On Sunday evening, after the last performance of “Caroline, or Change” in Studio 54, actor John Cariani briefly disappeared from the 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 and hugging him. They were palpably glad he hadn’t slipped them.
Stuart Gellman, the lost clarinetist in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Broadway musical, is the first father to ever play Cariani. Stuart – a widower recently remarried to Rose, played by Caissie Levy – is also the first character to use Cariani’s clarinet skills, slumbering for over 30 years. When the pandemic shutdown delayed “Caroline”‘s revival by a year and a half, he used that time to polish them up.
As the director of the production Michael Longhurst said, “He could play a little bit, and now he can play amazingly, which is just a dream.”
In a precarious theater season filled with cancellations, “Caroline” made it through the entire three months and one day from the first preview to the scheduled end of the limited run without missing a performance. So was Cariani, 52, last seen on Broadway in 2018 in “The Band’s Visit.” (Some of the actors in that musical played instruments, but he didn’t.)
Cariani’s previous Broadway shows, including “Something Rotten!” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” all continued after his contract with them ended, so it was new for him to give a closing appearance as an original cast member. On Saturday night, he was surprised to find sadness creeping into his voice halfway through the show. Usually, he said, his feelings wait until later.
Sunday evening, sitting for an interview in his dressing room, he only began 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 piece was. I kept getting into trouble for watching instead of playing. And then I realized I don’t want to do this. Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do. And during the pandemic, I played every day because it was the only thing I knew I could do every day.
Did developing your facility as a musician on this show go hand in hand with deepening Stuart’s character?
Yes, the clarinet helped me sing and singing helped the clarinet. Ann Yee, our choreographer, said: “Remember, it’s all one whole. So don’t think of it as the clarinet and the part.” It was just keep realizing how much he communicates through his clarinet and learning how to communicate through the clarinet.
That’s the only part of him that isn’t recessive.
Precisely. It’s the part that explodes. What was interesting is that it means going broke and making mistakes sometimes in front of a thousand people. I made mistakes in front of people and I survived. And it was just great.
You had three different children who played your son. How has that affected your presence?
When I do musicals, I become more of a technician than when I do plays. And then it is difficult to find freedom within the form. Because I had three different kids, I just had a feeling – and we all felt that – you have to show up with the kid that’s there. And they are all very different. One was as sweet as can be, so you want to take care of him. One is funny and wry and probably smarter than me. And that’s fun. And then there’s a mean. And they all work, because the text supports all three of those interpretations.
How has this show compared to other Broadway experiences you’ve had during the pandemic?
It didn’t feel like Broadway. It didn’t feel like ‘The Band’s Visit’. I’m going to say that. Because I feel like they were welcomed right away, very warmly, which is a blessing. I think the pandemic has changed the numbers. It’s that simple. The number of people who came. I remember when Omicron hit, I heard the cash register completely shut down, like no one was buying tickets. It was noticeable. Because you could see it – and people will probably give me a hard time because I shouldn’t [say this] – but the lights come on sometimes and I can see the audience. And you see couples [of seats] everywhere, empty.
Some of them are because they didn’t sell, and some are because people tested positive.
They tested positive; they canceled. I had friends who were coming last week. Six couples, all tested positive, were unable to attend. I will say the last five shows have felt like Broadway. Since it’s our last week, we’ve had really good homes, an electric crowd.
Audience aside, ticket sales aside, how was it? You’re not going to a closing party, I take it? Was there an opening party?
We haven’t done any of those things.
How careful did you have to be to make it all the way through?
We don’t go out together as a company. You know, you’re not going to visit. It’s just not smart now. You don’t get to know people. That’s the other hard thing. We don’t get to know each other like other casts know each other. I had to ask one of the cleaning ladies to take off his mask so I could know what he looks like. We wear our masks backstage all the time. Sometimes we need to remind each other to take them off before moving on.
I was wearing my mask for the JFK series, if I don’t have to say anything, but I’m sitting there watching the TV. Caissie didn’t even notice. You know who noticed? The boys were watching.
Did you feel safe?
The hardest thing for me was the commute. I ride the metro for about 40 minutes in total. For the first 15 minutes of that ride, most people, I would say a good portion of the people, are unmasked. Lots of young people, you know? It changes as you go deeper into Manhattan. And then it’s the opposite when you leave.
Did this production bring you joy?
Caissie and I recently said this: Right before we got to “Salty Teardrops,” I said, “Remember when this was impossible and we said we’d never 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 few songs, say some words; I had to be there, be there, you know what I mean? But I do think that Sam Sadigursky, who was our clarinetist on ‘The Band’s Visit’, was a huge influence on me – I got to listen to him every night. And then I’m not going to lie. It’s nice when Jeanine Tesori comes up to you and says, “I can’t believe you’re playing it all. This is so exciting.” Because the character is playing, and it’s exciting for her to watch the character play. And Tony said that too. Greatest 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. During rehearsals, I was so focused on getting my singing and my talking, that I forgot I had to live by that clarinet. Even if you don’t play it, you have to figure out how to live through that clarinet.