Loss and joy: Music leavens the agony of an era in “Caroline, or Change.”

Special to The Times

I had a happyish childhood. I grew up in a small Southern town, Lake Charles, La., in an old house filled with books and music, situated on a lot surrounded by semitropical forest. The woods were beautiful, mysterious and exciting. For a young boy in Lake Charles in the early 1960s, “exciting” meant encounters in the trees with possums, fireflies and redbirds, and to spice things up, huge creepy spiders, repulsive, prehistoric-sized cockroaches and poisonous snakes -- water moccasins, black with the spooky white gullet that gives them their nickname, “cottonmouth.”

The woods were also melancholy, as most woods are, perpetually shady, with a decomposing floor of fallen leaves, tangles of dead branches and thorny vines, and here and there the bodies or skeletons of forest animals. Even a happyish kid finds reflections in his surroundings for the various woes, at home or at school, that put the “ish” in “happyish.” For me, the woods were an external correlative of both my inner joy and sorrow, a place to spend time in the company of infinite variety, and also of something strange, a little scary, and in some sense, ineluctable and sad.

The woods were a classroom. Their lessons took years to understand -- even to understand as lessons. Life is full of contrasts. Opposites exist within one another. Sometimes the complicated world is comprehended more satisfactorily by the body and soul than apprehended by cool reason alone. And also, I guess, I was learning: Death is a citizen of paradise.

“Nothing ever happen” are the first words you’ll hear at a performance of “Caroline, or Change,” and shortly thereafter you’ll hear a washing machine -- household appliances in our musical are animate -- singing the words “consequences unforeseen!” These words sort of sum up what I remember of life in my childhood home, at the beginning of what would prove to be a decade of immense transformation and turmoil all across America and around the world: Nothing ever seemed to happen, and yet something unknown, unforeseen, something heard at a distance from the world beyond, something exciting and alarming was slowly making itself known, at the borders, underfoot. Change was coming. Change is exciting. And in change there is loss.

“Caroline” addresses itself to loss, mourning and private, deep sorrow. But it’s also, I think, a joyous musical. One of the great things about working on a musical is that even the worst heartbreak is leavened by the sensual pleasure of harmony, melody, an orchestra and singing, and not because anyone has decided to sweeten pain by giving it short shrift for the purpose of selling tickets. Music does it. Music rounds out suffering, reveals its obverse. Music is the beauty of the woods insisting itself most powerfully at the moment when you’re overwhelmed by the presence of death and decay.

And “Caroline” is joyful because it’s also a celebration of the pleasure of emancipation. For all that it endeavors to recognize the fear and anger attendant upon any transformation, to honor difficulty, Jeanine Tesori, the composer, George C. Wolfe, the director, and I wanted the show to acknowledge the joy liberation brings.

Act 1 of “Caroline” begins on Nov. 22, 1963, the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. While working on the libretto I read Kennedy’s address of June 11, 1963, during which he announced the commencement of the executive, legislative and judicial efforts that would culminate in the passing of the Civil Rights Act, among so many important steps the federal government would undertake, so long overdue, to begin to ensure full and universal enfranchisement. Reading Kennedy’s speech, I was struck not just by the reminder that there have been American presidents capable of eloquence, moral gravity and wisdom. I noticed the repeated references in Kennedy’s speech to the civil rights movement’s demonstrations, nonviolent resistance and community organizing.

“The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them,” Kennedy says, and continues: “The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades and protests.... We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets.... It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”

I am moved today, rereading this. Kennedy’s words emerge from a moment in history marked by the finest, most progressive kind of democracy in action. On one level, it’s true, Kennedy may be saying nothing more than “there will be riots if we don’t act,” and he places his final faith not in government but in the goodwill of the people. But he is quite clearly advocating a government that fulfills its role as guarantor and defender of the rights of minorities against a majority’s tyranny and abuse. Even more extraordinary, viewed from our current, unhappy circumstance, he is delineating a partnership between people on the street -- protesters, demonstrators, activists -- and judges, legislators and even presidents prepared to hear the cry of the people for justice. The politicians and judges are prepared to hear, to respond, because the people on the street anticipate and demand responsiveness from them.

Kennedy strikes at the very heart of conservatism when he says, after asking white Americans to imagine what it feels like to be black, “who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” Today we know only too well who is content with counsels of patience and delay. Kennedy suggests that this complacency has less to do with “patience” and more to do with a failure of empathetic imagination. That failure, I suspect, has something to do with not learning one of the lessons of the woods; people who have never allowed themselves time in the company of loss fear it, and forbid themselves the benefit of an adult’s contemplation of it. This avoidance deforms the way one dreams.

“Caroline” is about one of the stellar chapters of our history, when courageous people who ardently desired freedom and justice invoked them, and these mighty abstractions, so remote yet so essential to life, responded, were made immanent, graspable, present in the world.

One writes about the past in the hope that history can be made to reverberate with meaning for the present. “Caroline, or Change” will open after the election, but when you listen to Emmie, Caroline’s teenage daughter, sing these words from the musical’s epilogue, maybe you’ll think about what has changed since that time, 41 years ago, when not only the natural world but the political life of our republic was characterized by shades of meaning, difference, complexity and contradiction -- it was, in other words, the dawning of American democratic pluralism. It was a time when the real beauty of life was still manifest because loss was still openly countenanced, a time when the life of the people and the role of government seemed not adversarial but complementary.

“Caroline” is, in part, an homage to that hopeful time. And, we hope, it’s about change!

“You can’t hold on, you nightmare men, your time is past now on your way get gone and never come again! For change come fast and change come slow but everything changes! And you got to go!”