"Carrie - There's never been a musical
That was the tag line in the ads for Carrie when it first appeared on stage in 1988. At the time, it was certainly true, but not really in the way that the copywriters intended. Carrie became a flop of legendary proportions, and went on to achieve fabled status among the Broadway in-crowd.
With the passage of time, however, the phrase "There's never been a musical like her" has lost a bit of its appropriateness. For now we do actually have a musical like Carrie, and it's been playing for over a year at the [shudder] Foxwoods Theater. I refer, of course, to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
The comparison may not seem immediately apt, but bear with me. Carrie has become legendary not, I think, because it was irredeemably awful, but rather because there was enough of what appeared to be genuinely solid writing amid all the laughably awful material to make a generation of theater queens ponder what might have been. (The show was never recorded, but lives on through...er...private recordings of the material.)
Well, we can stop pondering. It might have been worse. And now, in a perverse way, it is. The MCC Theater is currently presenting a significantly revised Carrie at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village. Carrie is, of course, based upon the Stephen King novel of the same name about a troubled teenage girl with telekinesis.
And here's the Spider-Man parallel: once the producers got rid of Julie Taymor and brought in a new team to make the show comprehensible, it sort of took away all the fun. (Read my reviews of Spider-Man before and after the revisions.) The same has happened with Carrie: without the kitsch, Carrie is simply lame.
I get the sense that the creators (librettist Lawrence D. Cohen, lyricist Dean Pitchford, composer Michael Gore) were thinking that Carrie got a bad break in its original incarnation and that it just needed a bit of rewriting and a new production concept to bring out the power of the piece. But here's the sorry truth: Carrie wasn't just badly produced and directed. It was badly written as well.
Granted, not all of the show is terrible, but the parts that are genuinely good about Carrie 2.0 are the parts that were already good about Carrie 1.0: "And Eve Was Weak," "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," and "When There's No One." Essentially, these are the songs for Margaret White, Carrie's hyper-religious mother, played here with great power and pathos by Marin Mazzie. The stuff that the creators have cut was ironically what made the show "so bad it's good" in the first place. The material that has replaced it is pedestrian at best, amateurish at worst. The show that was once an unintentional hoot is now flat and dull.
The new Carrie starts with a new prologue that eventually becomes a framing device for the show: good girl Sue Snell is giving yet another in a series of statements to the police about what happened That Fateful Night. The show then segues into the same opening number that it had 24 years ago, only now director Stafford Arima seems to be making a deliberate attempt to make the show's tone more consistent. The original Carrie started with a howlingly funny opening number that was completely out of place with the intended tone of the show. It's interesting that, although there do appear to have been some changes to the lyric, here the underlying number is essentially the same. It serves to emphasize that, underneath the new American Idiot choreography and Next to Normal orchestrations, Carrie is really the same bad show it has always been.
Among the precious (and not in the good way) new material is a song in which Tommy, the good boy who eventually takes Carrie to the prom, reads one of his poems aloud in English class. While reading the poem, suddenly Tommy's heart takes wing or some shit, and he bursts into song. In the lyric, Tommy describes himself as "a dreamer in disguise" and "a diamond in the rough." (Yes, well, thank you Prince Ali.) The march of the twee continues in the second act when Tommy throws Sue a pretend prom. (Tommy was supposed to take Sue, you see, but nice girl Sue persuades Tommy to take Carrie instead.) The make-believe prom sequence includes a shudder-inducing new song called "You Shine," containing such immortal lyrics as "No doubts, no fears. I see you shine and the dark disappears."
Carrie also exhibits significant flaws in play-writing and dramaturgy, including inconsistent characterizations, clunky dialog, and flatly unfunny attempts at humor. In the first act, Sue and Tommy seem to change character as the libretto finds it convenient. Sue's staunchly noble nature later in the show makes it tough to believe that she would have taken part in the heartless taunting of Carrie in the first place. And Tommy, who is supposed to be such a nice guy, repeatedly excuses the callous behavior of Billy and Chris, the cardboard bad boy and bad girl of the show, and the direct progenitors of the show's ultimate tragedy.
As for the humor, Cohen seems to have found his comedic inspiration among the bad sitcoms running at the time of the show's Broadway run:
CHRIS: "[My father] said he would buy me a new car if I broke up with [Billy]."
SUE: "Why don't you?"
CHRIS: "I'm holding out for a Beemer."
And then there's the running gag in which one of Tommy's male classmates repeatedly makes thinly veiled references to finding Tommy attractive, followed by the trademark pause for comedic effect, and the inevitable, "Just kidding!" Ooh, I'm telling you, that's knee-slapper.
[SPOILER ALERT: If there's anyone out there who doesn't know what happens at the end of Carrie, I reveal it in the paragraphs below.]
The final scenes of this Carrie reveal what's still wrong with the piece, exactly where the current production has missed the mark, as well as the heartbreaking promise of what the show could have been. Carrie's classmates play one trick too many on her at the senior prom and she unleashes her telekinetic wrath upon the lot of them. The actual destruction in this production is sort of ridiculous, conveyed almost entirely in humorously literal digital images projected onto unconvincingly writhing cast members climbing the walls. (Of course, the destruction scene in the original used lasers, which was even more ridiculous.)
After the carnage, Carrie returns home, where her mother is waiting with a little stainless steel surprise. But, here's the thing: Carrie's retaliation here was one of the most heart-stopping (ahem) moments I've had in the theater in many a year, made all the more stunning by a searing performance by Marin Mazzie as the mother. (Mazzie alone makes the show worth seeing, beyond the whole rubbernecking impulse. Her rendition of "When There's No One" was positively heartbreaking.)
But then, as if to remind us that the rest of the show sucks major league monkey wang, the creators have Sue Snell enter Carrie's house to comfort Carrie as she dies. Um...what?! Sue has just witnessed Carrie singlehandedly slaughter dozens of people, most of them completely innocent, including Sue's boyfriend, and the most compelling thing Sue can think of at this moment is to comfort Carrie? It was a real forehead-slapping moment, and a fitting coda to the quarter-century-long odyssey of ineptitude that is Carrie.