [Harris, Kushner’s husband] and I watched together when we started dating 20 years ago.”
The movie starts shooting on location in New York City in June and the producers recently announced their Maria: 17-year-old Colombian-American student Rachel Zegler.
Unlike the original 1961 film, Spielberg has committed to ensuring that all the Puerto Rican characters in it are of Latinx background. It is the latest example of “authenticity casting”, an issue which has the habit of sparking argument, such as the one about Bryan Cranston’s latest film The Upside in which the able-bodied star plays a quadriplegic wheelchair user. Some critics have said the role should have gone to a disabled actor. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson recently dropped out of playing a transgender role after a backlash from the trans community. Yet others — such as the actor Simon Callow, who came to Cranston’s defence — say actors should be free to play characters of all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances that are not their own.
“The question of representation is vexed and enormously complicated,” admits Kushner. He and Spielberg travelled to San Juan to discuss the way Puerto Ricans would be represented in the new film. But Kushner would rather not be drawn on the subject, aware of how these things can blow up on social media and elsewhere. For instance, there was the time when Andrew Garfield was playing Prior, the gay lead in the National’s revival of Angels in America. Kushner acknowledges that he did at first have concerns that Garfield was not gay. In fact, he said as much to Garfield when Kushner and director Marianne Elliott first talked to the actor about the role.
“But his performance was incandescent,” says Kushner. “When Angels was at the National, Andrew had a Platform talk and he said that he had researched Prior for such a long time that he felt gay in everything but the deed. I had no problem with that. He’s an amazing actor. He dug so deeply, I think he really got it. But a number of internet people said, ‘How dare you? You’re not gay. How dare you tell my story?’ I was like, first of all he’s not telling your story; I am — I wrote the play. And also, what am I supposed to do, say to actors, ‘Who do you sleep with?’ before I give them a role? I mean, it’s disgusting.”
But Kushner is less guarded on how he has gone about remaking West Side Story. Contrary to the way people see the Jets and Sharks, the gangs “are not two sides of the same coin”, he says. The Sharks are a kind of “civil defence force” for the new Puerto Rican immigrant community, while their enemy, the Jets, are “the disaster children” of “a white underclass feeling squeezed out by a burgeoning community of new arrivals”.
“I’m trying to reflect this,” says Kushner, though no one is out to make wholesale changes, he assures. Yet the film will look younger than the Jerome Robbins movie. The new Maria, Zegler, is 17; Natalie Wood was in her twenties when she played the role. “That’s really what they were going for,” says Kushner of the original creators. “The story is not about young adults. They are teenagers, they make mistakes, they have no impulse control. When you read the original book, they really do sound like kids.”
Caroline, Or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre, WC2, until March 2. Ambassador Theatre Group was a partner for the Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2018