Out of the Ashes, Carrie the Musical Returns to the Stage

News   Out of the Ashes, Carrie the Musical Returns to the Stage
One of Broadway's all-time biggest flops is back in New York, with a makeover. Director Stafford Arima and stars Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson explain.

Molly Ranson stars as Carrie
Molly Ranson stars as Carrie


Carrie, laid to rest in 1988 after five frenetic, critically damned performances at the then-Virginia Theatre, has risen, and (as is her wont) risen with a vengeance!

Full of zap and sass, nostrils flared, she's out to smite those who would persecute her, this time starting small — Off-Broadway, in a production by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Carrie began anew on Jan. 31, towards a March 1 opening, with revisions by its original creators (composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen).

These three, of course, are working from Cohen's 1976 screenplay and Stephen King's 1974 novel about a shy, taunted teenager who is ragged by her classmates into a telekinetic rage that leaves her — truly (literally) — without peer. That includes the source of her evil, too: her obsessive, biblically unhinged mother.

Somehow, crossing the pond to England in 1988, this premise was hijacked and fell into the hands of British director Terry Hands, who shoehorned the story into the sort of bloody spectacle that was then in vogue (think The Phantom of the High School). The Royal Shakespeare Company threw $8 million at the show while Hands ripped huge clumps of dialogue out at a time, creating a sing-through.

Soon, the authors had trouble recognizing on stage what they had wrought and opted to avert their eyes, stepping collectively into the lobby till the moment passed. When the show crossed back over the pond to Broadway, it lasted for 16 previews and five performances before succumbing to scathing reviews and closing.

Linzi Hateley and Betty Buckley in the original Broadway production
photo by Peter Cunningham

Few know who manhandled Carrie, but it's easy to Google its authors, who (save for a smattering of stuff from Pitchford) never wrote for Broadway again.

Over the years, in the minds of theatregoers, Carrie replaced Kelly as the new Moose Murders of musicals. Cinching that title, theatre journalist Ken Mandelbaum named his tome on 40 years of Broadway musical flops "Not Since Carrie."

Thus, the startling resurrection of Carrie in 2012 amounts to a minor miracle. You can actually blame Canada for it: Stafford Arima, the show's current director, was 19 when he and his mother motored down from Toronto to catch a matinee preview of Carrie and evening performance of M. Butterfly.

She was, obviously, quite a modern mom — and before she died in 2008, Arima thanked her for the "wonderful legacy of theatre she exposed me to over the years. I said, 'We're probably the only people in Canada who actually saw Carrie.'"

That started him thinking. "In the show she's a misunderstood girl, and in many ways this piece was misunderstood because it didn't survive very long. I asked my agent to find out about it. He said, 'It opened, it closed and the authors have no interest in reopening it.' I said, 'Well, I'd love to just take a meeting with them.'"

This came to pass in the fall of 2008. "I met them, sat down in a room and, for eight hours, explained why I felt the material had potency and needed to be re-looked at.

"That's where the idea was born, in 2008. Then jump-cut to 2012 — it's taken that long of a period to just get back into it, to re-explore it, to re-investigate it, to re-invent it. The reason we're talking about Carrie now is because it's a timeless, universal story about what it means to be different, to be an outsider."

Marin Mazzie plays Margaret White
photo by Mike Sharkey

Marin Mazzie, who plays the heroine's mother in this new version, subscribes to that notion as well. "It's almost as if Stephen King were ahead of his time," she suggests. "Carrie's this girl who's bullied because she's different and she's persecuted because of it. Now, with what our world has come to be — all the terrible incidents we had and still have — it seems we talk about it more. It's more out in the open. To me, he was not only ahead of his time about bullying but also religious fanaticism since, suddenly, that's very much a part of our culture now because of the very far Right." Mazzie and Arima met during the Toronto putting-together of Ragtime in 1997 when he was the associate resident director for Frank Galati and she was perfecting what would be her Tony-nominated performance of Mother. Ironically, it was this same Mother role that connected Arima to his Carrie, Molly Ranson.

"Thanks to the technology of this YouTube generation," the director says, "I actually came across a video of Molly when she played at LaGuardia High School the role of Mother in Ragtime. She was obviously a young girl playing Mother, but probably in the real world the character wouldn't have been that much older. Having seen Marin in Ragtime and being on the lookout for the right pairing of energy and physical appearance, I found that in Molly's performance of Mother."

Ranson — who, make of it what you will, was born the year after Carrie vanished from Broadway and human gaze — had a couple of heavy-duty Broadway dramas (Jerusalem and August: Osage County) to prep her for this.

"It's very exciting as an actress to come into this role," she admits. "Carrie is on every end of the spectrum for me — this meek little girl who's walked all over and then morphs into this person with this extreme supernatural power. I love how it's not a horror movie, although it's often pegged that way. Really, it's a human story."

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