Saturday, November 21, 2009

There's Never Been A Musical Like Her

a novel by Stephen King 1974

Carrie was the first novel I read twice. I wasn't a big reader as a child. Actually, my love of books started in 1997 after my move to the City. Flashback to 1993 or 4 and I read Carrie twice in one summer. I identify with her. I went to private school from 1st - 8th grade and started public school as a freshman. Not only is it difficult moving from Jr. High to High School, it's difficult making that move as a new student. I had always lived in the county where both the private and public schools were located, but I hadn't gone to school with any of those people since kindergarten. There were a few people I knew from the community, but that made for very few friends in my class. I was an easy target: new student, effeminate, liked the company of girls more than boys. That's, of course, because I was gay, but afraid to be true to myself. I grew up in a religious household. Nothing like the one provided to Carrie by her mother, but religious nonetheless. I was called queer, faggot, sissy. I was picked on for my clothes, my shoes. I was picked on because I was a singer. There were signs taped to my back saying things like, "I like boys." Once in the locker room after gym class, for no reason, other than I was there changing into my regular clothes, a fellow classmate threw a basketball straight at my face and hit me. I could always completely understand Carrie's desire for revenge on the people who constantly picked on and mistreated her.

CARRIE the musical: music by Matthew Gore; lyrics by Dean Pitchford; book by Lawrence D. Cohen 1988.

Sixteen previews, five regular performances, $8 million completely lost. By the time CARRIE started previews on April 28, 1988, at the Virginia Theater, it was the first musical of the 1988-89 season. It had missed the cut off for the 1988 Tony Awards.

It took seven years from idea to full production for CARRIE to arrive on Broadway. There was a workshop of the musical in 1984 with a full production announced for the 1986 Broadway season. That production fell through as the money could not be raised. Then West German producers became involved and the production was back on track albeit in Stratford not New York. The musical became a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and booked a three week engagement on the company's mainstage at Stratford upon Avon. Barbara Cook was hired to play Margaret White and Linzi Hateley was hired to play the title role. Speculation arose that this three week engagement was a Broadway tryout. Due to near decapitation on opening night, Barbara Cook dropped out of the production after the Stratford run. She was replaced for the Broadway production by Betty Buckley. Making her Broadway debut, seventeen year old Linzi Hateley remained Carrie.

Legend and lore surrounding this piece of musical theater has it that audiences alternately boo'd and cheered at each performance. Ken Mandelbaum writes in his book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops,"Throughout Broadway previews, CARRIE was greeted with one of the most varied reactions ever, with derisive laughter and some boos mixing with cheers and wild applause." I have read every review I could find of the musical. They are scathing, blood drinched pieces of paper that I keep, to this day, in a red three ring binder. The red seemed appropriate. Clive Barnes in the Post gave the only positive review.

Mandelbaum writes, "As for the material itself, CARRIE's stunning mother-daughter scenes constitute the most geniuinely operatic material to be found in any pop opera and feature often gorgeous music. There were a couple of decent pop tunes plus a number of perfectly awful songs, but the Gore-Pitchford score is salvageable." He goes on to say, "What makes CARRIE so unique in flop musical history is its combination of soaring, often breathtaking sequences and some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical. It alternately scaled the heights and hit rock-bottom." I wish I could have seen it.

After opening on Thursday and closing on that Sunday, rumor has it that never have so many people wished they had seen a musical. Bootlegs are said to have quickly begun to circulate. After a troubled preview period gave way to an opening night, the show became legend. It was the most expensive flop of it's time. The ads never seemed more accurate. "There's never been a musical like her." CARRIE was said to be fascinating, thrilling, horrible, and unbelievable. There would probably never be anything like it again.

The Reading: NYC 2009

It was announced several weeks ago that Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum would be presenting an industry reading of CARRIE. The article said that Jeffrey had convinced the writers to revisit the piece. My jaw dropped to the floor. I had to figure out a way to get into this reading. The first thing I did was ask Jen, the company manager of ALTAR BOYZ if she could do anything as she used to work at The Producing Office - Jeffrey and Kevin's company. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had met Dean Pitchford when he picked up his ticket for THE TOXIC AVENGER MUSICAL at my window. My brain was working overtime. I called the general management office for THE TOXIC AVENGER MUSICAL hoping to get an email address for Dean. I was willing to be very forward and ask him if I could attend. Turns out his request was put in through Diana DeGarmo through her agent. That was not going to be my way in. Then Ryan, company manager of AVENUE Q, realized the director of ALTAR BOYZ was the director of the reading. He made the request on my behalf to Stafford Arima. Stafford gave him the name of the person to email and two days later I was confirmed for one place at the 4pm reading of CARRIE the musical. I was so excited that I didn't talk about it for a while. I didn't want to jinx it. Then I slowly began to share with people that I was going to attend.

When I arrived at 42nd Street studios, my name was not on the list downstairs. I was not deterred. I had all my texts from Ryan confirming my name on the list and the gentleman downstairs said it probably wouldn't be a problem and sent me upstairs to talk to Caitlyn. I quickly found Caitlyn and as soon as I started my story she knew who I was and assured me it wasn't a problem.

I stood in the lobby upstairs in front of rehearsal space 3A and watched as more and more faces I recognized from on stage and back stage and theater management filed out of the elevators and filled the waiting area. The anticipation for me was so heightened that my heart was pounding a bit faster than normal and I had to take slow, deep breaths.

Something that I've wanted for so long was just beyond the door I was staring at. Amazing!!

When we were allowed into the space it was nothing more than rows of plastic chairs facing music stands and other plastic chairs. There was a very large door that separated the two rooms opened to reveal the cast. Conversations were taking place, vocal warm ups were happening, a picture of cast, crew, and producers was snapped for posterity. Finally the cast filed into our room and took their seats. There they were: Marin Mazzie as Margaret White, Sutton Foster as Miss Gardner, Jennifer Damiano as Sue, Diana DeGarmo as Chris, Matt Doyle as Tommy and Molly Ranson as Carrie White. There were familiar and new faces rounding out the ensemble. Was this really happening? Was I actually here and getting ready to hear CARRIE performed? Jeffrey, Kevin, and Stafford took center stage before the reading started. Kevin held a chalk slate for Jeffrey. It had the original artwork, as well as, other writing on it. Jeffrey erased it all and wiped the slate clean. This was a new CARRIE. I was euphoric as the first words of the show were spoken and the first chords were struck on the piano. I have been familiar with the score for many years. As a card carrying Equity member, I am against bootlegs. Here is the but. I was given a bootleg of CARRIE on cd for my birthday several years ago and it is one of my most prized possessions. All these years later and those bootlegs are still circulating. I sat in that space and listened to "In," "Carrie," "Evening Prayers," the soaring "And Eve Was Weak," "Unsuspecting Hearts," "Do Me A Favor," the heartbreaking/terrifying "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," as well as new songs written during the course of revisiting the material. At intermission the lady next to me asked what I thought. I told her I loved it. She said she also loved it. She said that Marin was bringing her to tears. Act two brought more new songs and I got to hear the heartbreaking "When There's No One" which made me cry. There was also the destruction number full of previously sung lines in the show. A mash up of thoughts running through Carrie's head. Then the "Carrie" reprise, sung as a lullaby by Margaret to Carrie, before the devastating ending. Not only were there new songs, the book had been retooled to more closely follow the film with subtle nods to the novel. There is a clear, clarified story.

When the reading was over and the applause had died away I had the opportunity to talk to people. I was able to express my gratitude for the invitation to Jeffrey and Stafford. I was able to tell Dean what an amazing experience I felt a part of. I was able to thank Marin and Sutton for their performances and talk about how fascinating the piece is. As for Marin, she blew my mind. And Sutton was amazing as a new teacher, believing that she can make a difference. The role is not Millie or Fiona. Later, at New World Stages, I was able to talk to Diana about the reading. It seems that all involved feel the piece if worth a second look. I agree.

Anyone who has heard me talk about CARRIE the musical knows that I've always believed the piece could work. I've always believed if it was grounded in reality it would work. The characters have to be real people. Today I sat in the audience and witnessed my thoughts on the show realized in front of me.

"There's never been a musical like her" and we just may get the opportunity to see her rise again.