Are we finally ready to enjoy a musical about supernaturally powered mass murder? That’s what a New York theatre company is hoping by bringing back Carrie, the 1988 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a telekinetic teenager, and the only musical with a rock ’n’ roll production number where people slaughter a pig. The MCC Theatre announced last month it would be sponsoring a major revision of the work by the original creators. A well-known Broadway actor, Marin Mazzie (Stephen Sondheim’s Passion), has signed on to star as Carrie’s crazed mother in the theatre’s 2011-12 season. The time could be right for the only musical with a higher body count than Sweeney Todd.
In 1988, there wasn’t much hope that the show would stand the test of time. Critics mocked the combination of King’s violent revenge fantasy with peppy music by the creators of Fame. Frank Rich, in the New York Times, proclaimed that the famous climax—where Carrie gets blood dumped on her and then slaughters the rest of the cast—made all the blood “look like strawberry ice-cream topping.” Other reviewers felt Debbie Allen’s pelvic thrusts and arm-flailing choreography didn’t fit in with scenes of mass murder.
Adam Feldman, theatre critic for Time Out New York, told Maclean’s that the show failed so spectacularly it’s become “a legendary flop in the way that Bigfoot is legendary. It has myth built into it.” Broadway historian Ken Mandelbaum even called his book on musical theatre flops Not Since Carrie, placing it above Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge as the most misguided idea for a musical.
But in the last few years, as bootleg recordings have circulated and the creators have worked on rewrites (including a 2009 workshop, also with Mazzie), there’s a growing number of theatre fans who don’t think Carrie was a mistake at all. Linzi Hateley, who played the title role in the original Broadway production and is currently starring in Mamma Mia! in London, told Maclean’s that “of all the shows I’ve been in, Carrie is still the most talked about. I think the following has become bigger as the years go by.” A writer who set up a blog about King’s novel found that “I’ve been getting five times more traffic on this site for the musical than the section for the 1976 film.” And there are fans of the show who are too young to even remember the bad reception the original got. One of them is Alex Karpinski, a student at Verona High School in New Jersey, who dreams of rewriting the show himself someday. “I have been in love with it for so long, I don’t even remember how I heard of it,” he told Maclean’s.
It helps that the legend of Carrie is sometimes more positive than you’d expect for a show that had middle-aged high school students singing in the shower. Feldman says that “the consensus has been that the material between Carrie and her mother is quite strong. And the other material, the high school material, often verged on camp.” Even critics of the original version had good things to say about the role of Carrie’s mother, a star turn for Betty Buckley (who played a different part in the 1976 movie version). Feldman thinks Carrie’s cult is fuelled by the perception that it’s half terrible and half a good show trying to get out: people are intrigued by “the Jekyll and Hyde nature of it, and I don’t mean Jekyll and Hyde the musical, which was all bad.”
Now the creators are betting that they can keep what Hateley calls King’s “Cinderella gone wrong story,” emphasize the good songs, like the mother’s song And Eve Was Weak, and de-emphasize lines like, “It’s a simple little gig, you help me kill a pig.” But even if they don’t succeed, there may be a sound business rationale for the rewrite: the new version could be made available to high schools wanting to do something a little edgier than Bye Bye Birdie. Feldman thinks the reason the writers have never made the amateur rights available is that “they knew there was a better version that could be salvaged, and they didn’t want the other version out there ruining it.” People who dismissed the musical could someday find their teenage children performing it. Like a true horror heroine, Carrie may be impossible to kill.