NEW YORK, NY.-
For a little while Sunday evening, after the final performance of Caroline, or Change at Studio 54, actor John Cariani disappeared from backstage to have his portrait taken upstairs. No one had told the boys, though, and when Cariani reappeared, his young castmates some of whom had played his son flocked around, teasing him and hugging him. They were palpably pleased he hadnt given them the slip.
Stuart Gellman, the lost-in-grief clarinetist in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesoris Broadway musical, is the first father Cariani has ever played. Stuart a widower newly remarried to Rose, played by Caissie Levy is also the first character to tap Carianis clarinet skills, dormant for more than 30 years. When the pandemic shutdown delayed the revival of Caroline by a year and a half, he used that time to polish them.
As the productions director, Michael Longhurst, said: He could play a bit, and now he can play astonishingly, which is just a dream.
In a precarious theater season pocked with cancellations, Caroline made it the full three months and one day from its first preview to the scheduled end of its limited run without missing a performance. So did Cariani, 52, last seen on Broadway in 2018 in The Bands Visit. (Some actors in that musical played instruments, but he did not.)
Carianis previous Broadway shows, including Something Rotten! and Fiddler on the Roof, all continued after his contract with them was up, so giving a closing performance as an original cast member was new to him. On Saturday night, it took him by surprise when sadness crept into his voice midshow. Usually, he said, his feelings wait until later.
By Sunday evening, sitting down for an interview in his dressing room, he was only beginning to process his experience with the production. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Tell me about your evolution as a clarinetist.
CARIANI: I played from age 10 to probably 19. Seriously, too. In college, I played in the pit orchestra for Sweeney Todd. And I didnt know what the play was. I kept getting in trouble because I was watching instead of playing. And thats when I realized I dont want to do this. Whatever that is, thats what I want to do. And then over the pandemic, I played every day because it was the one thing I knew I could do every day.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Did developing your facility as a musician on this show coexist with deepening the character of Stuart?
CARIANI: Yeah, the clarinet helped me with the singing, and the singing helped with the clarinet. Ann Yee, our choreographer, said, Remember, its all of a whole. So dont think of it as the clarinet and the part. It was just continuing to realize how much he communicates through his clarinet and getting to keep learning to communicate through the clarinet.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Well, thats the only part of him thats not recessive.
CARIANI: Exactly. Its the part that explodes. What was interesting is that means going for broke and making mistakes in front of a thousand people sometimes. I made mistakes in front of people, and I survived. And it was just great.
COLLINS-HUGHES: You had three different children playing your son. How did that affect your presence?
CARIANI: When I do musicals, I become more of a technician than when I do plays. And then finding freedom within the form is hard. Because I had three different kids, I just felt like and we all felt this you have to show up with the kid whos there. And theyre all very different. One was sweet as can be, and so you want to take care of him. One is funny and wry and probably smarter than me. And thats fun. And then one is mean. And they all work, because the text supports all three of those interpretations.
COLLINS-HUGHES: How has doing this show during the pandemic compared with any other Broadway experience youve had?
CARIANI: It hasnt felt like Broadway. It hasnt felt like The Bands Visit. Im going to say that. Because I feel like they were equally received, very warmly received, which is a blessing. I think the pandemic changed numbers. Its that simple. The number of people who came. I remember when omicron hit, I heard that the box office completely stopped, like no one was buying tickets. It was noticeable. Because you could see and people will probably give me a hard time because I shouldnt [say this] but the lights come up sometimes, and I can see the audience. And you see pairs [of seats] all over the place, empty.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Some of them are because they didnt sell, and some of them are because people tested positive.
CARIANI: They tested positive; they canceled. I had friends who were going to come this last week. Six couples, all tested positive, couldnt come. I will say that the past five shows have felt like Broadway. Because its our last week, weve had really good houses, electric audiences.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Audience aside, ticket sales aside, how has it been? Youre not going, I assume, to a closing night party, right? Was there an opening party?
CARIANI: We didnt do any of those things.
COLLINS-HUGHES: How careful have you had to be to make it all the way through?
CARIANI: We dont go out together as a company. You know, you dont go visit. Its just not smart right now. You dont get to know people. Thats the other hard thing. We dont get to know each other the way other casts have known each other. I had to ask one of the cleaning guys to take his mask off so I could know what he looks like. We wear our masks all the time backstage. We have to remind each other to take them off before we go on sometimes.
CARIANI: I wore my mask on for the JFK sequence, when I dont have to say anything, but Im up there looking at the TV. Caissie didnt even notice. You know who noticed? The boys were watching.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Have you felt safe?
CARIANI: The hardest part for me was the commute. I ride on the subway for about 40 minutes total. The first 15 minutes of that ride, most of the people, I would say a good portion of the people, are not masked. A lot of young people, you know? It changes as you go deeper into Manhattan. And then its the opposite as you leave.
COLLINS-HUGHES: Has this production brought you joy?
CARIANI: Caissie and I said this the other night: Right before we come on after Salty Teardrops, I was like, Remember when this was impossible and we said were never going to have fun with this? Can you believe how much fun it is? Its so much fun. Because its a mountain to climb every night.
The Bands Visit wasnt technically difficult for me at all. I had to sing a couple songs, say some words; I had to be there, be present, you know what I mean? But I do think that Sam Sadigursky, who was our clarinet player in The Bands Visit, was a huge influence on me getting to listen to him every night. And then, Im not going to lie. Its fun when Jeanine Tesori comes up to you and says, I cannot believe youre playing it all. This is so thrilling. Because the character plays, and its thrilling for her to see the character play. And Tony said that, too. Hugest moment of my life.
COLLINS-HUGHES: For any other actor in the part of Stuart, whats your advice?
CARIANI: Remember that half of your role is the clarinet. In rehearsals, I was so focused on getting my singing and my talking right that I was forgetting about living through that clarinet. Even if you dont play it, figure out how to live through that clarinet.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times