For a little while on Sunday evening, after the final performance of “Caroline, or Change” at Studio 54, the 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 hadn’t given them the slip.
Stuart Gellman, the lost-in-grief clarinetist in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 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 Cariani’s 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.
Clockwise from left: Stuart Zagnit, John Cariani, Adam Makké and Joy Hermalyn in “Caroline or Change.” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
As the production’s 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 Band’s Visit.” (Some actors in that musical played instruments, but he did not.)
Cariani’s 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.
Tell me about your evolution as a clarinetist.
I played from age 10 to probably 19. Seriously, too. In college, I played in the pit orchestra for “Sweeney Todd.” And I didn’t know what the play was. I kept getting in trouble because I was watching instead of playing. And that’s when I realized I don’t want to do this. Whatever that is, that’s 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.
Did developing your facility as a musician on this show coexist with deepening the character of Stuart?
Yeah, the clarinet helped me with the singing and the singing helped with the clarinet. Ann Yee, our choreographer, said, “Remember, it’s all of a whole. So don’t 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.
Well, that’s the only part of him that’s not recessive.
Exactly. It’s 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.
You had three different children playing your son. How did that affect your presence?
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 who’s there. And they’re 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 that’s fun. And then one is mean. And they all work, because the text supports all three of those interpretations.
How has doing this show during the pandemic compared with any other Broadway experience you’ve had?
It hasn’t felt like Broadway. It hasn’t felt like “The Band’s Visit.” I’m 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. It’s 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 shouldn’t [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.
Some of them are because they didn’t sell, and some of them are because people tested positive.
They tested positive; they canceled. I had friends who were going to come this last week. Six couples, all tested positive, couldn’t come. I will say that the past five shows have felt like Broadway. Because it’s our last week, we’ve had really good houses, electric audiences.
Audience aside, ticket sales aside, how has it been? You’re not going, I assume, to a closing night party, right? Was there an opening party?
We didn’t do any of those things.
How careful have you had to be to make it all the way through?
We don’t go out together as a company. You know, you don’t go visit. It’s just not smart right now. You don’t get to know people. That’s the other hard thing. We don’t 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.
I wore my mask on for the J.F.K. sequence, when I don’t have to say anything, but I’m up there looking at the TV. Caissie didn’t even notice. You know who noticed? The boys were watching.
Have you felt safe?
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 it’s the opposite as you leave.
Has this production brought you joy?
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 we’re never going to have fun with this? Can you believe how much fun it is?” It’s so much fun. Because it’s a mountain to climb every night.
“The Band’s Visit” wasn’t 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 Band’s Visit,” was a huge influence on me — getting to listen to him every night. And then, I’m not going to lie. It’s fun when Jeanine Tesori comes up to you and says, “I cannot believe you’re playing it all. This is so thrilling.” Because the character plays, and it’s thrilling for her to see the character play. And Tony said that, too. Hugest moment of my life.
For any other actor in the part of Stuart, what’s your advice?
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 don’t play it, figure out how to live through that clarinet.