ON THE RECORD: The Musicals Carrie, A Christmas Story and Seventeen

By Steven Suskin
October 28, 2012

This week's column discusses the original Off-Broadway cast recording of the infamous Carrie; the new Broadway musical A Christmas Story; and the CD remastering of the 1951 musical Seventeen.



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Carrie [Ghostlight]
Since time began, authors of flop musicals have embroidered the legend "if only they hadn't messed it up" on their throw pillows, or wherever it is authors of flop musicals embroider such stuff. The "they" being producers or directors, sometimes choreographers or stars, and — in rare examples — the lyricist blaming the composer or the librettist blaming both.

In some cases, said authors — who over the years have dreamed of "fixing" their little fiasco — ultimately manage to convince someone to bankroll a second try. The number of times the retread works better than the original are all but nonexistent. The main exception seems to be Wright & Forrest's At the Grand, which folded on the road in 1958 and reappeared in 1989 as Grand Hotel; this with a significant chunk of the authors' treasured score ignominiously scrapped in Boston, replaced with songs by a much younger and much better tunesmith.

Add to the annals of forlorn second-chances the 1988 Carrie, which was the stuff of legends when the RSC production flopped in Stratford-upon-Avon (starring Barbara Cook) and went on to altogether bomb at Broadway's Virginia in 1988 (starring Betty Buckley). But what's a little adversity?

Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson
photo by Joan Marcus

Composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and librettist Lawrence D. Cohen — having lived with Carrie writ large on their resume for 20-odd years — finally pulled out their old sketch books and put together a new version that undid all the excesses that the aforementioned "they" had forced on them in 1988. Carrie — arguably the biggest flop of the 1980s — came back to town last March in a cut-down, Off-Broadway version at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher Street, in a production by MCC Theater. For those who collect such odd theatrical facts, this was the very same theatre where Mata Hari — arguably the biggest flop of the 1960s — resurfaced in an "improved" version that better reflected the authors' creative vision. In both cases, the main miracle was that the authors found anyone to foot the bill.

Now we have the original Off-Broadway cast album of Carrie, from Ghostlight. There were audience members who quite liked this revival, and they will no doubt like the CD just as much. To me, the revival seemed like just another poor 1980s rock musical, cryptically resuscitated. Marin Mazzie, in the part formerly essayed by Ms. Cook and Ms. Buckley, did everything one could ask in a difficult role. (Not necessarily difficult to perform, but difficult to make sense of.) Molly Ranson, too, acquitted herself well as the bloody heroine. The score comes across incrementally better on the CD than it did at the Lortel; without all that stuff going on, and without that blaring sound system, we find that the authors are actually telling a story.

But it's still, alas, Carrie.

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Cover art
Masterworks Broadway has brought us two new CDs in their first full-scale commercial releases. Which is not to say that they have never been released on CD, but even so.

A Christmas Story is the new musical which premiered in the Yuletide slot of 2010 in Seattle, reconfigured itself for a seasonal tour last fall/winter, and which now finds itself beginning previews at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne prior to a Nov. 19 opening. The score is by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the talented team out of Michigan who made their local debut last July with Dogfight as Second Stage Theatre. The Christmas Story cast album was recorded by the producers along the way, for sale only in theatre lobbies during the last tour. While not otherwise commercially available, the score was intriguing enough for me to see fit to review it last winter. With Broadway beckoning, Masterworks has taken the thing and given it a full scale release. Thus, A Christmas Story is now readily available for your listening pleasure. As is the case with shows recorded long before Broadway, the cast album cast is not precisely the same that will be playing the show at the Lunt. Which is to say that the CD has Liz Callaway and Tom Wopat, who will not be found onstage. One song — "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" — has been (understandably) cut from the show in the interim; thus the new, official CD is one track shorter.

Pasek and Paul do some very nice things here; they are a songwriting team you should hear, and watch.

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Album art

On the first hand, with A Christmas Story, we have a present-day look at pastoral Indiana, post-WWII; on the next hand we have a mid-century look at pre-WWI Indianapolis — "the largest city in the world not on navigable waters," at the time anyway. This via Seventeen, a 1951 summer musical based on the 1916 best-seller by Booth Tarkington. Said novel is a now-faded classic, but pretty charming when last I read it decades ago. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first (or perhaps only) novels to have two thoroughly separate Broadway musical comedy adaptations, both failed. (The first, for those interested in such things, was the 1926 Hello, Lola. And I can't imagine there is anyone around who remembers that.)

Seventeen opened at the Broadhurst in June 1951 — grabbing the theatre from the auspicious flop, Flahooley — and made it through Thanksgiving, clocking in at 182 performances. The personnel list is all but unknown. Walter Kent and Kim Gannon wrote music and lyrics, respectively; no, you probably have never heard of them. But you've heard one of their WWII songs, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Kent also wrote "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." Sally Benson, of Junior Miss fame, wrote the book. Richard Whorf, who was perhaps better known as an actor, directed the book; the 74-year-old Hassard Short, director of such long-ago hits as The Band Wagon and Lady in the Dark, was credited with the overall staging. The cast featured almost nobody you ever heard of, the main exception being Kenneth Nelson — later prominent in The Fantasticks and The Boys in the Band — as the leading man. Or, rather, the 17-year-old hero.

The wild card in the bunch was first-billed producer Milton Berle, who was just then the most famous man on television. "Mr. Television," in fact; his weekly variety show was so popular that NBC went and signed him to a 30-year contract. (This didn't work out too well for NBC, as the popularity of "Uncle Miltie" started to slip after five years.) In 1951, Berle was on top; I can only guess that the actual producer of Seventeen, former stage manager Sammy Lambert, figured that Berle's name would attract attention. Which it did and does, 'cause we're talking about it now, 60 years later. The presence of Berle's name — presumably in exchange for a slice of the profits, sans investment — certainly helped the show receive attention in the same way that a play "produced" by Oprah Winfrey would today. I don't imagine that fans of the rough and tumble Uncle Miltie found much to like in the nostalgically well-mannered and sweetly pastoral Seventeen. The original cast album reveals a moderately pleasant musical, suitable for general audiences but with a few tasty morsels. Tastiest of all is a song-and-dance for Ann Crowley — as Lola Pratt, the flirtatious visitor from out-of-town who stirs up all the trouble — called "Reciprocity." This has a delicious dance arrangement (by Jesse Meeker) and dance orchestration (credited to Ted Royal, but probably with the vocal by Royal and the pizzicato-plucking dance by some unknown somebody).

Other numbers I turn back to include "This Was Just Another Day," a duet for Nelson and Crowley; and an unusual trio for Nelson and two olde-South servants — one of 'em called "Pappy" — called "I Could Get Married Today." This is, indeed, the first and only authorized CD version of Seventeen, as they say in the release. There was a U.K. release of the album some years back, which I addressed in a column in 2005, although Masterworks gives us a new digital remastering from the original tapes that sounds much better.

Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)