This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play piano for the annual student-run musical revue at my alma mater. Each year a number of songs are chosen from a variety of musicals, generally with some sort of overarching theme. This year, the theme was “Villains”. While primarily just a showcase of song and dance numbers, there was some element of discussion of the motivations of the characters, and what led them to their villainous ways. The question of why people do bad things felt especially pressing in light of the stabbing attacks at Franklin Regional High School, located a mere forty-some minutes away from my alma mater. As I prepared for rehearsal the night after the attacks, just two nights before opening night, I thought to myself: our show has either become very timely, or completely disrespectful.
It all hinges on just how the villain is portrayed in the musical. Is the villain demonized, humanized, or glorified? Too often, though not always, it is that last option. Sure, lots of other media forms can glorify the villain, but I think musical theatre can more easily take it to another level. Many novels, TV shows, or movies can make being a villain seem understandable or sympathetic or intriguing; others can go a step further and make being evil seem cool, glamorous, and sexy. But few things have the power of musical theatre to make being bad seem downright fun. Take a bad guy that would be glamorous in another context, then add impressive choreography and a catchy song? You’ve just made a rock star. I’m going to look at just a few examples from some musical theatre baddies after the jump.
Happy Halloween, everyone! All month long I’ve been talking about some of my favorite spooky entertainment and today I’m going to put together my ultimate entertainment recommendations for getting the feminist most out of your Halloween.
These are simply my opinions and based solely on things I’ve seen, so if something you love doesn’t make the list, let me know! Maybe I just haven’t seen it and can fall in love with something new.
Last week I reviewed Broadway Nights, a book I unexpectedly found at good ol’ Half-Price Books. Another book I was thrilled to come across in my used book store’s Performing Arts section was Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops. I’ve been keen on reading this book ever since I got interested in Carrie, the musical, several years ago, but hadn’t come across it in any of my bookstore visits (why I never looked online for it, I don’t know). I’m pretty sure I actually let out an audible gasp when I saw this copy wedged on the shelf and immediately snatched it up before proceeding to the register smiling like I had some kind of juicy secret. Hopefully I didn’t unnerve anyone too much, but I can’t really bring myself to be too bothered because I was on cloud nine.
To start with, I both love and hate the cover. I’m not fond of the typeface selected and really hate that it’s used for the title, subtitle, and author’s name. It’s just too much, especially for a typeface that’s so decorative and not particularly legible, and it kind of obscures the book’s name. Is it 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops: Not Since Carrie or Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops? Yes, the “Not Since Carrie” part is larger, but being written in the same font and having everything perfectly aligned to the left makes it read more like a paragraph than a title. I much preferred the title as presented within the book:
Doesn’t that look nicer? Using different fonts to give emphasis and impact, and actually arranged like a title rather than a block of text? What I love bout the cover, of course, is the photo. Gah, I spent an inordinate amount of time just looking at that photo and picking up little details like the glittering floral design on Carrie’s dress that I was never able to see in online photos of the show.
A little costume porn goes a long way with me, so that saves the whole cover.
Anywho, 300+ words into this review, maybe it’s time to actually talk about the content of the book, huh? The first section included Mandelbaum’s acknowledgements, operational definition of a “Broadway Flop” (No more than 250 performances, no significant productions after closing, only shows which were intended to play Broadway even if they closed before making it to their opening, and only those with a narrative), and some preliminary information about the infamous musical from which the book gets its title.
Well get used to it because in honor of October I’m going to be doing solely horror/supernatural-type posts every week and what better way to start that off than by reviewing the premiere cast recording of Carrie which dropped a couple weeks ago?
I know, I know, you’ve all heard enough from me about Carrie, but I love it so I’m gonna keep talking about it. Plus I’m a little limited as far as theatrical horror goes, so…
Like any horror icon worth her salt, Carrie refuses to die.
Despite infamously flopping in 1988 to a then-record loss of over seven million dollars, Carrie the musical lives on in amateur productions.
My original intention was to post only about a particular amateur production of the musical performed years ago at Emerson College because it is phenomenal and is, for many Carrie fans, an example of how good the show can be, but there are some other amateur productions popping up on YouTube that I thought would be worth sharing and discussing.
This is the Emerson production. As you can very easily see, it is about as low-budget as can be. The scenery never changes and the costumes are very simple, most of them seeming to come from the performers’ existing wardrobes. The strength of this production, though, comes from the earnestness and storytelling.
This past Tuesday I got to see one of the last preview performances of the much-anticipated revival of Carrie at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I had been looking forward to it for a long time and after getting lost on the way to the theater and fearing that I may miss my chance I finally got to take my seat and experience the show.
Carrie White- Molly Ranson
Margaret White- Marin Mazzie
Sue Snell- Christy Altomare
Tommy Ross- Derek Klena
Chris Hargensen- Jeanna de Waal
Billy Nolan- Ben Thompson
Miss Gardner- Carmen Cusack
Mr. Stephens- Wayne Alan Wilcox
This was only my second time seeing an Off-Broadway show and the theater was the smallest I’ve ever seen so despite our seats being in the second-to-last row of the orchestra we were very close to the stage and got to see every facial expression and drop of sweat from the performers. The show began with Sue Snell in a single spotlight being interrogated by police regarding the “alleged” events of the prom night disaster. I like this idea. It was used in the made-for-tv movie version of Carrie and relates to the way Stephen King wrote the novel with occasional references to fictional studies on Carrie and the disaster. There were some problems I had with this device though. For one thing it occasionally disrupted the flow of the narrative by suddenly stopping the story to have Sue answering more questions and thereby setting up the next scene, rather than the story progresing organically. The other problem I had with it was that it started making Sue the protagonist of the story. She seemed to be given more development and more reason for the audience to sympathize with her than Carrie.
Sue’s dialogue leads into the opening number “In” which I loved in the original production and was unsure how I felt about the re-write but I loved it. The song, originally a jazzy workout routine performed by the girls in gym class is now a more angsty number performed by all the teens but it still works the same and sets the idea that there is a desperate need in these students to fit in and a near-paralyzing fear of being the outcast, perfectly setting up for the entrance of our title character who feels the same as her classmates, but has never managed to make her way “In”.
Carrie is played well by Molly Ranson though she seems stronger and more aggressive than bullied and brow-beaten. Still there’s a distinct wounded aspect to her portrayal which is appropriate. She sings the title song with much more ferocity than Linzi Hately did in the original but I wish the song had been more re-written or removed entirely. It’s never really spoken to me and just seems silly from the very first screamed line of “That’s not my naaaaame!” in response to the students’ taunts of “Scary White”.
Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of Margaret White is very gentle and toned-down. Rather than constant fire-and-brimstone condemnation she instead has bi-polar swings of serenity and ferocity. While I appreciate the attempt to humanize her because I hate to see Christians portrayed as caricatures and stereotypes rather than characters, I think this character in this story really needs that rigidness. Again, the audience’s sympathy is taken away from Carrie and given to another character instead who is getting more characterization. Her first number “Open Your Heart” is no longer a solo but is sung with a choir in a radio sermon she’s listening to when Carrie comes home and it’s a beautiful way to handle the song which I really liked. Unfortunately “And Eve Was Weak” lacked the punch that it should have. The sparse band can’t convey the power that the full orchestra could in the original production and Mazzie, though a phenomenal singer, doesn’t do the song its justice. Her acting is intense and frightening but her voice just doesn’t seem to fit the number.
As we see more of the students we see some of the improvements over the original. The teenagers are much more realistic (no spandex bodysuits for one thing!) and though some of their dialogue still seems a bit out of touch with modern teens and the bully’s taunts still seem more like middle school playground antics than cutting high school jabs, there is much more to like now among the high schoolers. Derek Klena plays Tommy Ross wonderfully with a youthful charm and easy friendliness that make it easy to believe him as the kind of guy everyone likes in high school. Christy Altomare does well with Sue and the two make a really sweet couple. Their new duet “You Shine” is a very nice number that gives their relationship some grounding. Jeanna de Waal and Ben Thompson are great as the bullies Chris and Billy, especially Ben who looks to be taking delicious joy in his cruelty. The standout for me in the ensemble was Blair Goldberg as Norma who was able to grab my attention in all of the company scenes and had some funny lines.
The production has one real problem though, and that is being so afraid of approaching the campiness of the original. The show is so dreadfully serious and somber in tone that despite the occasional laughs (sometimes unintentional) and scares it feels a bit lifeless. In fear of ever going over the top the show never really rises up, staying simple and plain from start to finish. It may sound like I’m changing my tune since my post about the original flop claimed that its problem was going too far from reality but this production going all the way to the other extreme doesn’t right that wrong; it shows that the story needs a grounding in reality but spikes of true drama and suspense.
This problem is most strongly evident in the Prom scene. The iconic, dramatic, cathartic pig’s blood scene is dry, oddly non-literal, and leads to a confusing destruction scene. The blood-dumping is done entirely through projections. The sillhouette of the bucket tips and blood pours out. At the moment the spillage raches Carrie’s head the whole stage is covered in a projection of a tidal wave of blood sloshing and splashing and sound effects of crashing water pound through the speakers. When the music begins Carrie stands bathed in red lights, sings some repeated lines like in the original, and the company begins going through some choreographed slow-motion agony. Suddenly projections of fire spread across the stage, the suffering becomes less choreographed, then Carrie exits the stage as the students die.
This is really a disappointing scene, unfortunately. It seems more or less like a lateral move from the original as it still has the same problems, just handled differently. Whereas in the original the blood-dumping caused problems because they were worried about damaging Carrie’s mic and making a sloppy, dangerous stage for the cast and was handled by using a small amount of very thick blood that Linzi was pretty much responsible for spreading on her own face, this time the effect is no more convincing as Carrie is clearly dry and simply tinted red by lights. In the original the fire was represented by lasers and flashpots which added some excitement but felt pretty empty. In the original though there was at least some reason for the fire at the prom, as Carrie demonstrates pyrokinetic abilities at least twice in the show prior to the destruction scene which upset some fans since her abilities were only supposed to be telekinetic as in the book and film. In this production her abilities are only telekinetic once again, so where does the fire come from at the prom? The original had better orchestrations and created a better sense of being trapped by dropping a safety curtain which really boxed in the company onstage and had Sue on the outside trying to reach the students within. The revival wins in making the audience care about the people who are dying though, which is a marked improvement and deserves credit.
The show ends with Carrie returning home (when she enters the stage again she is soaked in blood) and going to her mother for comfort. Margaret sings a beautiful little lullaby to Carrie before plunging a knife into her back, hoping to return Carrie to God before Satan can claim her soul.
In a fit of fear Carrie uses her powers to stop her mother’s heart and this is illustrated much clearer than in the original as she holds out her hand, stops Margaret in her tracks, and slowly clenches her fist as the sound effect of a heartbeat slows and chokes out and Margaret falls dead. Immediately after, however, Carrie screams and in the first instance of sympathy I felt for the character she agonizes over losing control and killing the only person she loved. Sue finds Carrie (having followed the trail of destruction, according to her police interview) and tries to comfort her. Carrie dies in Sue’s arms and she lays her down before a single spotlight focuses on Sue and we hear the police asking Sue for her name as they did in the opening interview before the blackout.
The show has made some great improvements over its source. While there were some aspects I thought were better in the original and the revival still isn’t really great, it has gotten closer to greatness than the 1988 production. I definitely recommend seeing the show if you get a chance. It’s interesting, has some good music, and just being able to say you saw Carrie, even though it’s not the infamous flop production, is worth the trip 🙂
The show’s Revival (or as some have called it, Revisal) has officially begun previews and news of the production is slowly accumulating! No reviews yet, as critics don’t review shows until the preview stage is over (unless it’s Spiderman and has SEVEN MONTHS of previews and continually postpones the opening date), but some video footage and press photos have been released in various articles and I’m getting very excited! Some changes I’m a little unsure of (the way “In” has changed for one. I think I’m one of the only people who thought it was a great song and only needed some lyric tweaks to improve). But overall this looks to be a worthy revival with a passionate cast and creative team.
BroadwayWorldTV’s coverage of the first preview. Features snippets of “In” and “Evening Prayers” (which looks absolutely beautiful) sandwiching about twelve minutes of interviews with the creative team and Piper Laurie (Margaret White in the original film)
The New York Times giving their take on the idea of a revival as well as some photos of the original Broadway run and new Off-Broadway Revival.
“In Rehearsal” interviews
Just for reference, here’s what “In” used to be:
Video from Stratford-Upon Avon, audio from Broadway.
The song was, in my opinion, a fantastic opening number which set the tone of the show, had phenomenal energy, and illustrated Carrie’s world and how she doesn’t fit in. The song has also become an integral part of my workout playlist! But I can see that it really doesn’t fit the new show and I’m glad it’s not gone entirely, which says to me that the creative team also believed in it but saw it needed to change to work.
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.