Making Change with Caroline: An Interview with Andra Velis Simon
Photo Credit: Marisa KM
When Firebrand Theatre hit the ground running with Lizzie, audiences knew they were in for a company looking to make a change.
Now their latest production, Caroline, or Change, is keeping the feminist spirit alive while taking the time to reflect on where we’ve been as a country. The Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori musical was the perfect opportunity for Firebrand to team up with TimeLine Theatre.
The musical, set in 1963 in Louisiana, is all about change. Those changes range from momentous to the everyday, but they nonetheless impact everyone. Caroline is a maid and mother of four whose relationship to the young grieving boy in the Gellman family is central to the plot.
So much happens throughout the course of the show it seems unfair to simply summarize it, so we took the opportunity to interview Firebrand’s resident musical director Andra Velis Simon to get the inside scoop of what it’s like to work on such a riveting piece of musical theater.
As a musical director, what is it like to work so closely with a company dedicated to female empowerment?
Velis Simon: Working with a company that is dedicated to femme empowerment has been truly inspiring. For a lot of us working with Firebrand, it’s our first time on a predominantly femme production team. And this really does make a difference when telling women’s stories.
What are your thoughts on Firebrand being the first such equity musical theater company?
Velis Simon: The fact that Firebrand is the first equity musical theatre company dedicated to empowering women shows how necessary it is that the company exists. Our hope is that we can help pave the way for other companies to do the same. We already have received messages from college students who are going to their departments with proposals for a more diverse theater season using Firebrand as a model. We hope to encourage the next generation of artists.
Having worked all over the country do you see the musical theater environment changing in terms of the role of women on stage (and off)?
Velis Simon: There is a lyric in Caroline: “Change comes fast and change comes slow.” I still often walk into production meetings that are mostly white and male. The cis white male perspective is still the pervasive voice. But there are many artists, and many allies, who are educating themselves about diversity, equity and inclusion and working towards those principles. It takes effort. We all have to keep working, and learning, and trying.
How does Caroline fit into Firebrand’s brand?
Velis Simon: Caroline feels like a perfect show both for Firebrand and for our collaboration with TimeLine Theatre, which is dedicated to stories inspired by history. Caroline gives us a female protagonist of color during the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautiful story, rich with history and strong, yet flawed, characters.
Have you directed music for other Jeanine Tesori compositions before?
Velis Simon: I had the great pleasure of music directing Jeanine Tesori’s Violet twice in the past, and I am such a fan of her work. Not only is she wonderfully adept in the way she honors various music styles, she’s also brilliant in how she scans lyrics to mirror natural speech. Playing her music is a real joy.
Tesori – a theatrical movement maker in her own right - tends to write music for shows with amazingly strong women, do you have a particular favorite from her repertoire?
Velis Simon: One of the things I love about Caroline, or Change is that there are so many incredible female characters. Kushner and Tesori, in addition to giving us the title character of Caroline Thibodeaux, also give us the complex and problematic Rose Gellman, along with Caroline’s adventurous friend Dotty and her brave daughter Emmie. And then there are the characters that live in the world of magical realism--the Washer, Moon, and Radio. They are all drawn so well in this piece.
Doing Caroline in partnership with TimeLine is such a phenomenal co-op. What are some things audiences can glean from this snapshot of our nation’s past that can give us hope for the future?
Velis Simon: The Confederate Statue mentioned in Caroline, or Change is still standing in Louisiana. Just a few years ago there was a proposal to remove it which was rejected. We still have so much work to do.
On a more hopeful note, we are thrilled to be working on this piece in collaboration with TimeLine Theatre. The partnership was a fantastic idea from director Lili-Anne Brown. TimeLine has brought so much energy and enthusiasm and, of course, resources to the project. We are very grateful to be working with them.
Caroline has a fascinating breakdown with such nonchalant song titles. It feels impossible to pick a favorite moment or section for myself, but do you have one that’s particularly close to your heart?
Velis Simon: You’re so right! There is a huge sequence that moves from a holiday song to exposition and then onto several flashbacks... each of us in the room had our own title for it, then we looked and realized it’s called “Ironing.”
I’m terrible at naming favorites because they are all my favorite. I’ve been known to exclaim “This one is my favorite!” before every song. My favorite song, show or character is usually whatever I’m working on at any given moment.
Caroline, or Change, presented by Firebrand Theatre and TimeLine Theatre, runs now through October 28 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are available online at firebrandtheatre.org or by calling 773-697-3830.