Carrie Then and Now
Back on May 3, 1988, Carrie had me in its corner before it played a note or said a word.
I estimate that by then in my 27-year history of theatergoing, I’d attended approximately 2,500 stage plays and musicals. That meant that I had had ample time to have “seen it all.”
Or so I’d thought. Carrie did something I’d never seen in those two-thousand-plus trips in Philly, Boston and Baltimo’, not to mention New York.
What had impressed me? That Carrie’s house lights did not dim as they had with every other theatrical production I’d witnessed, but simply snapped off the way we shut off the lights in our homes. One second we were in the light, the next second in the dark. The full house at the Virginia Theatre yelped in fright and then laughed in amusement. Suddenly I realized why the walls of the theater had been painted black. All the better not to see you with, my dear.
Some say that we’d have all been better off if we’d stayed in the darkness for the next two hours. Granted, Carrie wasn’t a masterpiece, but it would offer great moments when the title character (Linzi Hateley) interacted with her mentally unbalanced mother (the aptly cast Betty Buckley).
To be sure, that now-and-forever infamous second act opener -- in which Carrie’s classmates and adversaries kill pigs so they’ll have blood to spill over her at the prom -- wasn’t good. At all. But whatever failings the 1988 Carrie had, it was never dull. There was ample reason to agree with its ad campaign: “There’s never been a musical like her.”
There had also never been a five-performance flop that had lost $8 million, either. When Ken Mandelbaum decided to write a book about Broadway musical failures from 1950 to 1990, he included 200 different musicals, each of which might well have provided him with an appropriate title. But Not Since Carrie was the one that he chose. Since the show’s ignominious closing on May 15, 1988, many musicals have since run much longer and have lost much more, but Carrie’s the one we still point to as the flagship of musical theater disasters.
So would bookwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford get it right this time with Stafford Arima directing?
(You’ve already heard that they didn’t, haven’t you?)
On Feb. 29, 2012, Carrie lost me before it played a note or said a word – because the house lights dimmed, as they had in all but one of the 8,000-plus shows I’ve seen. As the musical played out, I found that indeed there have been a great many musicals like her – at least in terms of their amount of impact. Carrie, despite darkness, telekinesis and pig blood, is now first and foremost boring – which the original never was. Arima has just put it on stage without particularly emphasizing the highs and lows of the story.
Matt Williams’ herky-jerky choreography in the opening number threatened to turn the show into a campfest before it even began. I was very impressed that the Lortel audience was entitled to laugh at it, but didn’t. The theatergoers were going to give Carrie its chance, would give it the benefit of the doubt and reserve judgment. There’d be plenty of time later to laugh at matters that weren’t meant to be laughed at. (Truth to tell, no one ever did.)
It’s still the story of a picked-on girl who would like to get some solid advice from her mother. The authors do make a smart move by initially making Margaret White appear to be a good and caring mom. But wait. “Being different is the Lord’s blessing,” Margaret insists. Soon she’s using the Bible as a how-to manual, citing “Eve’s curse of blood” as the reason for menstruation.
If Carrie’s mother doesn’t understand her, her classmates don’t even try. “There’s always a runt in every litter ... there’s a dork in every class,” sings Billy, who hates Carrie mostly because his trophy-girlfriend Chris does. After they’ve given Carrie one humiliation too many, teacher Miss Gardner chastises them. This makes an impression on Sue. She feels so bad that she mocked Carrie that she’ll now sacrifice her own happiness by having her loyal beau Tommy take Carrie to the prom instead of her. After Chris, who’s been punished by Miss Gardner, hears that Carrie will be attending, she gets Billy to kill some pigs, so that their blood can be poured over Carrie when she’s named queen of the prom.
But how can she win that election? The original novel’s answer – that some kids switched the ballots at the last moment – was all too convenient. Here, that may still be happening, but to my eyes and ears (which might have misinformed me) Chris and Billy were given the responsibility of counting the votes. What teacher would allow this? Some kids would undoubtedly abuse their power and claim that their favorites won (or, in this case, their non-favorites Carrie and Tommy). Teachers, intent on avoiding even the hint of a fix, would do the ballot counting.
Maybe Carmen Cusack, who plays Miss Gardner, sloughed off the duty because she was tired from overacting. However, whatever excesses her performance offered, we can’t hold her responsible for the excessive language she used on one occasion. Would a teacher tell a student that her behavior was “shitty”? I haven’t been in a high school classroom since 1977 and I suspect that times have undoubtedly changed, but I’m skeptical that such an adjective would be a teacher’s word of choice in an altercation. (On the other hand, Ranson has the best use of the word “shit” since Katharine Hepburn opened the second act of Coco with it.)
At first glance, the story seems to have another nagging flaw. After all, if a boy asks a girl to the prom, he must be pretty serious about her. So Carrie would have reason to assume that this is not a one-night stand, and that this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Tommy. To be fair, though, that neither Sue nor Tommy thinks of this isn’t so unbelievable; kids are famous for not thinking matters through and anticipating ramifications.
One of the problems of the original production was its casting; the performers seemed far too old to be in high school. That’s again true, but the situation is exacerbated because we’re so much closer to the action in the intimate Lortel. Perhaps the 30-year-old shadow of casting too-young people in Merrily We Roll Along is still being felt and feared by directors, but Carrie would have profited from real-teen casting. Christy Altomare as Sue, Jeanna De Waal as Chris, Ben Thompson as Billy, Derek Klena as Tommy and, yes, Molly Ranson as Carrie all seem to be attending graduate school.
Conversely, at first glance Marin Mazzie seems too young to be the mother of a senior in high school. On the other hand, given how afraid Margaret White is of sexual matters, we can infer that she succumbed at a very early age; she could now be as young as 36. The problem isn’t that Mazzie seems too young, but the contrast between her and the “kids” doesn’t ring true. (Mazzie, by the way, is marvelous as usual. However, she seems to disappear from the story for long periods of time. That doesn’t help.)
The memory plays tricks, as Fred Ebb taught us in The Happy Time, so I may well be wrong that Cohen added a new and improved plot point: Tommy must read aloud in class a poem he’s written. Carrie responds to it; indeed, it’s the first time we see her smile. She’s actually so moved that she speaks out in class. So later, when Tommy asks her to the prom and she initially believes he’s making fun of her, he offers as proof of his sincerity that he appreciated her liking his poem. That’s believable.
Otherwise, the plot is business as usual. Alas, Pitchford’s lyrics are the most prosaic in memory, with mostly dull single-syllable words at the end of each lyric: “God, it’s rough / staying tough” … “Life doesn’t begin / till you’re in.” Well, these days, journalists are urged to write in short sentences; maybe Pitchford (who, by the way, portrayed Pippin beautifully on Broadway in 1977) is just subscribing to that new-fangled practice.
Pitchford also uses the name “Carrie White” an inordinate number of times, possibly because there are many more rhymes for “White” than there are for “Carrie.” Considering that the playbill tells us “Time: The Present,” few kids today are named Barry, Gary, Larry or Harry. Carrie could think about the person she could marry, but neither she nor any other teen would use the words “parry” or “tarry.” My rhyming dictionary tells me that’s about it for “arry” rhymes -- “carry” wouldn’t be a rhyme, but an identity -- while it offers 43 perfect rhymes for “white.”
What’s Pitchford done for a new second-act opener? “It’s gonna be a night we’ll never forget,” the kids sing about the prom. That’s the way kids would feel. But Pitchford rhymes it with “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” which seems to be an expression from a different era.
One nagging problem with the score is that Gore has far too often musically stressed the word before the rhyme. Yes, “trick” rhymes with “sick,” but Gore has placed the emphasis on the “damn” in “damn sick” -- and does this a number of times throughout the show. So the ear isn’t satisfied or gratified.
None of this would matter much if Carrie were simply more entertaining and more arresting. But theatergoers may now get to the Lortel, sit, see, get up, go home and forget about it. When a hit show is revived, it often has a lot to live up to. We may have learned from this revisal that an epic failure whose very title is a synonym for ineptitude has a lot to live up to, too.
— Peter Filichia