A Tale of Two Musicals

You might not think of "racism" as a natural theme for a Broadway musical. But two critically-acclaimed shows — Hairspray and Caroline, or Change — take it on head-first, each with distinctly different attitudes.
Mike-shapiro

Bias may be anathema to journalists, but for artists it’s a distinguishing characteristic. An artist’s identity comes from the particular nooks and crannies of the world he or she sees as worth sharing, and the emotions he or she deems important enough to evoke in the audience. This kind of distinction becomes particularly visible when two artists of contrasting spirit tackle similar subject matter.

One such interesting coincidence has recently arisen on Broadway with the emergence of two musicals sharing some intriguing similarities: the Tony-winning comedy Hairspray; and the less famous but critically-acclaimed Caroline, or Change. Both shows are set at the dawn of the civil rights movement; both feature memorable musical scores informed by the pop music traditions of the 50’s and 60’s; and both feature stories revolving around struggles with racism. Yet the shows are as artistically dissimilar as their settings are parallel, and together provide a fascinating study in contrast.

One might argue that there is an apples-and-oranges problem in comparing an unabashed feel-good comedy to a sober and naturalistic work meant to provoke rather than entertain. But equally arguably, we can see the fundamental stylistic choices as among the points of distinction between the shows’ creators, and therefore as part of the comparison.


Hairspray (music by Marc Shaiman; book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan; lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman) is your basic romp, replete with pronounced stylization, a toe-tapping score, and larger-than-life, archetypical characters. The plot surrounds Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblatt, who would do anything to be a regular on the popular Corny Collins Dance Show (perhaps the prestige-equivalent of being on The Real World today). Despite her dance-floor chops, Tracy is hindered by her naïveté and too-plump-for-prime-time physique. Through perseverance and sheer force of personality, she nonetheless cannonballs her way into the show, and sudden stardom. From there, Tracy finds herself swept into a broader struggle as she tries to combat the show’s no-negro policies, and by extension intolerance on a larger scale.

A subject like racism presents numerous challenges for a musical, particularly for a comedy. The medium’s basic propensity for frivolity brings a danger of trivializing a sensitive issue. On the other hand, too heavy-handed an approach can fatally leaden the mood. It is a musical, after all, and to adopt the adage, you can’t hum the social commentary.

Remarkably, Hairspray strikes a Golden Mean between these extremes, neither sugar-coating the issue nor being overly preachy. Racial prejudice isn’t merely denounced, but negatively portrayed through character action, particularly that of Collins ingénue Amber and her shallow show-biz mother. The story’s African-American characters are depicted with sympathy and respect; they’re neither sanguine about the challenges they face, nor dysfunctionally bitter. When Tracy champions African-American dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs, he and his friends are initially skeptical, but eventually embrace her as an ally. The show depicts the fight against racism as a joint cause of all ethnicities, offering a camaraderie that’s inclusive of white members of the audience.

Tracy's ambitions — first personal, then societal — are expressed with utmost musical enthusiasm and energy. The show's finale, a wildly energetic ensemble number called "You Can't Stop The Beat," is a marvel of joyous optimism. With an infectious tune and gargantuan gospel-rock choral arrangement, it portrays idealism as a kind of emotional primal force that sweeps over friend and foe alike with irresistible positive energy.

Hairspray is a clear example of romanticism. Tracy and friends succeed due to their idealism and action, and the bad guys (thus defined by their demonstrated pettiness) end up with egg on their faces. And though the wider phenomenon of racism is beyond the scope of one heroine’s intervention, the show's exuberant finale projects a sense of willingness to take on the world, just as it did Baltimore.


Moving from musical comedy to contemporary opera, Caroline, or Change is a contrast in almost every respect imaginable. The book, penned by Angels in America creator Tony Kushner, focuses on the eponymous Caroline, an African-American maid working for a white Jewish family in Louisiana. Not a lot goes on externally; the action is predominantly psychological, exploring Caroline’s feelings about herself and the world at large. And a sobering exploration it is. Caroline is bitter and resigned throughout most of the show, lamenting both a failed marriage that left her the sole provider for three children, as well as a world she sees as offering few opportunities for an African-American woman. The somewhat diffuse plot arises when her employer Rose, attempting to end her son's seeming carelessness with money, instructs Caroline to keep any change she might find in his pockets while doing the laundry. Caroline’s resulting struggle with the notion of accepting pseudo-alms creates great rifts between herself and her employing family, and ultimately forces her to confront decades’ worth of personal demons.

Despite some entertaining moments, including imaginative anthropomorphizations of household appliances and the moon, the overall mood of the show echoes of that of its protagonist: bitter, resigned, and bleak. In contrast to Hairspray’s enabled protagonists, Caroline’s characters are trapped by circumstances or their own foibles; Caroline’s own eventual coming-to-terms seems ineffable and forced, and in any event is far from dramatically satisfying.


Stylistically, Hairspray is vivid; Caroline is muted and naturalistic. Hairspray’s songs are distinct, catchy, and accessible. Caroline’s score is through-composed — in layman’s terms, with few distinct themes or repeated choruses — and thus of a somewhat wandering and unfocused quality. (This is presumably in service of the free-form, modernistic lyrics; Jeanine Tesori’s music does strive for emotional power, and offers a number of great moments.) And whereas Hairspray beckons its audience to join a crusade, Caroline creates an atmosphere of blame. The story’s white characters are inexplicably guilt-stricken, despite never doing anything particularly offensive, the implication being that they’re guilty simply by dint of being white. (“The color of pain is white,” goes one lyric — ostensibly a visual description of an abusive husband’s blow, but unmistakable in its double entendre.)

Neither show’s creators dispute the evils of racism. What defines each creative team artistically are the elements of reality they chose to make the focus of their storytelling, in theme, plot, characterization, and literary/musical style. Whereas Caroline simply bemoans a negative aspect of history, Hairspray turns it into the backdrop for an entertaining and surprisingly uplifting musical adventure. You can probably guess this columnist’s recommended use of your theatre dollar.


Michael G. Shapiro lives in Los Angeles, where he writes music for film, television, and multimedia. Samples of his work can be found on his web site, www.mikemusic.com. He has spoken at TOC's Summer Seminar on film music and Objectivist epistemology. Despite frequent attempts, he too cannot stop the beat.

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