Book Review: Not Since Carrie

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.

Not Since Carrie

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:

Not Since Carrie- Title Page

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.

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Theatre Thursdays: Seussical the (Flopped) Musical

Quite a while ago I had an idea for a series talking about my favorite Broadway flops. Being the brilliant wordsmith I am, I titled this series “A Few of My Favorite Flops”…get it? Like that song from The Sound of Music? But with the word “flop” instead of…eh, you get it. Anyway, I started with Carrie and that led into a lot more posts than I intended and I never went back to the series. Today I will be continuing “A Few of My Favorite Flops” with Seussical the Musical.

I performed in this show my freshman year of college and fell in love with it. The music and lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty who are honestly my favorite musical creators (Ragtime, Once on this Island, and Seussical are three of the most perfect cast recordings I own) and the original production was directed by Frank Galati. As you have probably guessed, the story is based on the works of Dr. Seuss with the main plot of the musical being comprised of the stories “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches the Egg” so our protagonists are Horton the Elephant and Jojo (the son of Whoville’s mayor) with the Cat in the Hat serving as narrator. Other main players include Gertrude McFuzz, Mayzie LaBird, the Sour Kangaroo, and the Wickersham Brothers, with special appearances by notable Seussian characters such as the Grinch and Yertle the Turtle.

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A Few of my Favorite Flops: Carrie

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.