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.
Shortly after I got out of college in the mid '80s, I took my first trip to London. It was my first time out of the country (unless you count my sixth-grade trip with the Boy Scouts to Montreal). Even then, I was a tad obsessive about musical theater, and in the six days we spent in London, we saw five shows.
The only reason we didn't see six shows was that, at the time, there were absolutely no shows that played on Sundays, and even now, there are only a handful. Of course, that number doesn't even begin to rival some of my more recent theatrical jaunts, at least in terms of daily dramatic density, but hey I was young, and short on funds.
Even so, we did get to see a fairly momentous array of shows, particularly in retrospect: Me and My Girl, Chess, Les Miserables, and Starlight Express. Yes, these shows all eventually made it to New York, but here's the important part: I saw them in London. And before anybody else I knew had even heard of most of them. At the time, that was very important to me, and I blush to admit it still holds a certain personal cachet.
We had lined up tickets to Les Miz, Chess, and Me and My Girl ahead of time, but then decided to take in Starlight Express upon arrival. Atrocious though that show may have been -- and still is -- I will never regret the night I spent at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, current home of the London production of Wicked. As I always say, as a teacher and student of musical theater, no night in the theater is ever a waste: I always learn something, even if it's what *not* to do. Starlight Distress, as I have dis-affectionately called the show ever since, taught me quite a lot about what makes bad musicals bad. Quite a lot.
It turns out that that particular trip to London also provided another opportunity to experience the instructive power of truly bad live theater, because we also decided to take in a performance of what was then a new musical called Mutiny!, based on the famed story of the mutiny on the Bounty. I'd like to think that my tastes in musical theater have refined over the decades, but even then, freshly out of college, I knew that Mutiny! was utterly dreadful.
I do have to say that the set to Mutiny!, designed by one William Dudley, was pretty frickin' amazing. Remember that this was the '80s, which was a time when Britain seemed to be coming into its own in musical theater, at least with respect to bloated blockbusters. It was a time of spectacle and excess, and Mutiny! was certainly no exception. The set for Mutiny! essentially comprised a scale replica of the good ship HMS Bounty, which rose on hydraulic lifts, spun around, and opened up to reveal the inner workings and compartments of the ship. When the boat opened up, the hull flattened out to form the playing space. It was an ingenious and impressive mechanical feat, one worthy of a much better show.
The music for Mutiny!, by David Essex, who also starred in the show as a would-be hunky Fletcher Christian, had a certain facile idiomatic flare, but the lyrics, by Essex and one Richard Crane, were utterly puerile and repetitive, sometimes both at the same time. One song, called "Friends," attempts to establish the relationship between Christian and Captain Bligh. Here's a sampling of the lyric:
Friends You and I we, are friends Friends right up to the end We are friends
Once Bligh and Christian get to Tahiti, there's a song about breadfruit, which was the particular quarry and end-goal of the Bounty voyage. A sample lyric:
Breadfruit, breadfruit Breadfruit trees Food for the slaves of the West Indies (with the stress on the last syllable: in-DEEZ)
But, why am I telling you all this? ("And you a...perfect stranger...") Well, because the Mutinycast recording recently received its first CD release, and it gave me a chance to revisit the amateurish horror that was Mutiny!. I accidentally ordered an additional copy of the CD, and figured I'd offer it as a contest prize for one of my lucky readers.
"Um...wait, Chris. You just spent untold paragraphs trashing the show. Why would I want to win a copy of the CD?" A good question, my perspicacious reader. Because I know that many of you are just as obsessive as I am about musical theater, and equally fascinated with forgotten flops and turgid train wrecks.
So, here are some trivia questions directly and tangentially related to Mutiny! and its staff. I'll select a winner from the names of everyone who gets all of the following questions right, and that reader will become the proud owner of his or her very own Mutiny! CD. Sure to become a collectors item. And, heck, it's not *that* bad. As I said, some of the music is quite good, even if the lyrics are nearly unbearable. And don't tell me that you don't have a CD or two or some godawful shows that for some reason still fascinate you on some level.
[The contest is over. Thanks to everyone who participated. The winner has been notified. --C.C.]
So here goes. And best of luck.
1. David Essex had a fair amount of success as a pop singer in the '70s. What was his only Billboard Top 40 hit? ANSWER: "Rock On"
2. Which iconic historical role did Essex originate in the London production of a particular musical? And who will be playing that role in an upcoming Broadway revival of that show? ANSWER: I was going for Evita and Ricky Martin, but I would have accepted Godspell and Gavin Creel.
3. Name four Hollywood hunks who have played the character Fletcher Christian in movie versions of the Bounty mutiny. (Three are dead, and one might as well be.) ANSWER: Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Clark Gable and ::shudder:: Mel Gibson.
4. Mutiny! played London's Piccadilly Theatre. The next production at the Piccadilly will be the musical adaptation of what sentimental 1990 movie favorite? ANSWER: Ghost - The Musical
5. In the text above, I make the following veiled reference: "But, why am I telling you all this? ('And you a...perfect stranger...')" What 1980s musical am I alluding to here? ANSWER: "I Love a Film Cliche," from A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.
Please enter your answers as comments below. I will only publish the comments after I have selected the winner.
Sometimes I marvel at the human capacity for self-delusion. In a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, storied theater director Harold Prince spoke about his recent production of Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. And some of Prince's comments really got me scratching my head. Most of them in fact.
As you may know, Paradise Found was by all accounts an unmitigated disaster. Granted I didn't see it, but we're not talking mixed reviews here, but outright hostile pans. The fabulous West End Whingers were unrestrained in their disdain. "We're still a wee bit shell-shocked, to be honest..." The delightful SarahB at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment wondered at the end whether it was just an "elaborate joke."
Well, according to Prince, the problems with the production stemmed from the fact that the theater and the cast were too small:
The material is great. But it should be big...Now I have to do it somewhere where there's a large chorus. We had wonderful actors...but everyone was doubling and tripling...That's not what the material demands...I'm meeting with the authors the week after next, and we’re going to aim for it.
Again, I didn't see the show, but none of the reviews that I read said that the venue or the cast size were at fault. No, most of them seemed to focus on the material itself, which one reviewer called "[A] pastiche Arabian Nights fable of unbelievable coarseness and vulgarity."
I know that some creators refuse to read reviews, but I can't imagine that Prince was completely insulated from the critical drubbing that Paradise Found received. But I was simply floored by his contention that the show just needed to be bigger. No, Hal. Great shows work in small paces and with small casts. John Doyle's recent productions of your Sweeney Todd and Company certainly come to mind. The idea that all you really need to do is throw some more money at Paradise Found for the project to work is ludicrous.
Of course, this is probably an academic discussion, because Prince is highly unlikely to find investors clueless enough to open their purse strings for a full-scale production of Paradise Found. Yes, this is the man who made millions on Phantom of the Opera. But he's also the man who gave us Lovemusik. And Roza. And Grind. And A Doll's Life. And Bounce.
Sitting and watching the recent Encores
production of Anyone
Can Whistle, it was often difficult to imagine how the original Broadway
production could ever have been a
nine-performance flop in 1964. But it was a flop, and a rather legendary one at that. I think it was Ethan Mordden who once quipped that if everyone who claimed that they had seen Anyone Can Whistle had actually seen it, the show would still be running.
Typically, Encores cuts down the librettos for its shows, sometimes to a detrimental extent, as was the case with Finian's Rainbow and Juno. But in the case of Anyone Can Whistle, they were doing the show a huge favor, paring down Arthur
Laurents' ridiculous, confusing, and self-indulgent book to an absolute minimum, and giving Stephen Sondheim's glorious score a chance to shine.The score contains some of Sondheim's most interesting, moving, and ambitious work, including the soaring ballad "With So Little to Be Sure of," the rousing "Everybody Says Don't," and what is perhaps the best song in the show, "A Parade in Town." Sure, there are some clunkers, including the awkward "See What it Gets You." But one the whole, it's one of Sondheim's best scores, and when you're talking about the big S, that's saying something.
Pulling off Anyone Can Whistle can be a very challenging task indeed, and requires a director with a very sure hand. Fortunately, the folks at Encores brought in Casey
Nicholaw. (Admittedly, Nicholaw's most recent gig was the poorly received and early-closing All About Me, but hey even Fosse and Bennett had their misfires.) Nicholaw brings a fast pace and a consistent tone to the show, and also does a masterful job staging the songs, particularly the two
extended sequences, "Simple"
Anyone Can Whistle also depends on very strong and appropriate casting choices, and here, as elsewhere, this production did not disappoint. Sutton Foster was her perky, spunky, funny self, and Raúl Esparza was his sonorous, intense, and dynamic self. But as talented as the two performers are, and as well-suited for their roles as they were, they wound up coming off as merely competent in the shadow of the spectacular Donna Murphy. Murphy is not only letter-perfect as Cora, but I couldn't help thinking about the other roles that this amazingly talented woman has mastered, including Fosca in Passion, Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town, Anna Leonowens in The King and I, and Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik. Great honk, is there anything this woman can't do? My friend and fellow blogger Kevin over at Theatre Aficionado at Large has called Ms. Murphy "God's gift to musical comedy." I couldn't have said it any better.
A final note: Anyone Can Whistle is certainly a period piece, particularly in its decidedly '60s association of "crazy" with "nonconformist." Someone mentioned to me that Sondheim was speaking at a talk-back for the show and said that, in the original production, they didn't do a strong enough job of making the crazy/nonconformist distinction. I think it's more of a semantic issue. But even if the show *were* romanticizing mental illness, I'd be inclined to cut the creators some slack given that it was written 45 years ago. (I'm a bit less inclined to give certain Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals a bye is this regard. Stay tuned for my take
on that recent, stunning development.)
GRADE: A(What very well may become the definitive production of a deeply flawed but significant show.)