Anatomy of a Murdered Show: Creators of Carrie Talk About Musical's Second Coming

By Harry Haun
04 Mar 2012

Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford
Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Carrie writers Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford look back at their notorious musical's past — and revel in its present revised revival.

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Kelly and Moose Murders, which ran a total of two performances (collectively), and Breakfast at Tiffany's, which closed in previews at minus-2, were infinitely more infamous — but poor Carrie is the one forever cursed as the bedrock of bad Broadway shows, no small thanks to theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum, who called his chronicle on 40 years of flops "Not Since Carrie."

One thing that has happened since Carrie might just warrant a re-titling: namely, her comeback — easily the greatest since Nixon and, before that, Lazarus. Officially, this came to pass at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre on March 1 — in like a lion, as they say, and mostly because of its own legendary, marinated awfulness.



Even its lyricist, Dean Pitchford, admits that much. "As hurtful as it was when that happened — and kinda shocking, too, because there were lives and stories, a lot that was not understood or explained in the easy summing-up of that title — we would not be here today if it was not somehow enshrined," he readily concedes. "If it had just sorta slunk off and joined the ash heap of Broadway shows that had closed, people would probably not be as vigorously defending it and vigorously pursuing it."

Yes, after three years in the remaking and a full month of intensive, all-hands-on surgery in previews, Stephen King's telekinetic teen killer pounces anew, as vivid (and patched-up) as The Creature in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory — alive!

Still, there's something different about her — like, say, the times: in the light of current events, Carrie White looms like a pioneer crusader against high-school bullying. So what if her strike-back has enough zeal and overkill to wipe out a whole student body? Much of that must be laid at the door of her religious-wacko mom, Margaret, who, too, is brought up to contemporary speed with her fanatical fundamentalism.

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek were the original mother-daughter act in Brian De Palma's 1976 horror-cult flick. Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted King's 1974 novel into that movie, also wrote the book for the musical version, which premiered with Barbara Cook and Linzi Hateley in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in February 1988.

By the time the show settled into Broadway's Virginia Theatre a few months later, Cook had jumped ship, and Crazy Mama was played by Betty Buckley, who had been Carrie's gym teacher in the movie. In its current resurrection, Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson carry on Carrie accordingly — but on a conspicuously smaller scale, with more book and newer songs.

Lawrence D. Cohen
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Something was decidedly lost in Carrie's choppy crossing of the pond from the U.S. to the U.K. Says the show's composer, Michael Gore, with commendable understatement: "We, for many reasons, never got the production we wanted — the vision we had when we first wrote the piece — and we were not pleased with the production that ended up on Broadway, so we put it asleep for a while."

There were lots of wake-up calls over the years — requests from regional theatres, high schools, colleges, even a BC/EFA benefit at Carnegie Hall — but the creative trio opted to let their sleeping dog lay rather than let the Broadway version loose among 'em again. But it was always in the back in their minds to return to Carrie some day and have another crack at it.

"Some day" happened about three years ago, over lunch. They were already working on something that resembled their original concept when they were invited to lunch by director Stafford Arima. At age 19, Arima had seen the Broadway show in previews, and it had haunted him ever since — in a good way. He sat down with them and went through the piece line by line, explaining what he would change. At the end of the eight-hour lunch, everybody was on the same page and gearing up for Off-Broadway.

"One of the fortunate consequences of all the lore and legend that has built up around Carrie," says Pitchford, "is that, when each of our actors was approached, they went, 'I love that show' or 'I have the pirated recording.' Within the theatre community, it has a reputation we sorta suspected was there, but, when people who are working in the business step up and say, 'Let me sing you the top of Act One,' you realize it has gotten to the people who matter. They all joined on because of their enthusiasm for what it is at its heart."

Molly Ranson in the current revival
Photo by Joan Marcus

Cohen concurs: "There are a zillion myths concerning the production — partly, I think, because we've chosen not to speak for all these years, and those are the bits that have just gone on. For example: we got a devastating review — a withering review — from Frank Rich in The Times, and people think they were all like that. They weren't.

"If you went back and looked at that, Clive Barnes in The Post was every bit as much a rave. We would be running today, had Clive Barnes had his way in terms of the review. The Hollywood Reporter review — if our mothers had written it — couldn't have been better. But, in the myth of the past, all the reviews were terrible."

Anyway, Gore quickly points out, it wasn't even the reviews that sank the show: "Because Ken Mandelbaum never chose to interview the authors or anybody who was at the heart of that production, most people don't know that — three performances in — our producer, who was European and not experienced on Broadway, got nervous because he didn't get the Rich rave he wanted, closed his bank accounts, then got on a plane to Germany. The reason the show closed after five performances is that there was no payroll to pay anybody. Regardless of the perception — whether audiences didn't like it or the show wasn't doing well — the reality was he left town, there was no money to pay anybody, and it was too difficult — and too late — to find other producers."

 Continued...