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Preview: Carrie

The creators of the 1988 flop try to earnestly redeem the work.

By Raven Snook

"They're all going to laugh at you," cries Carrie's religious nut of a mother in Brian De Palma's intense 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King's novel Carrie. But if the creators of the musical get their way, no one will ever laugh at Carrie again—at least not in their revamped version for MCC Theater, which opens at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on March 1.

A coming-of-rage story about a bullied teenager with an overbearing mother, who discovers she has telekinetic powers and wreaks havoc on her small town, Carrie probably seemed like strange source material for a Broadway tuner when it was originally produced in 1988. Indeed, the $8 million show was panned by most critics; audiences reportedly jeered and cackled; and it inspired Ken Mandelbaum's encyclopedia of flops, Not Since Carrie. But a quarter century later, when dark, gory flicks like The Silence of the Lambs and Evil Dead have been musicalized, Carrie seems ripe for revival. There's just one problem: Unlike those other shows, the creators refuse to go camp. For them, Carrie is deadly serious.

A full-on camp production would have been the easier route, especially since the original was so (unintentionally) kitschy, what with leather-pants--clad bullies squealing like pigs and students in gym class wearing togas. But that's not what composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen had in mind. "We got hundreds of requests a year to do [the original] Carrie in regional theaters, high schools, colleges, summer camps and drag cabarets, but we turned them all down," says Cohen, who also penned the screenplay for the De Palma film. "We had no desire to see a replica of that production, because we weren't happy with it. And we didn't want to see a spoof, either."

Instead, the creators clung to their dream of mounting a straight version, and they found an ally in director Stafford Arima (Altar Boyz), who'd seen a preview of Carrie on Broadway as a teen. "The audience went ballistic—it was like a rock concert," remembers Arima. "I'd never experienced anything like that in the theater. My mother brought me to that show and many others, and after she passed away, I began to percolate about Carrie. I started to think about the immediacy of the material, the relationships, what it means to be ostracized."

Cohen agrees that the story's major themes—the battle to be accepted by peers, over-the-top bullying and retaliation, and parent-child power struggles—are timelier than ever. "My hair was on fire when I first read this book 40 years ago, and, unfortunately, it has more resonance now than when Stephen wrote it," he says. "I'm not just talking about Columbine and Matthew Shepard. The Internet has totally changed the world and the way kids grow up."

That's why, in addition to major book rewrites, and the excision of old songs and the addition of new ones, the creative team decided to set the new version in the present day. "It was a humongous decision," says Cohen. "It led to a domino effect of interwoven work throughout the show. Every number has changed—even if a song is in essence the same, the treatment of it is very different."

Of course, not all theater fans embrace change. Even though Carrie was a notorious bomb, it's become a cult classic thanks to grainy video clips and illegal audio recordings. Do they worry that this earnest reexamination may tarnish the legend somehow? "We did this [revisal] very selfishly for ourselves," says Cohen. "We can't control critics or the outcome. But so far, during the previews, people have come up to me afterward and said, 'You don't know how much this speaks to me.' And that isn't camp at all. That's an address to the heart, which is what we're after."

Arima is more philosophical. "Carrie the character is a misunderstood young girl, and I think Carrie the musical was a misunderstood theatrical production. And that's okay. If you want to see that one, just type 'Carrie' into YouTube and up she comes. But there's room for reinvention. I think that for people to come and meet a new Carrie is an exciting date."

Carrie is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Mar 25.


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