The Case for “Carrie The Musical” : Why this Notorious Flop Keeps Missing the Mark

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  • Katherine Hebert

Full disclosure I have been in “Carrie the Musical” twice in the last three years. The first time I was I was Carrie, the second time I was a swing for everyone but the character I’d initially played. Needless to say, I have had far too much time meditating on the artistic intent of both King’s 1974 classic, and where it’s musical adaptation drastically misses the mark.

Production History

 “Carrie” is a story most of us are familiar with regardless of whether or not we’ve read the novel or seen the Brian De Palma film (the most popular adaptation to date). A girl is tormented both by her religious zealot mother and peers. After getting her first period and being pelted with sanitary napkins and tampons by her peers Carrie starts to develop telekinetic powers that she begins to experiment with. Simultaneously one of her peers (Sue) feeling guilty for the years of abuse she and her friends have inflicted on Carrie convinces her boyfriend (Tommy) to take Carrie to prom as gesture of goodwill after her apology is rejected. But resident queen-bee-with-psychopathic-tendencies Chris and her boyfriend (Billy) hatch a scheme of their own. At the dance Carrie is crowned prom queen and as she takes the stage Chris and Billy execute their plan and drench Carrie in pigs’ blood. Rather than helping Carrie, her classmates point and laugh causing her psyche to finally crack. Using her telekinetic powers, she locks the doors and takes revenge on everyone who has wronged her. The only survivor of the core cast is Sue. “Carrie” is a compelling inversion of Cinderella that is nearly universally acclaimed. Which made it ripe for adaptation and thus 2 films, a mini- series and the subject of this post were born.

“Carrie” the musical with a book by Lawrence D. Cohen and a score by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore. The show had a tryout in Stratford than transferred to Broadway in 1988. Both productions were riddled with technical problems and last minute adjustments and changes were made up until the last second (during the Stratford run rewrites were made throughout the duration of their 4-week run.) On Broadway the show opened to scathing reviews.  The New York Times went as far to state  

“If ''Chess'' slides to its final scene as solemnly and pompously as the Titanic, then ''Carrie''       expires with fireworks like the Hindenberg. True, the fireworks aren't the greatest; the intended Stephen King pyrotechnics wouldn't frighten the mai-tai drinkers at a Polynesian restaurant.”- Frank Rich May 13, 1988

With reviews like this the show’s financial backers quickly pulled out. As a result, “Carrie The Musical” closed abruptly after only 16 previews and 5 performances, thus solidifying its reputation as one of the most expensive and notorious flops in Broadway history. 

Despite this notoriety, “Carrie” was given an off-Broadway revival in 2012. Half of the score was rewritten as was the book and the production was set in 2012 and attempted to utilize “Carrie” to start a discussion surrounding bullying in schools with the mantra “what does it cost to be kind?” appearing multiple times throughout the revival. And while this production received more favorable response. The overall critical reception was lukewarm at best with many of the same criticisms lodged at the 1988 production remaining. This version of “Carrie”, with some tweaking here and there, has been produced in Seattle, Los Angeles (This is the best one), Mexico City and Manilla as well as at countless high schools and colleges. So why is this piece continuously resurrected despite its troubled history? The simple answer would be the cult following that has accumulated over the last 3 decades. But I wager that deep in the mess of “Carrie the Musical” there is potential for something transcendent or at the very least thematically coherent.

What Works:

For this retrospective we will be examining both the original 1988 production as well as the 2012 revival, since the revival is the version that is most frequently performed.

“Carrie: The Musical” is so perplexing because the elements certain to fall flat in a musical are surprisingly the only parts that work. This is evident in the portrayal of both Carrie and Margaret White’s relationship. Portraying domestic abuse onstage to showtunes affectively is already a challenge. Throw in the fact that this outburst of violence was caused by a first period and you have a sequence that could easily be offensive, if not laughable in the wrong hands. But much to my surprise Carrie and Margaret White’s relationship is the only element of the 1988 as well as the revival’s that works completely. Every song the two share is heartfelt, haunting and disturbing. The book is at its strongest when these two are onstage.  And to the musical’s credit both the score and the book go to great lengths to explore their relationship with a surprisingly nuanced approach given the spectacle focused era this piece premiered in. 

Like the 1988 production the revival’s strongest element is Carrie and Margaret’s relationship. Particularly the sequence in which Carrie’s mother is killed is bone-chilling and genuinely tragic.  The song “Carrie” no longer has a verse about how badly Carrie wants a boyfriend (thank you for that). There’s a fair bit more humor in this iteration as well which sometimes undermines the events onstage is still welcome. The choreography in the revival is relatively minimal when compared to its mega-musical counterpart But, the decision to use choreography to illustrate the extent of Carrie’s telekinesis is incredibly visceral particularly in the 2012 revival’s, destruction sequence. Using choreography, in place of special effects, to illustrate the lengths Carrie’s telekinesis can go to, not only probably saved this production some serious cash, but is also more frightening. What is scarier than being forced to snap your own neck? Or kill your best friend? Personally speaking, the thought of telekinetic possession being my downfall is much more frightening than the 88 production’s reliance on smoke machines, trick lighting and for some reason lasers?  This change from the 88 production highlights how good this piece could have been if given the proper elements at its inception.

What Doesn’t

The 1980’s was the decade of bombastic, fantastical mega-musicals that while enjoyable are admittedly more spectacle than substance. And while mellow-dramas like “Phantom of the Opera” and plot-light dance-heavy “Cats” lend themselves to this type of story-telling, the horror of “Carrie” is contingent on intimacy and familiarity. Put plainly, conceiving “Carrie” as a mega- musical killed any chance the show had of succeeding long before the questionable costumes and effects ever could. To understand specifically why “Carrie the Musical” doesn’t work we need to understand why “Carrie” the novel functions as a horror story.

Despite being about a girl with supernatural powers any real display of them is used sparingly until the final act. Up until the prom all Carrie’s powers only culminates in shattered lightbulbs, moving furniture and shutting windows. These small instances of the supernatural are meant to upset the hyper-realistic suburbia the story is set in, as well as foreshadow the upcoming carnage at prom night. This is what makes the narrative so unsettling, King has crafted a world where the potential for such violence looms over the heads of a normal town that looks much like the one many of us grew up in. Where the true villain is created by lack of intervention and a level of cruelty that we’re all capable of whether we want to admit it or not.

This is where the 1988, and to an extent the 2012 revival fail. For the moments of telekinesis to hold any real weight the rest of the world must be grounded in not just a reality, but our reality. Which a mega-musical doesn’t typically lend itself to. How can Carrie’s massacre with the use of lighting, and larger than life choreography hold any real weight when in sequences prior the audience has been privy to: teens in bright bodysuits singing about massacring pigs, a gym class jazzercise routine taking place in a public school that ends in a human pyramid or a dance break Carrie has with her come-to-life-via-telekinesis prom dress? Entertaining theatre? Yes. An affective exploration of pack mentality and human cruelty? Hardly. Frankly I cannot think of many narratives more ill-equipped for a “mega-musical” than “Carrie” as the entire story is contingent on the world’s believability. If the first 3 quarters of the show are just as bombastic as its gruesome finale we’re desensitized to the volume of this event because the rest of the piece has been shouting just as loud. 

To speak generally about the 1988 production, one only needs to look up press footage or any review written about the show to get the gist. Aesthetically nearly everything is off, from the costumes to the choreography to the affects nothing seems to work as intended.

From a structural standpoint, lots of moments that should hold more weight are only briefly touched upon. The gut-wrenching “plug it up” scene in the film takes up nearly 5 minutes of its 90-minute runtime, and no I’m not including the near 2-minutes of voyeuristic shots of showering naked 20-somethings portraying minors.  This event is the catalyst for the entire plot, yet in the musical it is maybe a minute in half in total. Atleast in the original production there was a song “Her Mother Should’ve Told Her” to emphasize the weight this even has both on the protagonist as well as the plot, but in the revival it is eradicated altogether without a song to replace it. Worse, the prom sequence that takes up 18 minutes of the film is a total of 5 minutes in both the 1988 and 2012 production. Let me restate that, the climatic event that the entire narrative has been leading to, upon which most adaptations of this story are judged, only takes up 5 minutes of its 2-hour runtime.

While the revival is an improvement on the 1988 production in nearly every sense. It has its own slew of problems. To be fair I am more equipped to discuss this iteration as I’ve performed in it twice.

The revival’s biggest misstep is making “Carrie” an anti-bullying narrative. This looked nice on paper in 2012 given the public outcry of bullying in schools at the time. But this interpretation doesn’t work when given more than a cursory glance. In 2019 it feels disingenuous at best and problematic at worst. As school shootings become more and more commonplace in the current hellscape that is our nation’s discourse on gunlaws, different elements of beloved classics now have different implications. So, it should be stated that no matter intent or execution, if you kill a high school student at their high school, your production now has political connotations regardless of whether you want it to or not. With this in mind, a sequence in which a frequently picked on student murders everyone in attendance at the high school prom in retaliation to the years of abuse is already a little dicey in 2019. Throw in a constant reiteration of the phrase “What does it cost to be kind?” and I am only reminded of the countless conservatives yelling “walk up not out” to victims of school-shootings which is probably not the side of the argument this show wanted to be on. To be fair this is an issue that has only cropped up in the last five years and I’d categorize this as a creative decision that didn’t age well, but it does make current productions feel like mis-informed afterschool specials rather than well-thought out commentary on our turbulent times.

Modernizing “Carrie” as a means of commenting on how the technological age has introduced cyber-bullying into the world doesn’t work contextually. If I, in 2012, were to come across a video of a high school girl in Maine and naked, having a panic attack while girls are pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins, it would be accompanied by a Huffington Post article detailing how the person filming the assault had lost any chance of obtaining an acceptance to any university and would link to a petition calling for the student’s immediate expulsion and the plot would stop shortly after a Gofundme had been set up on Carrie’s behalf to get her out of an abusive household.  The lack of intervention in the bullying Carrie receives is only believable because of the era its set in. The addition of “Carrie goes viral” without mentioning the backlash her perpetrators would receive from the online world just isn’t believable. And maybe you could persuade your audience to suspend their disbelief. But I’d have to restate once again that the horror in “Carrie” is contingent on the believability of the world it is set in.

It should be mentioned that despite countless musicals about the teenage experience, neither the revival nor the original production has successfully managed to integrate believable high-schoolers into a narrative that takes place predominantly at a high school. When revived half the score was rewritten, specifically the songs that involved characters other than Margaret and Carrie.  However, these rewritten songs create the same problem in a different way: side by side songs like “Evening Prayers”, “When There’s No one” and “Eve was Weak” feel like they belong in this dark world that King has crafted. Whereas “The World According to Chris” and “Night We’ll Never Forget” are more reminiscent of musicals like “The Prom” or “Grease”. Combine this with lines like “CHICKEN PADDIES” (in response to a student flipping gym lights on and off) and “SMILE AND SAY PENIS”, give the a distinct “This how the youth of today talk” feel. This is why the revival’s attempts to give these characters some much needed depth falls flat. Fleshing out Tommy into wanting to be a writer rather than an athlete and having his poem “Dreamer in Disguise” be hailed in the text as a brilliant without a hint of irony elicited some laughs from the audience during a production I saw in 2014. Additionally, utilizing the interrogation Sue is subjected to as a means of making her a sort of narrator is a nice nod to the book and the intent was no doubt to give the sole survivor of this piece more purpose in the narrative. However, this creates structural problems. If the audience is witnessing Sue’s memory/testimony how is she recounting sequences she isn’t in to the police? If she were just speculating that could be interesting, but then the book would need to acknowledge that. This is a problem that musicals like “Fun Home” successfully skirt around, by having the character being textually unreliable and constantly admitting that her memory might not be 100% accurate.

How to Proceed:

Despite my long-winded rant on piece’s failings, I have a deep love for this musical and a fascination with its failings. And after 3,000 words I find myself asking, what does a successful production of “Carrie the Musical” look like? Apparently, one already exists, “Carrie the Killer Musical Experience” premiered in Los Angeles in 2015 and went as far as to add immersive elements to the show such as having the audience sit in chairs that move during the prom sequence and having the entire theatre feel as though it is out of the world of the book. And while this production was criticized for many of the same elements the 2012 revival received everyone seems to have unanimously agreed that of all the iterations of this piece “Carrie the Killer Musical Experience” is one of the first productions to successfully integrate both choreography and special affects to successfully craft something bone-chilling and eerily believable during the prom sequence. I would say more but footage and reviews were scarce and alas I don’t live in LA.

If I could fathom up my ideal production of this piece the first two-thirds are scaled down, the teenagers are believable and have songs that are from the same world as the ones Carrie and Margaret sing. The prom scene is longer and more intricate and the plug it up scene is given a bit more time to breathe. Lastly, if I were to assign a moral to “Carrie” (and I’m not sure there is one) I would say its more an exploration of internalized misogyny rather than a narrative on bullying. It honestly shocks me that most adaptations of “Carrie” haven’t thought to use the narrative as a means of exploring gender issues. It would seem obvious as “Carrie” doesn’t have a male lead and the catalyst of the plot is an experience that is typically attributed to (cis)womanhood. Afterall when one reads “Carrie” through a feminist lens it’s about a girl who is shamed for being forced into an overly pious lifestyle attempts to take owner ship of her femininity after starting her period, the mark of becoming a woman in many cultures. But even while embracing her womanhood she is shamed for being sinful but pushes forward regardless because Carrie will do anything to be normal. She succeeds in this agenda and is shamed again, this time by the people she was trying to emulate. And the tool they use to elicit this humiliation, blood. So, after realizing that neither of these versions of womanhood are acceptable, she rejects them both and burns her oppressors to the ground in a display of agency (if you’re going by the novel where the entire “incident” was pre-meditated) that we haven’t seen thus far.

However, I can give my two cents on which message filtered through this narrative would be the most thematically coherent but I’m not even sure there is a message in the text that would be so easily digestible. The inspiration for “Carrie” only came about after King witnessed one of his students being subjected to constant ridicule for only having one outfit to wear to school. He watched her save up her own money and buy a new outfit only to have the same peers ridicule her for that one as well. What lesson is there to be gained from that? Perhaps “Carrie” only functions as a meditation on human cruelty and the impulsion to attack when wounded. Maybe its only real message is that this type of hatred only begets more hatred. This is a near impossible moral to execute in any musical’s format.  

In many ways horror as a genre is the antithesis to musical-theatre. Where horror uses violence and borderline exploitative tactics to highlight anxieties of the era often without an easy or any answer for what can be done. Musicals, particularly the ones most popular when “Carrie” were incepted, seek to soothe its audience and often offer simple answers to impossible problems. In many ways making a musical with this subject matter was more daring than the show has ever been given credit for, it’s a shame that its execution was so misguided.  But for what was created, despite its notorious reputation, when I think about “Carrie the Musical” I think about its potential to be great rather than its flawed execution. And if this piece is ever reinterpreted again I will be sure to sit in the front row opening night, probably in costume, praying that this time they’ll get it right.  

 

Sources:

Brantley, Ben. “Prom Night, Bloody Prom Night.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/theater/reviews/mccs-carrie-the-musical-at-the-lucille-lortel.html.

 “Los Angeles Theater Review: CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE (Los Angeles Theatre).” Reviews FilmTheater NYC LA SF Chicago Stage and Cinema RSS, www.stageandcinema.com/2015/10/12/carrie-the-killer-musical-experience/.

Rich, Frank. “Review/Theater; The Telekinetic 'Carrie,' With Music.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 May 1988, www.nytimes.com/1988/05/13/theater/review-theater-the-telekinetic-carrie-with-music.html.

Schulman, Michael. “Is ‘Carrie’ the Worst Musical of All Time?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/is-carrie-the-worst-musical-of-all-time.