BWW Interviews: Studio Theatre's 2ndStage Co-Directors Offer a New and Intimate CARRIE: THE MUSICAL
Beginning July 9, Studio Theatre's 2ndStage production of Carrie: The Musical will allow DC audiences to see one of the most notorious shows in Broadway history.
Based off of Stephen King's 1974 bestselling novel, and featuring music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, Carrie: The Musical is about a soft-spoken, teenage girl who is bullied and harassed by her fellow classmates. After being humiliated at her high school prom, Carrie uses her recently discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who embarrassed her.
Carrie: The Musical first opened at Broadway's Virginia Theatre on May 12, 1988, closing after five performances. The show's $8 million loss made it one of Broadway's costliest flops at the time, and the campiness of the production itself was known to elicit verbal cheers and jeers from the audience at performances. It wasn't until after a successful 2012 off-Broadway production that the creative team finally granted the rights for Carrie to be produced regionally.
DC Broadwayworld.com recently sat down with the co-directors of 2ndStage's Carrie: The Musical, Keith Alan Baker and Jacob Janssen, to discuss their vision for this production, the challenges of directing a show that features well-known source material and how 2ndStage's rehearsal process differs from that of other companies.
Benjamin Tomchik (BT): Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I want to begin by asking you both, as directors, what attracts you to a project and what specifically attracted you to Carrie?
Jacob Janssen (JJ): Keith's the one who picked it [Carrie], but what's fascinating is the cultural weight of the play.
Keith Alan Baker (KB): When the rights became available [in 2012], we thought that it would fit right in with 2ndStage's previous summer productions. 2ndStage is a nonunion house, we use some equity actors, but we also have 16 great actors with the company. Interestingly enough, none of them were around when the book and movie came out, or even when the Broadway show flopped. Because of that, it's interesting to see what they bring to the production.
JJ: It's interesting that with the show's theme of bullying, Carrie's story, sadly, is quite relevant and modern. I mean we're seeing all these incidents involving kids being bullied and that's exactly what we see happen to Carrie in the play.
BT: Is it daunting to direct a musical that has such a complicated history like Carrie?
KB: I don't think about it.
JJ: There are so many other shows out there that were considered total failures. Coriolanus, King John and even The Tempest are considered problematic. Now, I'm comparing Carrie to Shakespeare (laughing). The point is that you can have a great production of a bad play and bad production of a good play. There are so many other musicals that are out there, that are considered troubled and yet they receive productions. We're bringing heart and a clear vision to this production.
BT: 2ndStage productions are known for "offering innovative and thrillingly eclectic programming with shorter rehearsal periods and smaller budgets." Can you take the reader inside Carrie's rehearsal process?
KB: Yes, we're different in that we have four and half weeks of rehearsal with this production. We only rehearse in the evenings and on weekends. Mainstage productions have eight hours of rehearsal a day. Because most of our cast is non-equity, they have other jobs, day jobs, which require us to rehearse at night and on weekends. We also maximize our time by doubling up on rehearsals. We might have music rehearsals going on in one room and dialogue being rehearsed in another room.
JJ: The cast also does a fair amount of homework. They tend to go home and learn the play.
BT: Because Carrie's source material is well-known, does that make the show harder to direct?
JJ: There's something about having these really indelible images that they [the cast] can play with. They also get to play with the audiences expectations. Regardless, we have to work with the honesty of the material.
KB: Look, both the book and the movie are iconic. The musical is also iconic (laughing).
JJ: The novel has so much detail, which the lyrics may not have. However, you have to make this production your own for it to succeed. There will also be this image of a teenage girl, in a white prom gown covered in blood. Yes, that's Carrie. But you have to make it your own.
BT: So how do you do that? What advice are you giving to the company about discovering the show for themselves?
JJ: You treat this [Carrie] as if it were a new play. You have to ask why a character is saying something, why are they doing a certain action. From this, we'll find what is right for this production.
KB: Also, most actors resist copying others actors. They want to create their own performance and discover the role for themselves.
JJ: When Carrie [the novel] was first published in 1974 the themes were really unique. Now, sadly, we see these mass casualty events with shocking regularity. We see someone who was picked-on and they choose to respond with violence. It's quite sad. In 1974, Stephen King shows us a similar situation with Carrie. It boils down to a girl being bullied, she's a social outcast and she reacts. Now King doesn't make it [Carrie's reaction] a mass shooting, but with her telekinetic powers and the prom scene, it effectively is. With that, there's a continued relevancy to this story.
BT: Carrie is being staged at Studio's Black Box Theatre, Stage 4. Directorially, what considerations do you have to make when staging a show in such an intimate space?
JJ: The thing about past productions of Carrie was that they used unit sets. What's interesting is that Carrie is a story that's told, it's memory, and it's recalled. There's a sort of distance between the story being told and the events onstage. A unit set felt burdensome. With Carrie, the play can be done with almost nothing. It is about the relationship between the actors.
We spoke with SpeakEasy Stage in Boston who had just done Carrie, and they used flats which boxed off the set. So one flat would turn and it would be the gym, another would turn and it would be the White home. We felt the opposite could be done with this production.
For example, there's a scene in the White home which features a pie on the table. It's referenced in two lines and so every production of Carrie has had this pie on the table. We realized that you don't have to have the pie on the table for the scene to work.
KB: Also, we were lucky to get Luciana [Luciana Stecconi, Carrie's Set Designer] to design our set.
JJ: We were fortunate to get Luciana for this production and she was able to match our vision. Also, Sarah Tundermann [Projection Designer], a UMD graduate is going to be doing some cool things involving projections and space with this production.
BT: Can you talk about the audience and their proximity to the actors at Stage 4?
KB: Oh yes! The audience is not more than 10-15 feet from the action onstage at all times.
JJ: The audience gets pulled into the direct confidence of the actor telling the story. Adding to that energy is the cast. We're happy to have Barbara Walsh, a DC native, back playing Carrie's mother. The role originally played by Betty Buckley on Broadway. She's doing some fantastic things with the role. We also have a fabulous Carrie. We thought we'd have to go to New York City to cast the role, but we found our Carrie in DC.
BT: Why did you think you'd have to go to New York to cast the role?
JJ: Carrie is a specific role; it requires a specific type of actress and vocal range. We were very lucky in that we found Emily Zickler. She understood the role and was very impressive. We're excited that she's our Carrie.
Photo: Emily Zickler as Carrie in Studio Theatre's 2ndStage Carrie: The Musical. Credit: Igor Dmitry