There was a time that the title Carrie: The Musical was as much synonymous with failure in musical theater lore as Heaven’s Gate and Howard the Duck were for movies.
When the musical based on Stephen King’s classic debut novel about a telekinetic high school outcast who takes revenge on her tormenters when they humiliate her at their senior prom first landed on Broadway in 1988, it landed with a decided thud. And that’s putting it mildly. The reviews were vituperative. Audiences steered clear. The patient, very much D.O.A., was officially put out of its misery after just five official performances. At a cost of $7 million, it was one of the most costly disasters in the history of the Great White Way.
You might say Carrie: The Musical was Carrie herself, and the entire rest of the world took relish in dumping metaphorical pig’s blood on that sacrificial lamb.
And yet, it’s proven remarkably resilient, having been revived both in New York and now arriving at Minneapolis’s New Century Theatre thanks to the Minneapolis Musical Theater troupe, who previously delighted the same target audience when they produced Evil Dead: The Musical a few years back. (Apparently there is a surprisingly large subset of musical theater geeks who are also closet gorehounds.)
The original musical was written by Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the script to Brian De Palma’s breakthrough 1976 adaptation that netted Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie Oscar nominations, and featured songs from the Fame duo of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford. It’s been significantly trimmed up since its original incarnation, with a number of songs getting the ax (though not, thankfully, it’s one bona fide classic, Margaret White’s mournful torch song “When There’s No One”) and a lot more emphasis on the now highly relevant bullying angle.
In many ways, the revision makes a lot of sense for the MMT, which specializes in shows with a more intimate profile, which this updated version of Carrie certainly has. The small theater really brings you closer to the painful human drama at the center of the story, to the extent that it occasionally can come off a bit like “a very special episode” of Glee on the dangers of bullying. Remember Piper Laurie’s immortal “They’re all going to laugh at you”? For better or worse, no one will be laughing at this camp-free version.
Carrie: The Musical undersells the novel and film’s underlying sense of anarchic, cathartic delight that fuels the climactic apocalypse — as King himself noted, who among us hasn’t wanted to pull the temple down around us at one point or another? — and anyone familiar with the material is going to regard the lack of an actual climactic crimson splash as something of a cheat (no matter how necessary to keep the dry cleaning bills down).
But the cast keep their spirits up admirably, most notably Jill Iverson, who makes the most of the title role’s opportunities to blossom and then wilt, Lori Maxwell as Carrie’s mother Margaret, who always seems to be clasping her shawl to close out the coldness of the outside world but unaware the coldness is really emanating from within herself, and Rebecca Gebhart as uber-b**** Chris “Where shall I put it, Miss Collins” Hargensen.
I had the chance to ask Iverson and artistic director Steven Meerdink a few questions about tackling Carrie for the stage. Here is our Q&A:
Stephen King’s story is by now regarded as one of the most iconic plots in contemporary American literature, and Brian De Palma’s film version endures as one of the all-time horror movie classics. How do you come at the material with a fresh perspective?
Meerdink: One of the ways the material is fresh is that the authors of the musical set the time period in today’s world with a greater emphasis on the bullying aspect of the show. We also went back to the original book and really looked at the relationships between characters and how the structure of the novel is reflected in the stage musical.
Iverson: The material lends itself to stand on its own two feet. The music and lyrics bring a much deeper and richer feel to Carrie that the movie/book sometimes miss. She not only scorns her classmates, she desperately wants to join in and be a part of it all. She wants her mother to support her. She wants to go to prom and be beautiful. Once the audience gets a peek at her dreams, her downfall becomes that much harder to watch. You really feel for Carrie.
When the original 1988 production of Carrie: The Musical hit the Broadway stage, it was universally panned and closed after a handful of performances. At the time, the New York Times called it “the most expensive flop in Broadway history.” Yet, it seems the musical has seen its reputation turn around recently, with a number of revival productions around the world. Why do you think that is?
Iverson: The musical attempts, and succeeds, in humanizing every character depicted in the book and movie. There is no smirk, or tongue-in-cheek attitude as you sort through this material. Everything is in earnest, and no one is playing the “crazy psycho” role. The relationship between Carrie and her mother is highly strained, and flawed, yet you can see the love there. All of these elements make the outcome of prom that much more disturbing because you can relate so much more to the people on stage. It’s focusing on the relationships instead of the blood and gore/violence. It becomes a modern day tragedy/commentary on the effects of shaming and bullying.
Meerdink: I was not one of the many who claim to have seen the original production but from the clips I have seen on YouTube, it appears to me that the original 1988 production tried really hard to be a big blockbuster Broadway show. In the rewriting for the Off-Broadway production, the focus was shifted to the characters, their relationships and telling a story. I also think it aids the story to be in a small venue with an audience very close to the action. This makes you feel as if you are right in the middle of the story as it unfolds.
Is Carrie the hero or the villain?
Meerdink: I do not think I would categorize her as either. Carrie is simple someone doing her best in a very bad situation. She is trying to please her crazy religious mother, deal with becoming a woman, understand her new found powers and protect herself from bullying … all on her own. I hope the musical helps people to realize how many different issues we are all dealing with at any given time, however extreme or insignificant.
Iverson: “They’ve forgotten her you know. They’ve made her into some kind of symbol and forgotten that she was a human being, as real as you reading this, with hopes and dreams and blah, blah, blah. Useless to tell you that I suppose. Nothing can change her back now from something made out of newsprint into a person. But she was, and she hurt. More than any of us probably know, she hurt,” Sue Snell says in King’s novel. I think Carrie is just a girl pushed too far. She’s beaten down at every turn in the play and her one opportunity for greatness turns out to be her biggest demise. It’s natural to snap. Violence is the only behavior she knows. She has no other tools to cope at that point.