Wednesday, November 4, 2009
They're all gonna laugh at you. When you sing. Again. Or maybe not.
It was a watershed moment in contemporary American Musical Theater history, but the water that was shed was solely of the salty tear variety. When Carrie: The Musical opened at Broadway's Virginia Theater on May 12, 1988, it did so with an unprecedented $8 million price tag, a juggernaut of a PR blitz, and the hopes and fears of that rarefied species of fandom who loved both stage musicals and horror that, against all expectations, the production would prove the doubters and naysayers wrong. Could this crapshoot of a show defy all odds and become a success?
Five performances later, an answer: No way in Hell. Humiliated by scathing reviews and well on its way to become a Great White Way punchline, the producers of the show pulled the plug, just a day before the cast was to enter the studio and lay down tracks for the original cast recording. With a run that could be counted on the fingers of one hand, Carrie: The Musical entered B'way lore as the flop by which all successive flops would be measured. (Interestingly, the previous yardstick for B'way catastrophes also had its roots in horror; a big budget play-it-straight rendition of Frankenstein that shuttered after only a pair of performances.) Claiming to have seen Carrie over that extended weekend became a badge of honor. (In truth, if all those who now say they were in the seats actually saw the show, it would have run well into the Clinton administration.)
What went wrong? Contrary to popular belief, not everything. The show, which was a remarkably faithful adaptation of Brian DePalma's film version of the Stephen King novel (itself in epistolary form - that is, presented in a series of letters, documents and eye-witness testimonials), suffered primarily from a jarring dichotomy in the musical score. Gorgeous songs filled with heart-rending emotion were written for scenes between Carrie and her fundamentalist nightmare of a mother, and were compellingly performed by Linzi Hately and Betty Buckley. The audiences that started off the curtain calls with an eruption of boos and catcalls instantly segued into standing ovations when Hately and Buckley took their bows.
The show was undone by the scenes and songs for Carrie's high school classmates, a collection of twentysomethings saddled with discoid songs that were easily a decade out of date, and forced to perform choreography by Debbie Allen that alternated between listless and absurdly hi-energy. Here's the opening number sung and danced by the girls in their gym class, "In," with staging that is both aerobic and, as an ensemble, numbingly static. This was captured by a video camera snuck into the balcony...
Or take the prom song "Wottta Night," as dancers, locked into their own little spheres of movement, undulate and twirl to a tuneless melody that eventually becomes the theme to every "Action News" telecast of the 1980s...
The blame is often laid on the doorstep of Oscar-winning composer Michael Gore, stuck in his Fame rut for the "high schoolers", yet somehow able to gracefully modulate into duets that prompted critical comparisons to the score of Les Miserables, that show having just marked its one-year anniversary.
The show also proved unable to convincingly portray Carrie's telekinetic abilities on stage, with underwhelming fire effects that looked as though they were designed to comply with overly-strict fire codes. Neither could theater magicians find a way to accomplish the notorious pig's blood prank in such a way that didn't render Hately's body mic inoperative, or cause the poor actress to become gradually immobile as the goo that was dumped over her (by a cast member, not from a rigged bucket) eventually hardened under the hot stage lights. That moment was captured for eternity as the cover for Ken Mandelbaum's indispensable chronicle of this and other stage fiascoes, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. (I had the good fortune to interview Mandelbaum when that book was released in 1992. To hear him tell of his opening night Carrie experience is like listening to a cloistered nun describing a vision of Fatima, only much funnier.) Hately looks for all the world to be covered in raspberry jam, with an expression that seems to ask, "How the hell did I ever get into this mess?"
I've long thought that the answer to all these problems was within the production's grasp, had it only stayed true to the vision that it tried to capture in its set design; simple, unadorned, bordering on the expressionist. It was certainly far from realistic, so why the decision was made to attempt realism regarding the supernatural effects is beyond me. Strike that: I'm sure that it was an effort to appease Broadway audiences who had come to expect hydraulics, helicopters and crashing chandeliers when they paid their exorbitant ticket prices. And Carrie had one hell of an investment to recoup. Three years earlier Singin in the Rain spared no expense to bring a rainstorm to the stage; three years later, it was a firestorm that stymied Carrie.
For the last two decades, fascination with the flawed failure has driven a legion of fans to go to incredible lengths to preserve the memory of what was Carrie. Absent an official recording of the show's score, and with the heavy-handed refusal of the producers to let other theatrical companies, professional and amateur, take a crack at the property, devotees have had to cut and paste elements from both UK and US productions, and even rehearsal footage, to create a semblance of archival preservation. For example, this is a version of the song "And Eve Was Weak," sung between Carrie and her mother after the teen confesses the embarrassing incident in the showers at school; it was recorded through the Virginia Theater's sound mixing board. (Listen closely for the crowd reaction at the end - this is not the response one hears at a flop.)
After years of entreaties from fans and buffs, there came word last week of a possible Broadway revival. Producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, whose list of successes include Rent, Avenue Q and the recent partially-in-Spanish revival of West Side Story, announced their intention to rework the material and bring it once again to Broadway. (The original creators are all on board, including Gore, who has been AWOL from the musical world after contributing a handful of songs to the teen musical theater film Camp in 2003.) And it just might be an idea whose time has finally arrived. Shows like Wicked and Legally Blonde have proven the box office clout of teen girls, and the High School Musical franchise is bringing a new generation back to the theater - and if you scoff, ask your local school how many seats went unsold when they mounted their stage version. I couldn't be more excited by the attempt. The musical theater repertoire is always in need of new shows with strong female leads and young casts to prove suitable for high school and college productions, and the story of the teen who doles out a comeuppance to her tormentors has universal appeal to anyone who was ever on the receiving end of high school scorn. May they unlock the potential of Carrie...and if they manage to get it to Broadway again, sign me up for a plane ticket to NYC and the best seat I can afford.
I ain't missing this a second time.