Theatre Thursdays: Villains in Musical Theatre

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.

Being bad never looked so good.

Being bad never looked so good.

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Review: Carrie 2013

Carrie 2013I finally got to see the new Carrie movie a couple weeks ago, so I’ve got to post my thoughts.

For a quick, spoiler-free opinion: I was, overall, happy with it. The updating was fairly skillfully done without screaming “Hey look, we’re modern! Facebook! IPhone! Cyber bullying!” Carrie and most of the students felt realistically drawn, but Margaret was a little too toned-down for my liking. The destruction scene was the highlight of the movie.

For a more detailed, spoiler-ish review, click the jump!

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Your Best Bets for Feminist Halloween Entertainment

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.

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Trailer Tuesdays: Carrie 2013

Y’all know I love me some Carrie, so of course I need to talk about this remake.

First off, the trailer is pretty good. It’s difficult for me to watch anything related to this story with fresh eyes, but I think the trailer does a good job of covering what’s important about the story without giving away too much, so anyone who doesn’t know the previous versions should find it both informative and entertaining. For those of us who are familiar with the story already, it shows us some of the most memorable moments and how they’ll be handled in the remake.

I think I see some more adherence to the original novel in some areas, and less in others. For instance, Carrie practicing her power and taking joy in it is more in line with Stephen King’s characterization than that of the 1976 Brian DePalma film where Carrie usually seemed to have some disconnect with her telekinesis, i.e., it only tended to show up in moments of heightened emotion and was kind of out of her control.

On the other hand, the depiction of Margaret seems more like the 2012 version of the musical than either the original film or the novel, though, which gives me pause. It didn’t work out perfectly in the musical, and I think the less over-the-top portrayal of Carrie’s mother takes away some of the story’s power. I think their relationship is much more interesting and twisted when Carrie loves Margaret even though she is completely immersed in her world of religiosity and has a bizarre and warped way of loving her daughter. To me, taking away her fire takes away some of the drama and intrigue of her relationship with Carrie and the story itself.

This desire to make things more realistic can sometimes take away the cinematic power of a movie. Take, for instance, the dark thick sludge that pours down on Carrie in this preview. This is much more realistic than any previous version of the story, as blood oxidizing in a bucket overnight would darken and congeal, but it has nowhere near the visual impact of the bright red blood streaming down Carrie’s face that the original film, musical, and 2002 TV remake opted for. Most of the time, reality doesn’t make for great entertainment (just ask the writers and editors who make “reality” TV) and sometimes it’s better to go for style rather than honesty to be effective.

All things considered, I am looking forward to the remake. Both Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore are great actresses and I have no doubts in their abilities to make these characters interesting on screen. While I think that by making the story more realistic, it loses some of the drama that made the original movie so iconic, I still think the new interpretation holds promise as an enjoyable film.

Theatre Thursdays: ‘Carrie’ Premiere Cast Recording

BOO!

Scared you, didn’t I?

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…

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Theatre Thursdays: Amateur ‘Carrie’ Productions

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.

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Carrie: 2012 Off-Broadway Revival

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.

Cast:
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 🙂