Carrie Me Back (again)!
By John Branch
George Orwell once wrote that revenge is an act we dream of when it isn’t in our power to get it. Sometimes it turns out he’s wrong; sometimes aggrieved people manage to get the means, and then we really have trouble in River City. This applied to Columbine and Virginia Tech as well as to Carrie, first a Stephen King novel, then a film directed by Brian De Palma, and now, for the second time, a stage musical.
It’s good to see the old girl again. Stories like hers continue to resonate, in part because many of us who weren’t among the high school in-crowd will always remember what that was like, and in part because real-world resentments continue to boil over into violence, and not only among young adults. Besides, Carrie is a fun little shocker. Such tales do something for us, whether or not you follow Bruno Bettelheim’s view that they’re useful.
Buzz about the new musical version, being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel has revived an idea I first heard after the Columbine shootings: that the story of Carrie herself illustrates what can happen when you neglect, disdain, or bully the wrong people. It’s more complicated than that.
The story begins when Carrie suffers an embarrassment after gym one day. Her religiously repressive mother hasn’t taught her about menstruation, so when it comes on for the first time, in the shower, Carrie doesn’t know what the blood means. The other girls taunt her for her cluelessness. They’re reproved and punished by Lynn, the gym teacher, and when a girl named Chris refuses to submit, she’s banned from the senior prom.
Unable to do much against Lynn, Chris’s resentment is redirected toward Carrie—psychologists would call it displacement—because Carrie kind of set up the problem, and because, as the show’s tagline puts it, “She’s not like the other girls.” As events proceed toward a stunning conclusion at the prom—already famous to many—Chris openly shows contempt for Carrie and declares her hatred. But that doesn’t matter a lot to Carrie, who’s mostly got other things on her mind: Mom, the prom (once she’s invited), and the awakening of something new in her. (What Carrie does at the end doesn’t seem like payback for being bullied–it’s only a visceral reaction to being attacked.)
What becomes very clear in this musical version is that Chris is the real revenger, as she executes an elaborate plot. In fact, a lot of things are developed or played up here that are subtly underplayed or left in suspense in De Palma’s film. Chris is played up as a bad girl a little more strongly than in the film. We see less of her teasing relationship with her boyfriend; instead, she gets a song—“The World According to Chris”—that reveals she’s essentially self-serving. And she’s been cast as a blonde, the only one among the young people. (Carrie’s other antagonist, her mother, is also blonde.)
Chris’s friend Sue is a good girl from the start (sue’s song). In the film, you might wonder whether she’s up to something when she makes her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. The gym teacher suspects she is, and in the film I did too, especially when she suddenly leaves dinner at home with no explanation and sneaks into the gym to watch what happens. As for Sue’s boyfriend, the good-looking athlete Tommy, he’s now also an aspiring writer. Presumably this helps explain what he recites in class: originally a poem that sounded plagiarized, here a song called “Dreamer in Disguise”
Carrie’s developing special ability, telekinesis, is also rebalanced. There are fewer signs that it first appears unwilled. In the film it seems more of an emotional reaction that she learns to guide, a parallel for her developing sexual maturity (also something one reckons with but may not fully control). Here it’s a deliberate act, indicated by a gesture that uncomfortably reminds me of a comic-book superpower or wizard-movie spell. That’s a shame, because the show otherwise tries to honor a tangible high-school reality.
What could be called Carrie 2.0 is true to modern-day teen life only in its fashion, like a Cole Porter song, but that’s something. Carrie 1.0, the original version of the musical, ventured pretty far from solid earth. That show’s director, Terry Hands of the RSC, apparently took the blood and revenge themes as a cue and approached it as what Betty Buckley, who was in the cast, recently termed “Jacobean drama.” Carrie 1.0 had its fans, contrary to what’s now believed, but it was largely viewed as astonishingly bad and became a notorious failure. (It led music-theater specialist Ken Mandelbaum to write a book on Broadway musical flops, which I consulted.)
This time around, the 1.0 team of Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) have joined with new director Stafford Arima to rework the show. It’s been kept down-to-earth, with a pretty spartan look; it takes pains to make the story perfectly clear, which it wasn’t in version 1.0, and feels very earnest, which means not very subtle. It’s got sections of genuine musical power, but the music, mostly pop-style, often feels a little vague, as do the lyrics and choreography. Everything that was ridiculous or outlandish is gone—no more teens-in-cars scene or the “Kill the Pig” number—but the show takes few risks, apart from the very big one of trying anew.
Readers of this blog might appreciate a factoid in Mandelbaum’s book. Years ago, composer Gore and scenarist Cohen (who had written De Palma’s film script) attended a performance of Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera and felt that Alban Berg might, if alive today, take on Carrie as a subject. I’m sure they wouldn’t claim to have done it for him, but still…
If you ask me, a third version of this musical might be the charm. So much clarity and sincerity this time around somewhat depletes the fun. Or else we didn’t need anything else at all after the fine film. But we’re way past that now.
The cast is solidly good, apart from Marin Mazzie, already a Broadway star, who’s tremendous as Carrie’s mother, Margaret. I’d like to have seen what Mandelbaum called Betty Buckley’s “steely voice and chilling intensity” in the part. But Mazzie fits the show’s new conception better in that she’s thoroughly earnest and persuasive. She’s the only performer among the leads who made not the least slip of dynamic control. Apparently the show’s creators have wanted us to genuinely sympathize with Margaret—in the film we mainly just understand her, frightening as she is—and sympathize we do, thanks especially to her songs and Mazzie’s delivery. The strength of her character even says something about Carrie—it’d take some nerve to challenge this woman.
There are problems with the show I haven’t mentioned, such as the oddly harsh framing scenes in which Sue, the only survivor, is interrogated about what happened. But all in all, Carrie 2.0 succeeds at two important things: the prom scene, which comes off smashingly well, and not failing.
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