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  • CarrieRanson_400.jpgOnce again the musical Carrie has failed, and once again people are asking the wrong questions. This is demonstrated in Patrick Healy's New York Times story about the fate of the just-closed Off-Broadway version of the musical, in which the writers place the blame, of course, on everyone except themselves.

    Healy reports Michael Gore, the composer, as saying, "There are some people who would have been happy if the first two rows of the audience were given slickers and blood got all over them. Some theater companies will do that in the future, I imagine." Librettist Lawrence D. Cohen lamented, "We spent three years revisiting Carrie scene by scene, song by song, trying to rescue a show that hadn't met our dreams the first time. Having faced all the baggage and all the naysayers who said Carrie would never happen again onstage, and on a stage in New York no less, we did what we wanted to do—fix the show. To be candid, yes, we're disappointed that it didn't run longer. But if the experience is bittersweet, it's more sweet than bitter."

    The problem that no one wants to address is not that Gore, Cohen, lyricist Dean Pitchford, and director Stafford Arima didn't change the show. (I would also take strong issue with Cohen's intimation that they rewrote most of the show; whole songs and whole scenes remain utterly intact from Broadway. But that's largely irrelevant to this particular discussion.) The problem is that they did change it, and made it so boring that no one—including people who were excited by the previous version—liked it.

    It's easy to understand why they did this. Few modern musical flops have been as mocked as the Broadway Carrie was, and even fewer have spawned a book about the genre that has become a Bible for theatre lovers. Carrie the first time around was hamstrung by a director (Terry Hands) who was in over his head but wielded too much power, and a culture in which Cats, Les Misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera were the hottest shows on Earth. The creators were tempted (induced?) to abandon their initial low-key concept and turned Stephen King's story (which Cohen adapted into an acclaimed screenplay in 1976) into a theatre piece that was part thrilling pop opera, part Greek tragedy, and part train-wreck monstrosity.

    Erasing this from the history books would be foremost on any serious writers' minds. But these writers forgot the cardinal rule of theatre (which, for its myriad lapses in common sense, the original production never lost sight of): It should never ever be boring. The new Carrie might not have had punishing Debbie Allen choreography, togas and leather bar costumes for high-schoolers, a dance around a pig trough, more buckets of blood than most slaughterhouses see over the course of 20 years, and Betty Buckley playing religious zealot Margaret White (Carrie's mom) while wearing a black negligée, but all that's okay. What's not okay is that the new production didn't replace these elements with anything else.

    That the writers weren't really interested in telling a solid musical story was evident from literally the opening seconds: The first scene of the new version found Sue, Carrie's strongest ally, in a police station being questioned about the gory events the musical will go on to document. But because there's no singing and no music of any type in this scene, which sets you up for a very different style of show than the one that is shortly to unfold. The audience requires an induction into the musical world in which it will spend the next couple of hours; this is not an option. The Broadway production began with (gasp) an overture, which melted directly into the frenetic opening number "In," set in gym class, whereas Off-Broadway Sue's interrogation lurched into "In" as intoned by the zombie-like students of Carrie's high school. Already we're told that musical storytelling is not a crucial element of the upcoming evening.

    A visionary director might have been able to mitigate this to some extent. But Arima either couldn't or wouldn't. He proved this to even more catastrophic effect with his atrocious handling of the climaxes of both acts. Just before intermission, Carrie reveals to her mother that she's developed telekinetic powers by closing every window in their house during a storm. And at the heart of Act II, Carrie is embarrassed at the prom when her enemy Chris and Chris's boyfriend Billy dump a bucket of pig blood on her head. Arima staged both using ugly stylized projections that wrenched you out of the drama just when you needed to be drawn in. The latter was especially jarring given that it is the key event in the action (even more so with the framing device of Sue talking to the police about the events this occurrence inspired), and Carrie shows up in the final scene drenched in blood anyway—not seeing this happen denies you of experiencing something vitally important firsthand: Carrie's embarrassment at the hands of her peers.

    Leaving aside the mediocre new songs and mediocre performances of old ones (Molly Ranson was an utterly unremarkable belter as Carrie, and shut you off from her by shutting her eyes during almost every high note; as Margaret, Marin Mazzie never settled on one vocal or acting style that would believably unite the disparate halves of her loving and desperately intolerant character), these choices strip the show of its vibrancy and its theatrical reason for being. There is no reason any of these moments needed to be handled in camp-like fashion; they could absolutely be treated realistically, but they needed to be treated as if they mattered. That's what Gore, Cohen, Pitchford, and Arima forgot. But audiences couldn't forget it when every new scene brought a new reminder, so as soon as word got out, Carrie was doomed.

    I wouldn't be surprised if subsequent productions, which embrace the natural theatricality and danger of the piece rather than pretending those elements either don't exist or aren't important enough to deal with, fare better than the Off-Broadway version. But the show will never truly work as long as it shuns the basic rules of chemistry by which all the best musicals work. (How many truly artistically and commercially successful musicals can you name that do not start with music? It's an incredibly short list—and there is a reason for that.) Gore, Cohen, and Pitchord may have finally got what they wanted, and, at least in the short term, their work will likely pay off. But there's no question why this Off-Broadway version of Carrie closed early and at a loss: It was both figuratively and literally bloodless.

    Photo credit: Molly Ranson in Carrie, taken by Joan Marcus.

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