Misunderstood Musicals: "Carrie: The Musical"

Joel Fenster

It was the end of my freshman year at college and, as a Stephen King fan, I was prepared for a bit of a drought in his schedule. He had just published five novels in a row over the course of just over a year (well, six or seven if you count It twice, since the book is the size of a grand piano). Luckily, I had the musical version of Carrie to look forward to upon returning home from school for the summer. The show opened on Thursday, May 12, 1988 during my last week of classes and I had tickets to see the show with some friends for Saturday, May 21. Unfortunately, the show closed on Sunday, May 15 after five performances (there were sixteen previews before that and a four week run in Stratford-upon-Avon, England before that).

The question on everyone’s mind tends to be: “Why would anyone make THAT into a musical?” I find this to be one of the most obnoxious questions ever. Why would anyone make a musical about a barber who slits people’s throats and then sends the bodies to the pie shop to be used in the baking of meat pies? Why would anyone make a musical about a nun who winds up becoming a nanny for a family that must flee from the Nazis? Or what about a show about a manipulative maniac who lives beneath an opera house in Paris? They do it because they can. So once we get past that question and acknowledge that the material is as viable as any other subject, we can start getting to the meat of the problems (insert your own Sweeney Todd joke here).

Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the script for the successful film version of Carrie directed by Brian DePalma in 1976) and composer Michael Gore (at that point of Fame fame) are both on record as citing Alban Berg’s opera Lulu as inspiration for starting Carrie. And it’s not a bad place to have started as Berg’s work is certainly as out there as King’s novel (if not more so). Gore brought in his Fame partner Dean Pitchford to write the lyrics and the team started on a journey that would end in what was, at the time, the most expensive flop ever to reach Broadway.

So, is Carrie as bad as the critics of the time said? No. It is not. Most of the book by Cohen follows his screenplay pretty well, which at least keeps things flowing (and Cohen’s screenplay captured the flavor of King’s first novel very well). The music by Pitchford and Gore is truly amazing work that ranges from operatic and chilling in nature to mediocre and disposable pop pablum. If you’ve ever listened to the bootlegs of the original versions, all of the songs that belong to Carrie and her mother are simply works of art, enhanced by the actresses who performed them. There were reasons in the midst of the “boos” that the Broadway audiences gave that they also gave standing ovations to both Linzi Hateley and Betty Buckley (as Carrie and Mrs. White respectively). The rest of the score doesn’t quite rise to those occasions, but isn’t horrible and is mostly quite serviceable to the material.

Where Carrie failed is in its physical production. Director Terrence Hands was the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and basically saw the success that his predecessor, Trevor Nunn, had with Les Miserables and wanted to do something similar (and as successful). When Carrie came into Hands’ hands, he looked at it more like a Greek tragedy than a Grease-like high school setting. Seriously, Cohen, Pitchford and Gore are on record as saying Hands actually confused the issue when someone mentioned Grease and he thought Greece). It shows in the design of the show. Actresses in their 30s playing high school students dressed in togas during gym class? Dressed like prostitutes for the rest of the show? Lots of leather? A giant white staircase to nowhere? Lasers and strawberry jam to represent blood? One look at Carrie and it was an obvious mess and all that blame goes to one person: the director.

The show probably could have staggered on long enough for me to have actually seen it if the producers hadn’t promptly pulled all their money out of the production as soon as the reviews hit the street (as it was, the show barely made it to the end of the weekend). The backers had never been involved in producing a Broadway show before and supposedly got so nervous they didn’t know what else to do.

The show closed and over the years both audio and video bootlegs have circulated to keep the show “alive”. Theater groups asked the creators about the rights so often, with the creators turning everyone down, that a few groups went ahead and did the show anyway. In one instance, Pitchford and Gore were in the audience to castigate the group for illegally doing the show. Eventually, the three men would return to their creation like Dr. Frankenstein attempting his experiment again.

In August of 2011, MCC Theater staged a “preview/talkback” at the Lucielle Lortel Theater called Revisiting Carrie in which the show’s three creators and director Stafford Arima answered questions about a forthcoming revival and previewed a number of songs from the revised version. Sitting in the audience as someone who had listened to the score enough times to be very familiar with it, as soon as the cast of high school kids who actually looked like modern day high school kids started singing “In”, I knew things had changed. An energetic but silly song where the girl’s gym class was being worked over by their gym teacher while singing about what it means to be popular had been turned into a plea about the pangs of trying to fit in. Change was certainly in the air.

The rest of that evening brought us four more songs from the show, a couple were exactly the same as before because the authors knew not to mess with perfect, another had been changed for the better and one was brand new (and better than the song it replaced). The authors tiptoed around why the show failed for a good chunk of the evening until a woman who had worked backstage on the Broadway production asked them a question about rumors the crew had heard as to why the show folded so quickly. It was then they stopped tiptoeing and gave an honest explanation for everything that led to the Broadway version’s collapse, including putting part of the blame on themselves.

They also felt they didn’t have a workable second act when Terry Hands and the RSC stepped in to end a whirlwind round of pitches and readings while then led to a whirlwind production schedule to meet deadlines rather than finish the work properly.

On April 8, 2012 the revised version of Carrie opened at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Finally seeing the show live, even in a revised format, was a thrilling experience for me. The authors, with the help of director Stafford Arima, had fixed most, but not all, of the show’s problems on Broadway. Out went the worst of the songs, a few songs were reorchestrated and repurposed and some new songs were written, some of which fixed the problems of songs they were replacing and some that still had the same problems of the songs they were replacing. The staging and production design were no longer mired in the odd concept of Greece/Grease. Now things felt more “realistic”. High school students were believable as high school students (although the ensemble was certainly way too small as it seemed like, beyond the named characters, there were only three other kids at the prom).

And yet, the show still had issues: the prom ending was still weak in parts of its presentation – no blood on stage – and I’m all for representative lighting being used, but this is such an iconic part of the story it really does need more than that to truly smack the audience in the face). Then this past year, the La Mirada Theatre staged a much acclaimed production using much more immersive techniques. 

At the end of the day, the revised version rescued the show from being the famous flop that it was. While still not perfect, it is probably the best we will ever get from the material at this point after all these years. The show finally got a cast album (although it’s still sad that the original Broadway cast, at least Betty Buckley and Linzi Hately, didn’t get a record of their performances) and it is now available for licensing. It is certainly a show worth doing at smaller venues that can handle the subject matter and the special effects; there are some special effects necessary to pull off Carrie’s telekensis which at times in both versions seemed more “cute” than strange And even though the show is about “kids”, the themes are very adult.

There are some great roles (particularly that of Mrs. White – I can think of at least six actresses locally who could knock the role out of the park) and it would most likely draw an audience just for the curiosity factor. Was this show as bad as critics said? No. Not at all. And Carrie deserves a longer life. Hopefully now she will get one.