“Carrie” @ MCC

It’s a bold move to bring back one of the biggest flops in Broadway history, but MCC has defied the odds with the newly revised Carrie currently playing an extended off-Broadway run. The original was the stuff of the legend (see Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie), with a rapid, high profile failure on Broadway in 1988. In the years since, the show’s reputation has only grown. Carrie is back with a vengeance, but in this sanitized and updated revisal, the creators have still not met the potential for a truly remarkable musical.

Based on the Stephen King novel, the musical tells the story of a unique outcast with telekinetic powers sheltered by her religious fanatic mother. When the girl gets her first period in the gym shower, the other girls taunt her which sets this bizarre cautionary tale of bullying into motion, culminating in the prom from hell. I have never really thought of the King novel or film as a horror story, though there are elements (most notably the famous final scene in the film). It’s always felt more like a supernatural drama, with a tortured protagonist who never has a chance at the normalcy she so desperately craves.

The creators of the original musical went back to the drawing board on this revision, first seen in a reading in 2009. The camp excesses that made the original production jaw-dropping to late 80s audiences have been scaled back or removed. (Most notably, the number about killing the pig). Matt Williams’ choreography is more teen-angsty Spring Awakening’s than Debbie Allen jazzercise prom. The script has been updated with contemporary references to Facebook and smart phones. However, the musical spends too much time with people who are not Carrie and that is a problem. The teachers (Wayne Alan Wilcox and an excellent Carmen Cusack) are underdeveloped. The teenagers come across like leftover tropes from 80s high school comedies, and that grows tedious fairly quickly. It is only when the musical focuses on the relationship between Carrie and her mother that the show becomes truly compelling.

Molly Ranson is stunning as Carrie White. The script doesn’t give her much time to establish who she is, but Ranson creates a portrait of teenage loneliness and sadness that my empathy for her increased precipitously as the show went on. Her first number, the title song, comes quite early and, but it feels rushed and early; as though it should be heard at a later point (and it doesn’t seem like Carrie should be belting so much so soon). But Ranson is ultimately devastating, particularly in the second act. Even more impressive is Marin Mazzie, whose naturalistic performance as Margaret White only serves to make her religious eccentricity far more creepy than I would have thought possible. Mazzie takes us from a seemingly carefree, doting mother to a sober puritanical nightmare in her first five minutes onstage, culminating in the unsettling duet “And Eve Was Weak.” In the second act, she all but stopped the show with the devastating “When There’s No One,” as Margaret, resolved to kill her daughter because of her telekinesis, confronts the loneliness that awaits her.

Those hoping for big, over-the-top “They’re all gonna laugh at you/Dirty Pillows” camp and an excessively bloody climax will be disappointed. The musical relies less on grand effects than it does on the audience’s imagination.  Carrie as a musical is a far cry from the disaster history would have you believe it was, but the revisions don’t make much of a case for it either. Still, considering its status in theatre history and the fact that I never thought I’d get to see a production of it, I am most grateful for the opportunity.

“And Eve Was Weak”

I suppose you can make a case that Carrie is the greatest musical flop in history. I’ll let you decide what I mean by “greatest.” The adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, with a book by Lawrence D. Cohen and score by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England in early 1988. A story of the high school outcast with the crazy religious fanatic mother from hell and telekinetic powers was a popular bestseller and a Oscar-nominated horror film starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

The musical proved to be far less than successful. Reviews were mixed in England, and the show was plagued by considerable technological problems. Yet the show continued to Broadway only two months later where it closed after 5 performances amidst some of the most scathing pans known to theatre. Ken Mandelbaum even called his essential book on flop musicals Not Since Carrie (and I implore to you read it if you haven’t; it’s fascinating, informative and entertaining). The score is something of a legend, and has an ardent group of fans. For more of the dish, read Mandelbaum’s book, you can read about the horror story that was the musical’s tenure on Broadway.

While I don’t care for much of the show (not available on cast album, but there is a sound system recording of the Broadway run that has made it’s way to seemingly everyone), the numbers for Carrie and her mother are actually quite arresting, their duets and Margaret’s solos especially. If the rest of the score had been half as good as these numbers, Carrie’s fate might not have been worse than death.

Linzi Hateley was cast as the title character and with her youthfulness and large belt voice managed she emerged mostly  unscathed from the entire ordeal, even winning a Theatre World Award. More curious: Barbara Cook was cast as Margaret White, in her first book musical appearance since the fast failure of The Grass Harp in 1971. After part of the set  nearly decapitated her, Ms. Cook made the decision not to continue with the production after Stratford. For NY, Betty Buckley (also the gym teacher from the film version) was cast. I can’t think of more of a divergence in styles, from Cook’s soprano to Buckley’s fiery belt, but that’s the way it was.

Here is a glimpse into both performing “And Eve Was Weak,” the first number where we really get to see Margaret White go off the deep end.

Barbara Cook


Betty Buckley (excerpt)


Pretty soon New York will revisit this darker chapter in its history, when MCC Theatre revives the notorious Carrie in a revised version that will address the issues that made it an embarrassing and high profile failure in the 80s. Tickets are hard to come by, and it is one of the more anticipated offerings of the winter, with performances starting January 31. Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson, who did a reading a couple years ago, will star. It’ll be interesting to see if Carrie has a better time at the prom the second time around.

Flop Revival

There was incredible excitement around some blogs and message boards yesterday because there was a private industry workshop reading of the legendary 1988 failure Carrie. It’s the show so well known for its failure that it even inspired the title of a book on the subject of failed musicals (the essential Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum). Fans of flops shows have reveled in the bootleg audio and video recordings, marveling at what is good – there are some good moments, especially for Betty Buckley – and howling at some of the campiest material this side of Whoop-Up. (This is the show that featured “Out for Blood” with the lyric “It’s a simple little gig, You help me kill a pig”). The buzz that the show was being revisited was intense – almost as though the show were a cult hit, rather than cult flop.

As I looked around various sites this afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that there are several high profile flops other than Carrie that are being given another look this season. Glory Days, the only musical in over twenty years to close on opening night, is getting a cast album (no matter the quality, I feel every show should get a recording. It’s a piece of history). However, on top of the album there will be a reunion concert later this month at the Signature Theatre in VA where the piece originated before its misguided transfer to Broadway in May 2008.

Last season’s early failure, A Tale of Two Cities, also refuses to quit. The show is the long-runner of the ones I mention here, clocking in at a whopping 60 performances. The show has already been resuscitated in concert form in England, where producers preserved it. The concert will air on PBS Thanksgiving Day, with plans for a DVD and “International Cast Recording.”

It was also announced that Enter Laughing: The Musical last season’s off-Broadway revival of the failed musical So Long, 174th Street is poised to return to Broadway. Based on the book by Carl Reiner and its subsequent play by Joseph Stein, the show ran for 16 performances at the Harkness Theatre (a hitless Broadway house on 62nd and Broadway razed in 1977). The musical was a surprise success for the York Theatre Company last season, garnering some strong reviews and enough audience buzz to warrant a several extensions and a return engagement. The star of that production, Josh Grisetti, who was poised to make his Broadway debut this week in the ill-fated revival of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, is being sought after by the producer to reprise his Theatre World Award winning performance.

This April, to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, Encores! is giving us the better known Anyone Can Whistle, which packed it in after 9 performances in 1964. The score offers some gems even if it can’t get past Arthur Laurents’ silly libretto. It’s due to Sondheim’s later success that the show is given its attention, but perhaps works best as an album or a concert. There have been revisions made to the script by Laurents, but nothing appears to have come from those regional productions. It’s not unusual for Encores! to present failed musicals: Allegro, Out of this World, St. Louis Woman, Tenderloin, House of Flowers, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 70 Girls 70 and Juno were all critical and/or financial flops in their original productions. If nothing else, the show should be praised for bringing Angela Lansbury to Broadway – Jerry Herman happened to see the show during its brief run, and the rest is history.

You know me, I love my flops and I love the opportunities to see them. However, it’s unusual that so many failures are being given such high profile treatment. Usually, it was left to Musicals in Mufti to revisit a show like Henry Sweet Henry or Carmelina, often bringing in the creators or similar scholars to help fix the shows. Perhaps next season, Encores! will finally give me Darling of the Day with David Hyde Pierce and Victoria Clark, or the Bernstein estate will be nice enough to let me resuscitate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’d also enjoy seeing Donnybrook, A Time for Singing, Dear World, Prettybelle, Lolita My Love…

Here’s my question to you: what failed musical would you like to see revived/workshopped/recorded?

Broadway Commercials, Part 1

Would you have paid to see the shows based on these commercials? I think the audience testimonial about Cyd Charisse in Grand Hotel is my favorite. More to come!


Grand Hotel & The Will Rogers Follies:


The King and I:

Fiddler on the Roof:



Big River:


Nick & Nora:

Requiem for "Carrie"

Here are the opening night TV reviews for Carrie: the Musical from the local New York newscasts on May 12, 1988. The critics: Stewart Klein from Fox 5, Dennis Cunningham from CBS2, Pia Lindstrom for News Channel 4 and Joel Siegel for ABC-7. The show closed three days later after 5 performances, becoming the most notorious flop in decades with a financial loss of over $7 million. Enjoy.