A few months ago, the first trailer dropped for Cats, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the internet collectively lost its mind. Last week, it opened in theaters and people lost it all over again.
The reactions have been so hysterical that my thoughts naturally turned to yet another musical from the 1980s that turned more than a few heads and garnered almost the same hysterical reaction from critics and audiences without the aid of the internet. I’m speaking of Carrie: The Musical, a show that I’ll admit I’ve been obsessed with since I first heard it existed two decades ago.
Carrie: The Musical begins…
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Carrie began its journey to the Broadway stage in 1981–the same year Cats first graced the stage in London’s West End–after Lawrence D. Cohen and Michael Gore attended a performance of Alban Berg’s avante-garde opera, Lulu. Leaving the Metropolitan Opera House, one remarked to the other that this is what Carrie would have looked like if it had been an opera.
It was a lightning bolt moment that set them on the long and winding path to the stage.
Cohen was already very familiar with the source material. He wrote the screenplay for Brian de Palma’s film version of Carrie starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie and he began work on the book for the musical right away. (For those who don’t attend musical theater often, the “book” of the musical is everything that is said between the songs.)
Meanwhile, Gore enlisted his friend Dean Pitchford–the two had worked together on the movie Fame–to begin writing songs for the show.
It would be seven years before it would see its four-week out-of-town tryout in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Newcomer Linzi Hateley won the coveted role of Carrie White and musical theater legend Barbara Cook took on the role of her mother, Margaret. Singer Darlene Love was also featured in the show as Carrie’s sympathetic teacher and Debbie Allen stepped in to choreograph.
It had all the elements of a hit and amazing people both on and off stage working to make it so. But as famed Broadway performer Elaine Stritch said, “You know, you never know.”
Problems began almost immediately for the tech-heavy production. For starters, they couldn’t douse Carrie with fake blood at the end of the show without shorting out her microphone.
Then there was the moment when Cook was nearly decapitated by a set-piece during a scene change. The actress resigned that night but agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found.
The musical and the music were uneven. The scenes and songs between Carrie and Margaret were glorious with a grand, almost operatic, feel to them with soaring melodies and intense emotion. Meanwhile, the songs for Carrie’s classmates were rock-infused power ballads and pop songs, with all together insipid lyrics turning everyone into a caricature rather than a fully realized character.
On to Broadway
Despite the obvious and on-going problems–script rewrites were going on after every single performance–the show made the transfer to Broadway at the expense of around $8 million. It was an exorbitant amount of money at the time for a Broadway show.
Betty Buckley, who appeared as Miss Collins in the film version of Carrie and who was an established musical theater star after appearances in 1776 and–wait for it–Cats, stepped into the role of Margaret White while Hateley and Love made the transfer with the show.
Buckley brought a tenacity and energy that Cook was lacking in her performance, and the scenes between herself and Hateley became breathtaking, especially in the song “And Eve Was Weak.” The number takes place when Carrie comes home after her fateful moment in the showers and tries to tell her mother what has happened.
The video below of the song combines recordings from the Broadway soundboard combined with video taken during both the English and American performances to give you an idea of what audiences saw when the show opened in previews on April 28, 1988.
Audience and critic reactions were mixed. Buckley has spoken openly about the audience booing the end of the performances until she and Hateley stood up from where they had “died” on stage at which point the audience stood as one in ovations that lasted for several minutes.
Much like Cats which just opened in theaters, it was the musical everyone was talking about, yet, investors were getting nervous. Despite sold out shows throughout the previews, they began to pull their money from the show and on May 15, 1988, after 15 previews and five performances, the show closed.
Its infamy lived on for years, and many have said that if everyone who claimed to have seen the show during its initial run had actually been there, the show would have been an unmitigated success.
It took on cult status. Bootlegs of the Broadways soundboard recordings circulated, and many asked, would it ever see the light of day again?
The answer came in 2009 when the creative team got together to take a look at what they’d made. They began retooling the show, stripping it down from its tech-laden predecessor, scrapping old songs and writing new ones.
They held a reading of the show which lead to another workshop and another and 24 years after its fateful run, Carrie: The Musical opened once again, this time Off-Broadway, with Molly Ranson as Carrie and Marin Mazzie as Margaret.
The show, after decades, finally received some of the attention that it deserved as positive reviews rolled in for the show and its stars. It also received its first ever official cast recording which is available on iTunes, Amazon, and various other online retailers.
You can listen to one of the tracks, “Evening Prayers,” which comes after Margaret brings Carrie up out of the cellar after their altercation during “And Eve Was Weak” below.
Since its first adaptation in 1976, Carrie has captivated audiences and that is perhaps why it has been brought to the both the big screen and television more often than any other of King’s novels.
Movie musicals are making a comeback, however, and it is indeed time to talk about bringing this particular iteration of the story to a larger audience.