Farewell, Hugh and Caroline: Closing-Night Hysteria and Tears

If you want to understand the nature of public hysteria, go to the last performance of a successful Broadway show. These emotional, fond farewells—expressions of love and communion—are unique to New York.

In London, nobody bothers much about closing nights. In London, nobody bothers much about anything. But here, where enthusiasm is innate, people want to see their favorite show one last time. In their sentiment, they want to give thanks and say, “I was there!”

You should have been there for Hugh Jackman’s final performance in The Boy From Oz. Never seen anything like it. His first entrance is immediately after the overture, when he comes on in darkness to sit at a piano. Lights up! But, of course, the packed house has seen the show before and knows every move. They can see him strolling onstage in the shadows.

It’s him! It’s him! It’s Hugh! Hysteria. Everyone’s on their feet cheering and screaming. The lights go up. He starts to sing. More hysteria!

They stopped the show before it began. He just stood there grinning from ear to ear. Well, wouldn’t you?

A good friend of mine, who was happy to pay 700 smackeroos for her tickets, was seeing the show for the eighth time. I’m embarrassed to know her, actually. But that’s nothing. She told me the Japanese couple seated in front of her were seeing the show for the 100th time. But that’s nothing, either. Midway through the show, Mr. Jackman introduced a lady to the audience who’s seen it 200 times. The spotlight found her in one of the best seats, and she stood up proudly to take a well-deserved bow.

As I joined in the hearty applause for her, I did a quick, mean little calculation: At $100 dollars a ticket, she’d spent $20,000 going to see The Boy from Oz four times a week for a year.

Don’t tell me people don’t love the theater.

The whole farewell performance was fun and touching and camp—rather like Peter Allen, or the somewhat maligned production itself. I see my review was displayed in the foyer, blown up and reprinted in full. But then, it was the only rave review the show got, more or less. Why did those eunuchs called critics dislike The Boy from Oz so much? It was as if they were trying their best to gun it down. But what’s the use of wondering? This I know: They called it wrong! The show became a hit.

True, it wasn’t Threepenny Opera. It wasn’t meant to be. True, it had a bona fide superstar in Hugh Jackman, who gave the best performance in a razzmatazz Broadway musical many of us have seen. But no performer can go it alone. Mr. Jackman needed the kindling wood that ignites the fire—the show itself, all the other fine artists, the popular songs of Peter Allen, the life story simply told.

The sour critics—sophisticates, all—missed the essential point. They should have listened to the audience. The best seat for a musical isn’t always a seat. If you stand at the back of the house, as I did for the farewell Boy from Oz, you experience a show differently, and it tells you something. You can actually feel an entire audience responding to what’s happening onstage, as if a tidal wave of emotion, or love, is rolling back and forth through the auditorium. If you want to know how a show is really doing, don’t listen to critics. Listen to the audience instead.

But what could beat Mr. Jackman’s own farewell at the end of the show? It came at the start of his last song, sung for the last time:

Once before I go—

The collective groan from the house was so palpable we laughed.

“Don’t go!” came the response. “We love you!” “Stay!” “We love you, Hugh!”

“And I love you, darlin’,” Hugh replied in his Aussie accent. He’s a good sort. The band was still playing the opening chords. He began the last song again:

Once before I go

I want you to know—

That I would do it all again.

Hysteria! The song was tailor-made for the occasion. Then the curtain descended. And all stood and cheered and cheered and cheered to the rafters. And life was good.

But some farewells sadden you—and ineffably so with the last performance of the musical I believe to be a lovely, fantastic achievement, Caroline, or Change. The extraordinary Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori piece was the polar opposite of The Boy from Oz, of course. In many innovative ways, it was the anti–Broadway musical.

Yet there was the same electric atmosphere in the packed house for its last performance. There’s Mr. Kushner, standing quietly at the back. How will he get through saying goodbye to his own show, one wondered. (How will the performers?) There, taking their seats, is the excited family of someone in the cast, and that one has been before, and this one is scrambling to see the show she always meant to see. And before it all began, something wonderful:

The lights went down, signaling the show was about to start—and everyone began to applaud. The curtain had yet to go up, but the audience began an ovation, prolonged and loving—a statement. We were doing honor to the very existence of the show itself, to the beautiful chamber piece and fable whose quality of restraint and simplicity and heart have given us such joy.

“Salty, salty, salty teardrops,” as the Supremes-like troupe of Caroline comment in obvious showbiz irony. For the raw tale of Caroline Thibodeaux, the black maid of Louisiana whose spirit has been murdered, is a tragedy of American life, and the salty tears—hers and ours—aren’t sentimental. The bare, honest truth of her hard life is too real for that, although all last performances have their built-in sentiment and regret.

Was there ever a finer ensemble than Caroline’s? The ovation on the first entrance of Tonya Pinkins stopped the show, and Ms. Pinkins stood firm and proud. But each member of this superlative cast received our grateful hands as soon as they came onstage. You could see them gulping for air sometimes, holding on somehow.

In my original review of the show, there was no room, midst the superlatives, to name them. To the great Chuck Cooper, Chandra Wilson, Veanne Cox and David Costabile, the God-given talent of Anika Noni Rose, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Brandi Chavonne Massey, to Alice Playten, Reathel Bean, Larry Keith, the wondrous Capatha Jenkins and Aisha de Haas, to those junior troupers, Harrison Chad, Leon G. Thomas III and the irresistible Marcus Carl Franklin—everyone—thank you, thank you, and farewell.

It was the quixotic dream of Caroline that it just might, with luck—with a miracle—make it on Broadway after its sold-out run at the Public. But for it to have made it in conventional commercial terms, absolutely everything would have had to go its way. When the gentleman from The Times compared the show unfavorably to Hairspray, of all things, he shot himself in the foot. If only he would finish the job. But he did the show irrevocable harm. When Caroline was beaten for Best Musical at the Tonys by puppets ( Avenue Q), the reality of unchangeable life on Broadway couldn’t have been starker.

But that isn’t the cause of my sadness. Thousands and thousands of theatergoers had a chance to see Caroline during its four-month Broadway run, and we are glad. No, the story it tells is what breaks our heart. And its story ends on the cusp of change and American history with the young children of Caroline Thibodeaux facing us alone onstage. Where is the hope for them, where the future?

I don’t know about life. But the hope and future of the American theater are in Caroline, or Change, though it’s gone now, a dream, a memory.