The singer and actor who led the “Frozen” cast as Elsa before the pandemic now stars in a revival of “Caroline, Or Change” on Broadway, playing a complex character in a challenging musical that explores America's racial, social and economic divisions.
“As scary as it was at the beginning, I think I’m having one of the most joyous times on stage that I’ve had in my whole career,” she says. “I get to really be a whole person up there.”
The sung-through musical with a book by Tony Kushner and songs by Jeanine Tesori is about a Black maid and single mother named Caroline and her relationship with her white employer in 1963 Louisiana.
Caroline toils in the basement doing laundry in her starched uniform, anger boiling up that the changes roiling the outside world have come too late for her.
English actor Sharon D Clarke stars as Caroline and makes her Broadway debut, reprising her Olivier Award-winning role. Levy plays the stepmom, Rose, a New York transplant unhappy in her new life — distant from her stepson and unable to connect with Caroline.
Director Michael Longhurst says Rose is in a new home far from home, in a marriage that isn’t working and she’s finding it excruciating to be in a house that has a maid.
“I think what Caissie manages to do so brilliantly is convey that and still make it so pleasing to listen to,” he says. “I think it’s brave and I think it’s a challenge for an actress, and I think that’s what Caissie responds to.”
The musical was already raw when it debuted two decades ago but takes on more meaning after the killing of George Floyd forced Americans to confront racial equity and justice.
“How wild that we are dealing with this massive racial reckoning in our country and our world. It’s so necessary. We’re still dealing with so many of these things that we were dealing with in the ’60s,” Levy says.
In many ways, Levy’s Rose is the touchstone for white audience members to check themselves and relate to her discomfort dealing with Caroline across the racial and religious divide about money, justice and raising children.
“My heart goes out to Rose in a lot of ways. Sometimes I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her and say, ‘Snap out of it, get with it here!’ I think that’s really relatable,” says Levy.
She asked Kushner if Rose was meant to be the villain of the piece and he set her straight. “He said, ‘No, not at all. I think she thinks she’s doing the right thing.’ And that informed everything for me,” she says.
“Every single character is trying to find their place in the world and do the right thing, and everybody feels isolated and alone. I think that’s what makes the story so compelling and relatable. You can sort of find yourself in all the characters at different moments and see the world from their point of view in such a clear way.”
Levy has been juggling her work — long hours starting mid-afternoon at the theater and ending after the show's curtain falls after 10 p.m. — with a busy home life. She and her husband, actor and teacher David Reiser, have a 5-year-old son and a 7-month-old daughter.
“I have the best husband on the planet. So I think that’s like 90% of how I’m functioning,” she says, laughing. “Life is busy but awesome, I have to say.”
One silver lining of the pandemic was that she got to spend every night with her family. But these days, she hasn't been home for bedtime or dinnertime in a while.
“It’s definitely been a transition because my son just started kindergarten this year, which is such a big step in a new school. It’s tough to not be home to pick him up from the bus and say, ‘How was school today?’”
In addition to “Frozen,” Levy has also appeared on Broadway in “Les Misérables,” “Ghost the Musical,” “Hair,” “Wicked” and “Hairspray.”
The transition from “Frozen” — belting “Let It Go” on a snowy mountain for Disney — has been its own mountain for Levy to climb.
“I was going from this very still character in Elsa, with all these huge songs, to a very jumpy, uncomfortable woman who doesn’t even sing a note that’s melodic in any way,” says Levy.
“Caroline, Or Change” was just days from its first preview when the pandemic shut down Broadway in March 2020. Levy and her family rode out some of the time in Canada, where she grew up. She taught students over Zoom and mourned the loss of her childhood friend, actor Nick Cordero, from COVID-19.
During the pandemic, her family moved to New Jersey and she and her husband — who teaches theater at Stockton University in New Jersey — began thinking of expanding their family. They welcomed Talulah in March.
“We had a lot on our plates the whole year, and I spent most of it pregnant and unable to drink wine, which was really rude in the middle of a pandemic, frankly,” she says, laughing. “This was not a normal amount of change to deal with and so funny that now I’m doing a show all about change.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits