For a while on Sunday evening after his last performance “Caroline or Change” At Studio 54, actor John Cariani disappeared backstage to have his portrait taken upstairs. No one had told the children, When Cariani reappeared, however, his young fellow actors, some of whom had played his son, flocked to, teasing and hugging him. They were obviously glad that he hadn’t made a mistake with them.
Stuart Gellman, grieving clarinetist Tony Kushner and Jeanine TesoriBroadway musical, first father played by Cariani. Stuart, newly married to Rose and widowed by Caissie Levy, is also the first character to use Cariani’s dormant clarinet skills in more than 30 years. When the pandemic shutdown delayed “Caroline”‘s resurgence by a year and a half, she used that time to polish them up.
“He can play a little bit and now he can play surprisingly, it’s just a dream,” said production director Michael Longhurst.
In a perilous theatrical season filled with cancellations, “Caroline” made a full three months and a day without missing a performance, from its premiere to the scheduled end of the limited broadcast. The 52-year-old Cariani was also last seen on Broadway in 2018. “The Group’s Visit.” (Some actors played instruments in that musical, but he did not.)
Cariani’s previous Broadway performances, “Something rotten!” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” all went on after his contract with them expired, so giving a closing performance as an original player was new to him. On Saturday night, in the middle of the show, he was surprised when sadness crept into his voice. She said that her feelings usually wait until later.
Sitting in the dressing room for an interview on Sunday evening, he had just begun to process his experience with the production. These are edited excerpts from that speech.
Tell me about your evolution as a clarinettist.
I played from the age of 10 to probably 19. Seriously, so am I. I played in the pit orchestra for “Sweeney Todd” in college. And I didn’t know what the game was. I was constantly getting in trouble for watching instead of playing. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to do that. Whatever it is, this is what I want to do. And I played every day during the pandemic 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 the singing helped me with the clarinet. Our choreographer Ann Yee said, “Remember, it’s all one. So don’t think of it as a clarinet and a piece.” He continued to realize how much he communicated via the clarinet and to learn to communicate via the clarinet.
That’s the only part that isn’t recessive.
Exactly. It is the exploding part. The interesting thing is that sometimes it meant going bankrupt and making mistakes in front of a thousand people. I made mistakes in front of people and survived. And it was just great.
You had three different children playing your son. How has this affected your existence?
When I make musicals, I am more of a technician than when I play games. And then it’s hard to find freedom in form. As I have three different children, I just felt – and we all felt that – you should show up with that kid over there. And they are all very different. Someone was as sweet as can be and that’s why you want to take care of him. Someone is funny, sarcastic and probably smarter than me. And that’s fun. And then someone is rude. And it all works because the text supports all three comments.
How did doing this show during the pandemic compare to other Broadway experiences you’ve had?
It didn’t feel like Broadway. It didn’t feel like “Visiting the Group”. I will say this. Because I feel that they are equally welcomed, very warmly welcomed, which is a blessing. I think the pandemic has changed the numbers. It’s that simple. Number of people arriving. I remember when the Omicron hit, I heard the box office stopped completely, like nobody was buying tickets. It was remarkable. Because you could see it – and people will probably give me a hard time because I shouldn’t. [say this] — but sometimes the lights are on and I can see the audience. And you see the couples [of seats] everywhere is empty
Some because they don’t sell, some because people test positive.
They tested positive; they cancelled. I had friends who were coming last week. Six couples whose tests were positive could not come. I will say the last five shows have felt like Broadway. Since it was our last week, we had really nice houses and electric audience.
Audience aside, ticket sales aside, how did it go? I guess you’re not going to a closing night party, are you? Was there an opening party?
We didn’t do any of these.
How careful did you have to be to do it all the way?
As a company, we do not go out together. You know, you’re not going to visit. Not wise right now. You don’t know people. This is the other difficult thing. We don’t get to know each other the way other players know each other. I asked one of the cleaners to remove his mask to see how he looked. Backstage, we always wear our masks. Sometimes we have to remind each other to remove them before we move on.
I don’t need to say anything for the JFK sequence and I put on my mask but I’m there staring at the TV. Caissie didn’t even notice. You know who noticed? The boys were watching.
Did you feel safe?
The hardest part for me was transportation. I take the subway for about 40 minutes in total. The first 15 minutes of that journey, most of the people, I would say, most of the people are not masked. Lots of young people, you know? It changes as you go deeper into Manhattan. And then vice versa when leaving.
Did this production bring you joy?
Caissie and I said the other night, right before we got to the wake of “Salt Tears”, “Remember when we said it’s impossible and we’re never going to have fun with it? Can you believe how much fun it is?” This is so fun. Because it is a mountain that must be climbed every night.
“The Band’s Visit” wasn’t technically difficult for me at all. I had to sing a few songs, I had to say a few words; I should have been there, I should have been present, you know what I mean? But I think Sam Sadigursky, our clarinettist on “The Band’s Visit”, had a huge influence on me – I don’t listen to him every night. And then, I won’t lie. When Jeanine Tesori comes up to you and says, “I can’t believe you played everything. This is very exciting.” Because he plays character and it’s exciting for him to see character play. And Tony said that too. The biggest moment of my life.
What advice do you have for other actors playing Stuart?
Remember that half of your task is the clarinet. I was so focused on singing and speaking correctly during rehearsals that I forgot to live with that clarinet. Even if you don’t play, figure out how to live with that clarinet.