Some of you may have heard the stories. For those of you unfamiliar, let me introduce you to the infamous legend of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL.
Stephen King’s 1973 novel CARRIE was, as all good horror fans know, the celebrated author’s clarion call, and it immediately cemented King as a formidable presence in the pop horror firmament.
The story of Carrie White – a poor, bullied, ultra-religious shrinking violet who develops telekinetic powers to get revenge on those who wronged her – has become so prevalent and ubiquitous in the world, that the story has been adapted into three feature films (CARRIE in 1976 and 2013, THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 in 1999) a TV miniseries (in 2002), and, yes, a Broadway musical in 1988. All of the adaptations, incidentally, do not make many drastic alterations to King’s original work – I suppose the story is universal.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is the most notorious of this lot, and carries, to this day, the reputation of being the least successful musical in Broadway history. It is, perhaps, as ill-advised as it sounds. A musical about a bullied girl who murders hundreds of peers in the show’s climax? With expensive sets and special effects? Is there any way that could have succeeded? The musical originally cost $8 million to produce (a huge price-tag for a musical, especially at the time), and it closed after only five performances. Audiences reportedly booed and jeered openly, and critics lambasted the show for having stupid lyrics and bad music. In the history of flops, it’s probably in the top ten. It was once rivaled by SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK in terms of financially tenuous and utterly baffling musical ideas, but SPIDER-MAN, oddly enough, eventually broke even.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL became the stuff of legend over the years. Since so few people got to see it, it could only persist as embellished rumor. Were the songs that bad? How awful could this thing possibly be? Well, thanks to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, I have had a chance to find out. The notable 2012 off-Broadway revival of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL has finally made its way to L.A., giving the curious a chance to gander at the spectacle, and to find out, once and for all, if CARRIE is as bad as people say. CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is playing – with a tantalizing invitation to “Experience Carrie” – at the run-down palace that is the Los Angeles Theatre, located downtown. I saw it a few nights ago, and I am here, dear readers to report my findings.
To address the question right away. “Is it as bad its legend would have you believe?” Well, it’s not that bad. But make no mistake. It is pretty bad.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is being staged as an all-around theatrical experience, and the company has gone to great lengths to make the show as elaborate and as immersive as the original 1988 production. The entire theater – one of the grandest of the old movie palaces – has been decorated throughout with scenes from the show. You are welcome to take pictures of the famed locker room (complete with a tampon-littered floor), as well as a diorama of a dead pig and a prop bucket. There is a disused prom floor complete with balloons and masks. Even the bathrooms are decorated with bloodied handprints. Arrive early so that you may explore a bit; the theater is large, aged, and impressive.
The theater itself, an enormous space, has been altered to look like an abandoned school, and the audience sits on bleachers, watching the action in the round. Premium ticket buyers can sit in movable bleachers that slide around the stage, dragged by cast members and stagehands.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is narrated by the Sue Snell character (played by good Kayla Parker), who is recounting the “incident” after the fact. We then see flashbacks to Carrie White (Emily Lopez) being teased and mocked at school, specifically over the well-documented incident in the school showers wherein she menstruates for the first time. The ringleader of the bullies is Chris (Valerie Rose Curiel). All the drama from the show stems from this incident, and every scene hereafter makes reference to it. Carrie is sheltered, you see, and didn’t know what menstruation was; her mother (Misty Cotten) is an ultra-Christian weirdo who pretty much openly loathes her daughter, while still trying to protect her from the world. This makes Carrie ripe for mockery, and Chris is too happy to take up those duties.
The story moves painfully slowly. Since most audiences are familiar with the CARRIE story, we know that this show will eventually end in a psychically-induced whirling knickknack vortex of death, but if we didn’t know that, we would essentially be watching an After-School Special about bullying and how it’s just not okay. The drama is about how Sue feels bad for bullying Carrie, and how Chris resents Carrie for the trouble she got into as a result of the bullying. The dialogue is obvious, preachy, and mawkish. While the cast really gives it their all, they can’t wring the show for any sort of drama deeper than what’s right on the surface. And the songs aren’t much better. The music was written by Michael Gore (FAME) with lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen. A lot of their lyrics and dialogue have been updated and streamlined for this new production, but not necessarily to a heightened level. The lyrics are still dumb and plain, with generic rhymes and sings with unmemorable melodies. The songs aren’t awful, mind you. Just blank.
When Carrie isn’t on stage, people are talking about her, about how Carrie makes them feel, about how Carrie is the avatar for all kids experiencing high school. Carrie is staged as a brave, suffering martyr, and the ultimate hero of the piece. If the show didn’t end with her murdering people, it could easily have ended with Carrie going to prom, having a wonderful time, and learning to be a little more assertive leaving it more dramatically satisfying.
Indeed, the psychic powers angle is so downplayed in this production, it almost feels like an afterthought. Carrie uses telekinetic powers a few times before the show’s climax (thanks to some pretty impressive special effects), but they’re not anything extraordinary. The inclusion of the psychic powers almost feels like an awkward, last-minute addition to the story, rather than its raison d’être.
The final climax is, of course, hugely impressive. As I said, the producers went to great lengths to make this CARRIE as lavish as the original, and when it comes time to kill everyone, we are treated to a chaotic spectacular stunt show worthy of the Universal Studios theme park. The set collapses around you, lights flash, noises boom, music crescendos, and Chris, thanks to some awesome wirework, flies bodily over the audience. Then the audience leaves, kind of baffled by what they just saw.
There were only two ways one could have made CARRIE: THE MUSICAL in the modern age where audience already know about the show’s reputation. In one approach, you could have camped-up CARRIE to a slapstick degree. CARRIE is well-loved by the gay community, and it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to make it “gayer”. Fold in some lesbian cattiness, cast a drag queen as Carrie’s mother, add some dance beats to the music and overdesign the costumes. Then you would have seen a comic version of CARRIE that let audiences laugh at, instead of with the proceedings.
But that approach would have, perhaps, been insufferable. A campy, tongue-in-cheek rendition of CARRIE would have been painfully snarky and kept the show mired as an adolescent joke. It would have been about the audacity of the project (“can you believe we did this?”) rather than the show itself. This new production takes the opposite tack, presenting CARRIE: THE MUSICAL as completely earnest. They take the existing music and book, and try to put on the best version of CARRIE that they could make. I suppose, in that regard, they succeeded. This is a lavish, honest, and gorgeous staging, and you can tell that every one of the actors is really putting their backbones into it; no one winks once. It’s likely the best version of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL we’ll ever get.
The problem with an earnest approach is that it highlights the weaknesses of the show. As it is staged here, CARRIE is a bland, preachy, junior-high-school-ready tale about bullying (on-stage nudity and cussing notwithstanding), rather than a supernatural metaphor for the dark half of the adolescent experience.
So, overall, the best reason to see CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is curiosity. One can finally experience one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history live! I admire the gumption on display, but the show is still, at the end of the day, dull.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is playing at the Los Angeles Theatre through November 12th. You can purchase tickets through the show’s website.