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BWW Blog: CARRIE - THE MUSICAL: The People's Musical

I believe it’s original advertisement sums up the history of the musical quite well. “There’s Never Been a Musical Like Her"-- there has never been a musical like Carrie.

BWW Blog: CARRIE - THE MUSICAL: The People's Musical

There are a few Broadway shows that retain a legacy after they close. Whether it is a critical, financial, or artistic success, its popularity is entrenched in theatrical history. "Les Miserables", "A Chorus Line", "My Fair Lady", "Evita", "Hair", "Grease", all have established a legacy so powerful that we see elements of each show within each new musical endeavor. The choreography of Michael Bennett. The sweeping score of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The directorial perfection of Tom O'Horgan. However, only one show has a legacy and history so rich, that its name strikes fear into the hearts of all who have experienced it. That show is none other than "Carrie: The Musical."

Carrie's origins are traced back to the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Lulu" attended by Lawrence D. Cohen and Micheal Gore. It was at this opera that the pair began to speculate about a musical about Carrie. Lawrence D.Cohen was the original screenwriter for the iconic 1976 movie of the same name. The pair immediately began to work, with Cohen writing the book and Gore creating the score. Gore then reached out to his colleague, Dean Pitchford, with whom he had created "Fame" with. The trio then began to create a fully fleshed show, and soon had a workshop script created.

In 1984, the trio launched a public press-workshop of their new musical. Only Act 1 was shown to all in attendance. The score was edgy and intense with an 80s flair. Critics enjoyed the book and score, and the actors were praised for their performances. Specifically that of Annie Golden (Carrie) and Maureen McGovern (Margaret) who sang with such vigor, that critics anticipated them to follow the roles to Broadway. However, funding was scarce to be found. Multiple large scale media corporations were interested in investing, but were wary given the "Un-Family Friendly material". It was not until 1987 that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) agreed to finance the musical, as well as stage it in their home theatre in Stratford Upon-Avon.

The original script created for the 1984 workshop was now unrecognizable. The structure of the show along with several songs had been cut. As pre-production began the RSC appointed its resident artistic director, Terry Hands, to direct the musical. It was here, within pre-production, that the project began to have problems. In one of the earliest meetings of the project, the creative team was discussing imagery and tonality with Hands. When asked what "tone" or "inspiration" would be used for the show, the creative team replied "Greece!", much to Hands delight. It was not until much later that the creative team realized that hands mistook their meaning. He assumed "Greece" as in Grecian when the creative team meant "Grease" as in the 50's inspired teen musical.

Hands' Grecian inspiration was felt throughout the whole production. Teenagers were now wearing toga-like white clothes as gym clothes. Sets were reduced to stark white floors with ceiling length mirrors, later referred to as "hospital kitchens" by New York Times critic Frank Rich. Hands also demanded a completely new cast, and soon auditions were underway. Finding the right cast proved to be extremely difficult. Given half the creative team was from the UK, and the other from the US. US and UK actors were being given auditions with completely different stylistic approaches. UK actors and actresses were more attuned to formal training and atmosphere. American actors proved to be more attuned to informal choices. Most notably the UK actors had a hard time grasping the informal choreography of Debbie Allen.

Debbie Allen was chosen as choreographer for the project early on in pre-production. Allen had worked with Gore and Pitchford on "Fame" playing the lead role. She also went on to star on the "Fame" TV series of which she won multiple Emmys. She was then cast in the 1986 revival of "Sweet Charity" in which she played the titular role. She was a star on the rise, particularly amongst the young theatrical demographic that the creators of Carrie were after. Her style of dance was bold, free, and rhythmic. Perfect for a cast of young actors, and an even younger audience.

The creative team eventually settled on several "familiar" actors and actresses to portray their characters, with one bold exception. The cast was as follows: Barbara Cook (Margaret White), Darlene Love (Miss Gardener), Gene Anthony Ray (Billy Nolan), Charlotte d'Amboise (Chris Hargensen), Sally Ann Triplet (Sue Snell). All of these actors had established careers in their own right. Darlene Love has been a legendary pop singer for generations. Barbara Cook having a firm legacy as the premiere broadway soprano. Gene Anthony Ray also worked on "Fame" and was friends with Gore, Pitchford, and Allen.

Charlotte d'Amboise had proved a breakout dancer in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" originating the role of "Cassandra." Sally Ann Triplet, though young, had appeared in the Eurovision song competition representing the UK, twice. One role remained uncasted and it was perhaps the most important, that of Carrie White. The creative time decided to reach out to younger actresses attempting to remain as "true" to the role as possible. Young actresses (with musical abilities) were summoned through several prominent acting agencies to audition. It was within this audition that the creative team was introduced to 16-year-old Linzi Hateley.

Hateley was a student of the Italia Conti Academy, a prominent UK art school for children and young adults. When she sang for the creative team, they reportedly "Immediately knew they had the one" and hired Hateley on the eve of her 17th Birthday. Hiring a young actress with no prominence in the industry was an extremely risky move. The cast however welcomed Hateley with open arms. Though there was an almost ten year age gap between her and her co-stars, Hateley got along swimmingly with each castmate. Even Barbara Cook who was 60 years old at the time.

With the creative team completely fleshed out, and the cast finished the musical began rehearsals. To say rehearsals were rigorous would be an understatement. Allen, following the direction of Hands, made her choreography as "true" to the story as possible. The opening number titled "In" took place in a girl's high school gym class. Following suit, Allen choreographed an extreme workout-Esque aerobics routine for the cast to perform. I cannot express how difficult this number is to perform. I will simply say that the cast had to regularly attend chiropractic appointments because of the strain to their back.

The ensemble was also being pushed to their limits by Allen. Each ensemble number became an extravaganza of thrusting, kicking, and heavy breathing. Allen was also extremely hard on the members of the ensemble unfamiliar with her style of choreography. In one rehearsal video, she calls out various members of the ensemble during a rehearsal for "Don't Waste The Moon". The ensemble is stationed in mock-cars at a drive-in movie. The dance and song indicate that teenage sexuality and angst ensue. Allen can be heard yelling "Sloppy!" and "Come on show me something better!" to members of the ensemble trifling with her difficult choreography decisions.

This rehearsal period was also proving to be difficult for Barbara Cook. Cook had trouble singing the score, which was extremely difficult even for a veteran operatic soprano such as herself. The keys of Cooks songs were so high in fact, that a number titled "Once I Loved A Boy" was cut the night before the show's opening. Rehearsal tapes of Cook performing her songs within the show have surfaced. She repeatedly curses and cracks, as the score is astronomically high. Young Hateley who was Cook's duet partner was carrying Cook through her numbers. Hateley is heard encouraging Cook in the rehearsal tapes. "We can go again!" and "It's so high!" she says through the rehearsal piano.

On top of the cast's discomfort and exhaustion, technological problems were plaguing the set and effects Hands had created. Sparks and Lazers were failing to launch on cue. Sets were physically breaking down in the middle of rehearsals. Lifts stayed permanently parked on the ground. Perhaps the most troublesome: Blood was unable to be poured on Hateleys head during the climax of the show. Each test run had corrupted her microphone and left her mute on stage. These problems would not resolve throughout the rehearsal period. Eventually, Hands and the crew compromised on most of the show's issues. Allen refused to change her choreography, Hands refused to change his direction, and Gore, Pitchford, and Cohen refused to alter the book or score.

By the time opening night had come around, a sufficient amount of press had built upon the show's namesake. People were intrigued by the idea of a musical entirely based on a horror concept. This had not been attempted since the triumph of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" years earlier. A musical based on one of Stephen King's creations was uncharted territory. The expectation for visual and "special" effects was high. The finale of Carrie is a blaze of fire and destruction. Audiences were expecting something huge and magnificent. Audiences expected the same shock and horror that they received from the Carrie movie years earlier.

As the curtain closed on opening night the audience reacted with the polite applause a British audience have become known for. Reviews from several prominent UK newspapers and media outlets made their way into the mainstream. Critics were severely underwhelmed. They found the musical lackluster, stifled, and overproduced. The general opinion was that Carrie was neither good nor bad. It was simply a show that could be seen. The RSC was making a significant amount of return on their investment. British audiences did fill the theatre within Stratford Upon-Avon. The critical opinion of the musical, though lackluster, did not matter. Tickets were being sold and thus the success of the show was secure.

The creative team chose to transfer to Broadway immediately upon closing the show at Stratford Upon-Avon. The RSC was still invested, and Freidrich Kurz, an eccentric german theatrical producer (who had financed the project since the beginning) now was giving an enormous amount of funding. Being the show's main producer, he had most of the show's rehearsal process filmed. These clips are part of the reason Carrie remains able to be historically preserved. These clips have never fully surfaced, but several rehearsals and creative meetings are taped and available to view online.

The Broadway run of the show was being advertised aggressively. Commercials, Playbill ads, Newspaper ads, even expensive photoshoots were all created with Kurz funding. This advertising drew massive pre-ticket purchases for the show's run. Under the slogan "There's NEVER been a MUSICAL like HER!" ads filled the streets of New York City. To add to the show's fervor, Barbara Cook had been "let go" by the show's creative team. She was to be replaced by Betty Buckley, fresh off of her Tony Award-winning performance of "Grizabella" in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Cats'. This decision to let Barbara Cook "go" was supposedly mutual between the creative team. Cook had told multiple members of the cast that she had been "almost decapitated" on the show's opening night in Stratford. Most theatrical professionals assume she needed a reason to leave the show, apparent decapitation was her way out.

As rehearsals began for Broadway, tensions between the cast and creative team were rising. The UK portion of the cast were now working in foreign country. The US portion of the cast was now more comfortable than ever. With their comfort came a certain amount of pressure, the lights of Broadway are infamous and unforgiving. The creative team of the show had begun to perform extreme edits on the script and score. Solo numbers were completely rewritten, scenes erased, and half the orchestra was "let go". Ptichford and Gore wanted more of a "pop-rock sound" contrare to the rock opera stylings of the shows Stratford score. Multiple key numbers were changed to suit the pop-rock score. This benefited the shows two leading ladies Hateley and Buckley both of whom had amazing individual qualities to their voices. Buckley had brought "belting" to fame in the theatre. Hateley would soon follow suit in her career, landing one of the most vocally difficult female theatre roles of all time, The Narrator in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and The Techniclor Dreamcoat."

The rest of the cast however were less thrilled with the rewrites being done. All supporting characters had their numbers completely altered. Triplet, who played Sue, was given an entirely new song to perform "It Hurts To Be Strong". This replaced her number "White Star" she originally sang in the Stratford run. Anthony-Ray, who played Billy, had his number erased (Crackerjack) and replaced with an elaborate dance number "Out For Blood". This number would later become iconic, earning the title "The Pig Number". The Finale and several interludes were also re-orchestrated to fit the new "pop-rock" sound.

As Broadway previews began, critics were all but stunned by what they saw. They were walking out of the show bewildered. Prominent news critics soon began their reports of the show. Some of my personal favorites include: "Stephen King's Carrie has been turned into a HORROR of a musical!", "Carrie is a catastrophe... I've seen better special effects from a box of CrackerJack!" "In England this was called an embarrassment, ahh the understated English." Critics were destroying every aspect of the musical's production... except for one. The performances of Hateley and Buckley were being praised. According to audience reports, the pair were actually being given standing ovations every night. This is corroborated by several illegal recordings made of the show that record over two minutes of howling and applause after every solo or duet performed by the performers.

This was where the musical's main controversy came from. The fact that the musical itself was so polarizing. One minute the audience was booing and on the brink of throwing tomatoes, the next they were on their feet cheering. Ken Mendelbaulm, author of "Not Since Carrie: Fourty Years of Broadway Flops'' was witness to the show's first preview. He writes "What Makes Carrie so unique in flop musical history is its combination of soaring, often breathtaking sequences and some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical". Carrie had become victim to one of the worst killers in dramatic theatre history; tonal dissonance.

The musical creators failed to maintain a thematic constant. Carrie was not the "musical horror" it promised to be. Instead it was a mixture of a teenage pop drama with an extremely dramatic operatic abuse story. As you can imagine, these two highly specific genres do not blend well. To add on to the musical's inherent genre confusion, the set and costumes were highly abstract. Audiences were being repeatedly slapped in the face with extreme changes in genre and theme. It's as if two different musicals were being performed sporadically all under one title: Carrie.

Carrie lost a reported 8 million dollars when it closed three days after its' official opening night, May 3 1988. The musical was not seen nor heard from again until its' original creative team began allowing stringent community licensing. StageDoor Manor (1999) and Emerson College (2002) were the first to perform Carrie since its' closure. Both were quite successful, though both were young adult/collegiate level productions. Carrie received a public workshop in 2009 with a revamped score and script. It then received a 2012 Off-Broadway run with it's "new" script and lyrics. It ran for 46 performances, unfortunately suffering the same fate of its' predecessor.

Unfortunately, this "new and improved" version didn't improve much. Many of the original script and score were present in this revival. The new songs were tasteless, contrite, ripoffs of other popular teenage musicals. With lyrics like "You ain't seen nothing yet, this is gonna be a night we'll never forget!" and "Better to screw than get screwed, you'd probably think it's bizarre, but that's the way things are '' the creative team had repeated their same mistake. Instead of digesting the criticism given to Carrie in its' original run, the creative team chose to appeal to a climbing theatrical demographic, young adults. In doing so this made the musical seem even more immature and ill-conceived. Carrie was now thematically consistent... on a terrible theme.

The 2012 revival version of Carrie is licensable via ConcordTheatricals. This version has been performed over 2,000 times in professional and community settings globally. This version of the musical has gained quite a cult following. Even earning a spot on the hit television "Riverdale" as a featured musical episode. Whether that is actually good for a musical character and reputation has yet to be discovered. Carrie is stumbling her way through the professional theatrical world. However, with the proper adjustments made to its' script, score, and direction, it could be what it promises to be. A true horror musical with a rock opera score. Unfortunately, Carrie, due to its' past, has remained untouched.

I believe it's original advertisement sums up the history of the musical quite well. "There's Never Been a Musical Like Her"-- there has never been a musical like Carrie. With a certain amount of hope and education, there may never be again. I however, would love to see Carrie be given the cosmetic surgery it sorely needs. There is an amazing sweeping score in there, if only someone were to find it. To the person that eventually does, I suspect many a Tony award await them.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Drew Eldridge