Carrie: The Musical is perhaps not the greatest flop in Broadway history in terms of money lost (though it’s certainly near the top of that list, if not number one) but it is easily the greatest flop in Broadway history in terms of notoriety. The musical opened first in London in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and was mostly panned by critics. The cast was a mixture of American and English performers in anticipation of a Broadway transfer (this was prior to the Actors Equity fiasco of Miss Saigon’s Broadway transfer) and despite the poor reviews, the show had its official opening on Broadway on May 12, 1988.
It closed May 15 after five performances.
Why did this show fail? Did it have any redeeming qualities? I’ll give my opinions on these topics and more as I review Carrie and give a bit of the show’s history and legacy.
The musical had an enthusiastic creative team behind it who believed very much in the possibility of creating a truly great horror musical. Michael Gore (composer of Fame the musical) and Lawrence D. Cohen (screenwriter of the original Carrie film) came up with the idea to turn Carrie into a musical after seeing a performance of the opera Lulu. With the inclusion of Dean Pitchford (composer of Footloose the musical) the team began work on the musical, first creating a workshop of Act I in 1984 which was fairly well-received but didn’t garner the financial support necessary to open on Broadway. In 1987 the show managed to get the backing necessary to open and premiered in England’s Stratford-upon-Avon under the direction of Terry Hands.
Hands had never directed a musical before and behind-the-scenes there was in-fighting between many members of the cast and creative team who all had an idea of how the show should be done. Without a strong, unified creative direction the show suffered. There were moments where the show was frightening, but overall it was silly and the costumes, sets, and choreography were all frankly bizarre and inappropriate.
The idea behind these particular costumes, I believe, was to relate this show to a Greek tragedy which leads to these… interesting gym outfits. The costumes get much, MUCH worse than this, unfortunately. The high-schoolers later perform in spandex body suits, leather pants and jackets, and some obscene heels, on what is supposed to be an average night out with friends. Carrie’s and her mother’s costumes are pretty good, on the other hand. Unlike the overwrought, unrealistic getups the ensemble are forced to wear, Carrie and Mrs. White wear simple and pretty frocks for the majority of the show. This dichotomy between the two groups (The Whites and The Others [Oh God, I didn’t plan for that to sound so racist but I don’t know how else to phrase it]) is apparent in the music as well. While Carrie and Margaret’s solos and duets are beautiful and powerful for the most part, the majority of what the other characters sing is, well, schlock.
As I write this I’m actually starting to appreciate this contrast more though. I’m guessing the creative team wanted to make a stark difference between Carrie’s two worlds while she kind of goes between both without really fitting in either. Her peers sing 80s pop, her mother sings austere yet somehow beautiful ballads, and Carrie herself belts out some typical Broadway “want” songs.
The problem is it’s too much. Everything that’s bad about this show is that it’s too much. The teens are TOO upbeat, Margaret is TOO serious, Carrie is TOO pitiable, the drama is TOO heightened, and so on and so on. This takes the story of Carrie, a story about characters with whom everyone could relate (whether we were the teased outcast, the teasing classmates, or the observers who didn’t get involved) and makes it a grand overstated spectacle about unreal caricatures in whom the audience can’t emotionally invest. This is where any story will fail, but I’d say especially a horror story; if the audience doesn’t care about the characters’ lives they won’t care about their demise, no matter how horrific.
^A fan performs one of Carrie’s solos.
Though the show flopped it was absolutely the talk of the town while it was open and since its closing it has become legend. Many who saw it raved about the cast and just the general WTF-ery of the whole thing and those who missed out have long-wondered what went on in that theatre to have such an explosive reaction from critics and audiences. Press clips and unofficial recordings fed into the fascination, as well as Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops.
Fans wanted more though, and according to Cohen, he was always receiving requests to either revive the show or release the rights for regional and amateur productions. Well, at the end of the month, Carrie will be revived Off-Broadway! I’m so excited about this, I really have to convince my friend to see it if I go to NYC with her next month. I’m a little worried about how the show will work out though. Will it actually be memorable without the ridiculousness or will it simply fall flat? Only time will tell, I suppose, but here’s hoping that Carrie will chill and thrill in her new incarnation.