Caroline, or Change, the new musical by playwright Tony (Angels in America) Kushner and composer Jeanine (Thoroughly Modern Millie) Tesori opened in New York three years ago, critic Frank Rich said that the show had “some of the torrential quality of Porgy and Bess.” There are many connections between the two musicals, one a brave new venture, the other one of the world’s great classics: both are set in the Deep South, both depict a black character in crisis, and both have wonderful stories.

Significant links

There is a link, too, in their significance. Porgy and Bess broke new ground in 1935 as the first all-black cast on Broadway, a folk opera that the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, never intended for the opera house. It broke the mould, even though it was not initially a success. But the breathtakingly integrated score of blues, jazz and gospel soon became a national favourite and ensured a long dramatic life, including Trevor Nunn’s celebrated full version at Glyndebourne 20 years ago (with Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the leads). Nunn has now received the Gershwin estate’s approval to slim down four hours of Porgy to a two-and-half-hour West End version – The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess – starring Clarke Peters and Nicola Hughes.

Caroline, or Change is not a specifically black musical, but the story of a black maid in a Jewish household in Louisiana in 1963 - set against the civil rights movement and the impact of President Kennedy’s assassination - is full of striking poetry, brilliant invention, personal crises and unresolved tensions. And, like the Gershwin score, Tesori’s is a treasurable amalgamation of American styles: in her case, blues, Motown, spirituals and klezmer. It’s also “sung-through”.

George C Wolfe, the director of Caroline, who premiered it while still running the Public Theater in New York, says that the piece is “more reflective of black and white tensions and becomes a musical, or an opera, about American culture, full stop. It records how things happen in a more complicated way as opposed to living inside the romantic dynamics of race, loss and healing.”

The “change” of the title is a word that works hard. Little Noah, the white Jewish boy whose mother has died and who is drawn towards Caroline in retreat from his new stepmother, leaves small change in his pockets for the laundry. The material value of things becomes a big issue in the piece, as well as how characters must adjust to each other, and each other’s loss, beneath the ever-changing moon.

“It’s got that magic realism aspect to it, which I love,” yelps a fatigued Wolfe, suddenly coming alive in a private dining room off the National Theatre restaurant during rehearsals. “If Garcia Marquez and Chekhov decided to work on a musical together and to set it in the Deep South, you’d get Caroline, or Change!”

There’s also a deeply personal side to the musical: “It is informed by elements of Tony Kushner’s life growing up in Louisiana, with a black woman as a maid in the family.” This is not strictly autobiographical, although the Broadway cast CD notes approvingly quote Alice Walker, the black American poet and author of The Color Purple, who said that “white people should write about black people even if they write about their maids”.

Building a bridge

As a black American director, Wolfe’s career has, in a sense, been one of building a bridge between Porgy and Caroline. His first Broadway show, in 1992, was Jelly’s Last Jam, a journey through the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton for which he cast the dynamic duo of Gregory Hines and Tonya Pinkins. Pinkins, with a voice like molten lava, is the sensational Caroline of the new musical, one of three Americans Wolfe has brought across to join an English cast including Clive Rowe, Hilton McRae, Anna Francolini and Ian Lavender.

His next Broadway show, ten years ago, was Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, a collaboration with the dancer Savion Glover that was simply one of the most incredible musical evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre, a potted cultural history of black American experience told through rap, tap, break dance, kitchen pans and the human whirlwind of Glover himself. It made Stomp look like Postman Pat. “I wanted the slam dunk visceral exchange you get between players and spectators at a basketball game; where the rhythm of the stage hits the audience and they come smashing back with their own energy.” He got it.

These two Wolfe musicals summarised, in a way, Broadway’s post-Porgy retreat from black musical theatre to a new kind of black musical revue via the black versions of white musicals such as Carmen Jones (based on Bizet in 1943), an all-black Hello, Dolly! in 1968 starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and The Wiz in 1975, an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. Then there was the Fats Waller revue (Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978), the Duke Ellington revue (Sophisticated Ladies in 1981) and – the apogee of the genre, but with new songs – Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls, a story of black girl singers emerging from the ghetto, loosely based on the Supremes.

Peters does Porgy

The new Porgy, Clarke Peters, has played his part in this story in London, heading up the cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar in the West End 30 years ago, Five Guys Named Mo (1990), which he also wrote, and, more recently, the Young Vic revival in 2003 of David Martin and Langston Hughes’ 1957 Harlem idyll, Simply Heavenly. An American who came to Europe to play the lead in Hair and stayed, Peters was the first-ever black Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at Watford Palace in 1976 (he later took over the same role from Ian Charleson in Richard Eyre’s NT production) and knows that Porgy is his biggest musical theatre challenge so far.

He has even returned to South Carolina to research librettist Dubose Heyward’s source character for Porgy, Sammy Smalls (1889-1924), the polio-stricken goat man whom nobody liked. Sidney Poitier’s 1959 film performance strikes Peters as too sympathetic: “Sammy smelled to high heaven. He was mean and unpleasant. He was known around Charleston and did indeed live with a goat on a rope. That’s why what happens falling in love with Bess, losing her, killing her lover, is such a journey, such an arc in a tragic performance, or should be.”

Peters stirs his soup thoughtfully in a highly air-conditioned Lebanese restaurant near King’s Cross, not far from the rehearsal room where, after three hours of Nunn intensely rehearsing the first scene, he has not yet quite made his first entrance. “There was something about old Sammy that Dubose, who was also crippled, profoundly responded to, so that when he writes a line for Porgy like, ‘God gives a cripple an understanding that a strong man doesn’t have,’ it comes from the heart.”

Does the shortened version compromise the work as a whole, I wonder? “We’ve lost some interludes and a couple of songs that are superfluous to the story. Even though I only have four songs, there’s still an awful lot in between, and it’s the most demanding thing I’ve ever had to do. And I’m asked to do a lot of it in the upper baritone range, where I’ve rarely sung before, so I’m seeing a voice coach three or four times a week.

“There is, of course, only one Willard White,” Peters adds, “but what I can do that Willard White can’t do is eight shows a week.” And the actor rolls, slightly bow-legged à la Porgy, back to rehearsals to find out if he can make his first entrance yet.

Caroline, or Change is in rep at NT Lyttelton. Porgy and Bess premieres at the West End’s Savoy Theatre on 9 November 2006 (previews from 25 October).

A version of this article appears in the October issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer). To secure your copy of future editions, click here to subscribe now.