Carrie The Musical
And Why It Went Down In Flames
By Daniel Kraus

Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was an inauspicious debut before United Artists decided to make a film version and hired avant-garde director Brian DePalma to turn it into a blockbuster. The movie was a huge hit, made movie stars out of its mostly rookie cast, gave two of them (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie) Academy Award nominations, and went down in the books as a horror classic–one of those few films made in the late 1970’s that used the pop schmaltz of the era to startling effect.

A decade later, a group of men including Carrie screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen adapted the story into a sprawling Broadway musical. Five performances and $8 million later, the show shut down, and the name "Carrie" became synonymous with every theater investor’s worst nightmare.

Stephen King’s Carrie tells the tale of high school pariah Carrie White, whose daily tribulations reach a disturbing peak when she has her first menstrual period in the gym shower room and thinks that she’s dying. The girls pelt Carrie with tampons, chanting, "Plug it up! Plug it up!" Carrie is sent home, where she is scolded by her abusive, religious fanatic of a mother, who equates her budding womanhood with sin.

Her period awakens her telekinetic ability. As her powers grow, she continues to defy her mother and even accepts an invitation to the high school prom. As she is crowned the Prom Queen she falls victim to a cruel prank: a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on her head. Humiliated, she uses her power to destroy the school and almost everyone in it. Then she goes home, kills her mom, and dies.

It certainly wasn’t The Sound of Music, but dark material had been at the heart of many successful musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Moreover, the DePalma film was essentially high opera, complete with over-the-top characters like Carrie’s mother, larger-than-life villains (played by Nancy Allen and John Travolta), and a wild, shrieking, almost human-sounding musical score by Pino Donaggio.

Having cut his teeth on such operatic thrillers as The Phantom of the Paradise and Sisters, DePalma nailed the comic book tone of Carrie, delicately riding that razor-thin edge between comedy and horror. Unfortunately, as much as DePalma was able to elevate Carrie to high opera, the theater version was unable to bring the story back down to Earth.

Betty Buckley, who played the role of Carrie’s mother in the musical (and who, incidentally, played the kindly gym teacher in the DePalma film), remembers the opening night this way: as both she and Carrie die and the lights go out, the entire theater began to boo. Then, as the actors stood to flee the stage, the boos transformed into a standing ovation.

This schizophrenic reaction is consistent with the reviews and perhaps would have turned the show into a cult hit had it been a more humble Off-Broadway production. However, in spite of its short run (or perhaps because of it), the musical version of Carrie quickly became the stuff of legend, and to this day, the producers receive "three or four offers a month" to try it again in different versions. There are several fan websites, many of which have managed to find audio files of those rare performances.

These audio files instantly reveal some of the weaknesses of Carrie. Aside from a few pretty ballads, the material is 1980’s-style rock, which doesn’t lend itself well to the material’s tragic, Shakespearean bent. The lyrics try for a gritty edge and end up sounding silly: "Why don’t they remember that I’m Carrie White?/Is it any harder to remember than/Goddamn toad and crazy and weird and dumb bitch?"

Or, even worse, later in the same song: "I am the sound of distant thunder!/The color of flame!/I’m Carrie!/I am the song of endless wonder that no one will claim!" New York Daily News theater critic Howard Kissel wrote this after the May 12, 1988 debut: "For me, the high point of the lyrics was rhyming ‘attitude’ with ‘I’ve been screwed’."

Although few photographs exist, the general consensus is that the set design–a spare, white box featuring cardboard cutouts like you might see at a high school play–was terrible. The choreography was also shockingly bad, featuring, in the opening scene, dozens of girls clad only in shower towels dancing around the shower room like they were in Porky’s: The Musical or, at least, an X-rated version of Fame. In fact, the makers of Carrie: The Musical had also created the movie Fame, as well as the recent Broadway hit Footloose. (And although Footloose and Carrie share many thematic similarities, the producers did their best not to mention the dreaded "C" word.)

These days, Stephen King fans are abuzz with the news of King’s latest plans to invade the stage. The best-selling horror author is collaborating with rocker John Mellencamp on an untitled horror musical, loosely described as a ghost story about a family staying in a cabin haunted by the ghosts of their dead relatives, each of whom will sing in a way that is consistent with their era. Says Mellencamp, "When the 18-year-old sings, he’ll be rapping at you. When people in the 70’s are singing, they’ll be singing in the style of Broadway."

Even if this sounds a little, well, risky, King and Mellencamp profess to be unconcerned. "Mistakes will occur," assures Mellencamp. "But that’s part of the fun of it."