Understudies! “Carrie”: The Worst Musical Ever
by Tyler Coates
There are many flops in the annals of Broadway history, but none-not even “Anna Karenina”-are as notorious as “Carrie,” the 1988 musical adapted from the Stephen King novel and Brian De Palma film. The musical was co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, responsible for more high-brow and conceptual productions that were not intended to be coupled with cheesy pop-rock scores for American audiences who expected to understand what the hell is going on. Initially, critics even claimed that the subject matter was too dark for a musical, which is hardly the case; serious musicals like “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Evita,” and-in the previous Broadway season-”The Phantom of the Opera” were all immensely successful on Broadway. “Carrie” failed primarily because it was a giant mess of a show; the very simple and timeless Cinderella storyline (with bonus menses and mass murder subplots) is perfect for a stage adaptation, but the play was muddled with high-concept staging and campy production qualities dressed-up as grand drama.
The story is simple: Carrie White, the social outcast at her New England high school, gets revenge on her classmates at the senior prom by destroying the party with a little help from her telekinetic powers. The novel was King’s first to be published, and the film was DePalma’s first commercial success. The film’s stars-Sissy Spacek as Carrie White and Piper Laurie as her religious fanatic mother-both received Academy Award nominations for their performances, which was surprising considering the film’s genre.
But beyond being easily classified as a horror story, “Carrie” perfectly depicted the pains of adolescence; I’m definitely not the only one who was picked on by the popular kids, and surely I wasn’t the only one who fantasized about seeking revenge on his classmates with everyday objects in a completely healthy, pre-Columbine way that involved the full understanding of fantasy versus reality. (Right?)
The show, sadly, was a complete disaster. How did a production helmed by a creative team of professionals with actual theater experience result in a massive disco-infused turd? This is a show ready-made for teenagers, ladies and anyone who hasn’t fit in-so where did it all go so bloody wrong?
Unlike King’s Maine setting, the musical was set in a very strange place (possibly Mars), where the teenage girls wear metallic bodysuits on dates with their leather-daddy boyfriends.
The musical opens in what one assumes is a high school gymnasium, but the stage is one large white room-one reviewer described it as resembling “a hospital kitchen.” A group of presumably teenaged Olympians dressed in short skirts resembling togas rush to the front of the stage, screaming at the top of their lungs and doing aerobics.
It’s the first dose of the bizarre costume choices: why aren’t these girls wearing, I dunno, t-shirts and gym shorts? And why is the gym teacher (played by former Crystals member Darlene Love) wearing similarly-styled Greek lounge wear? It’s distracting from the surprisingly good opening number “In,” wherein the girls sing about the pressures of adolescence and the politics of high school.
Everyday, I just pray, every move I make is right.
Where I go, who I know, how I wear my hair come Saturday night.
And I worry, what if all my ends should split?
I worry, what can I possibly do?
To fit in, smack, right on track,
What comes close to that?
Until you fit in, you ain’t where it’s at.
’Cause when you’re out it’s just the pits, you can never win.
There’s no doubt that life just doesn’t begin, until you’re in.
Soon Carrie enters the scene; she tries in vain to mimic the frantic Debbie Allen choreography. The difference between Carrie and the other girls is striking: Sissy Spacek’s Carrie was actually quite lovely, just a bit awkward and treated as an outcast because of her religious upbringing. Linzi Hateley’s Carrie, however, is dumpy and sad-she has a slightly chubby, boxy frame accentuated by a white dress that makes her look like a nursing student. The awkward seventeen-year-old has no chance to fit in with the rest of the lithe Amazonian women on stage, who all look to be at least ten years her senior.
After the second number-another tune that features the cast ruminating on the difficulties of being a teenager-Carrie runs onstage screaming, having gotten her period for the first time. You know this already, because you know what “Carrie” is about, and you’d probably also be taken aback when the girls yell, “Carrie’s got the curse! Carrie’s got the curse!” rather than, “Plug it up!” I mention this because one’s understanding of the basic plot of the musical is predicated upon a prior knowledge of the story. Do you remember in the movie how, after the girls throw tampons at Carrie, Betty Buckley comes in as the gym teacher and slaps Carrie to calm her down? And then a light bulb bursts above them, and it’s FORESHADOWING? I mean, it’s fine if you don’t; my point is that the lightbulb breaks in the play, too, but it’s only addressed one other time: when Carrie goes home to tell her mother (played by Betty Buckley-TWIST!) about the shower incident, and Mrs. White is all, “THE CURSE OF BLOOD! THE CURSE OF POWER!”
And then they shout-sing a song about menstruation and Mrs. White throws Carrie down a trap door in the floor. Theater!
It should also be noted that “telekinesis” is never mentioned in the play. That’s a bit odd, right? Carrie’s powers are referred to as “the power”-there’s no explanation as to why she has it (the backstory provided by the film and the book: it was inherited from the absent Mr. White), and if you haven’t seen the movie you might assume Carrie has some really intense PMS, just one that produces flames rather than cramps.
In a sequence that is representative of all the musical’s flaws-clunky lyrics, pseudo-pornographic dance numbers, excruciatingly literal staging that is, somehow, intended to be symbolic of something-Sue, the popular girl with a guilty conscience, asks her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom: “Tommy, lately I’ve just not been feeling right, I’m so ashamed of how we’ve all been treating Carrie White.”
And out comes Chris, the queen bee of the school, who asks her boyfriend Billy to help her get the pig’s blood to dump on Carrie at the prom. She wears a red bodysuit that contrasts with Sue’s white unitard; when Carrie enters the scene, the two girls stand on either side of her, egging her on, as Tommy, who up to now has not actually interacted with Carrie, successfully scores the date to the dance. This is important symbolism! One girl is good so she is dressed in white! The other is bad so she is wearing red!
Then the teens instigate a chorus line backed up by the twenty ensemble members behind them. Unfortunately, there are no singing Nazis anywhere-this is all on purpose because this is art.
The second act (yes) opens with Chris and Billy’s trip to the local pig farm, where they sing what is arguably the worst song ever written for a musical. Chris and Billy dance at the front of the stage while a group of shirtless men in leather pants twirl behind them, shouting, “Chop! Kill the pig! / Pig, pig! Kill, kill! / Kill, kill! We’ll make ’em bleed! / Here’s his blood! / Blood, blood!” (The music and lyrics were written by the pair who wrote the songs from “Fame;” one would expect something better from the dudes who gave us, “Macaroni and bologna / Tuna fish, my favorite dish!”) It sounds a bit like a song from the stage version of “Hairspray,” but one would assume that John Waters could come up with a more entertaining way to execute his campy visions. (I don’t think he’d let Debbie Allen choreograph anything.)
When Carrie and Tommy finally get to the prom, they are so excited! It’s unfortunate, really, because it is by far the worst prom ever. The stage is fully lit, the cast does a group dance sequence that rivals the ridiculous scene in She’s All That and there’s a four-foot disco ball at the back of the stage. Sitting on the floor. Stage left.
Staying true to the story, Tommy and Carrie are named Prom King and Queen. Rather than dropping a bucket of blood onto Carrie, however, Tommy runs on stage and tosses what amounts to be three cups of blood at her face as Chris screams, “Carrie White eats shit!”
Everyone laughs at her. Carrie goes predictably apeshit. This is when she harnesses the full extent of her powers: she turns the prom into a spectacular Epcot laser show! Her classmates scream and writhe below her as red and green lights shoot across the stage. And… that’s it.
Nothing flies in the air, nothing blows up, besides a few brief pops in the back of the stage. I’ve seen scarier pyrotechnic displays at my hometown Moose lodge.
Once Carrie is finished with her tormenters, a GIANT WHITE STAIRCASE lowers. On it is Mrs. White, who slowly descends to greet Carrie, singing what is probably the only listenable song from the show-a quiet lullaby for Carrie. She sings, “Carrie, always remember that I love you / My love is so deep.”
Then she stabs her. Surprised, Carrie puts her hand over her mother’s heart and stops it with her mind, then crawls down the stairs to the front of the stage and dies. The end!
The show ran for five performances after previews. The producers shut it down despite sold-out shows, and the show reportedly lost the $8 million that went into the production (although a good chunk of that money came from British taxpayers, as the Royal Shakespeare Company is publicly funded). It is still considered to be the most infamous Broadway failure; Broadway historian Robert Mandelbaum framed his study of musical disasters with the show in his book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.
I wonder how this show would have fared had it not opened in the days before the Internet-when viral buzz and ironic appreciation trumped the opinions of critics. In 2009, a staged reading involving Marin Mazzie, Sutton Foster, and “American Idol” contestant Diana DeGarmo attempted to legitimize the play (and perhaps incite interest in a revival), but no amount of leveraging social networks could make it likely that we ever see another professional production. In part, as the show suffers so much from the straight-faced writing.)
Luckily, there are several websites (and a very active Facebook group!) dedicated to the show, and the original Stratford-upon-Avon production (starring Barbara Cook as Margaret White, who jumped ship before transferring to Broadway) is on YouTube in its entirety. The musical has a cult following, but it’s an entirely different one than fans of Hollywood failures: theater is so fleeting, so ethereal, that watching the performances online isn’t quite the same as owning a deluxe edition of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on DVD. I certainly hope the few thousand people who saw the original show know how lucky they were to have experienced such an important piece of artistic failure right there in real life.
Tyler Coates is moving to New York, where he will see musicals every day, just like everyone else who lives here.