The Very Worst Musicals – No 1. Carrie (an appreciation)

Tuesday 29 April 2008

With Andrew traipsing round former Yugoslavia (getting himself in the mood for another Eastern European Eurovision Song Contest victory), the Whingers are on a much needed break from bad theatre. This leaves Phil free to mull (inspired by the satisfying panning of Gone With the Wind) over the very worst shows he’s had the pleasure to experience.

It’s a long list, among the mouth-watering contenders: Jean Seberg, Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love, Metropolis and Jeeves (the original 1975 version), but standing like a beacon of kitsch above the rest is that now legendary spectacle of Carrie – The Musical. (Dubiously ambiguous poster right)

Phil dragged himself up to Stratford-upon-Avon, his first visit to the hallowed home of the RSC (who were co-producing), for the show because it starred one of his favourite musical divas Barbara Cook.

Yes Carrie, Stephen King’s horror classic about a teenage girl with telekinetic powers and her dominating religious freak of a mom (Cook). Who thought this an ideal subject for musical treatment -sounds bad doesn’t it? But it proved to be way beyond any expectations.

Shocking and horrific (but not in the way intended), it was one of those times when you can’t quite believe what you’ve just seen or heard, and you know you really shouldn’t, but you can’t help laughing. A bit like hearing about John Prescott’s bulimia.

Even though it was all 20 years ago (now that’s what Phil calls frightening) he remembers it like it was last night’s nightmare. He recalls the couple sitting in front of him putting their fingers in their ears as the over-amplified orchestra made their first ear-splitting noises.

How many musicals feature an opening scene depicting a teenage girl’s first menstruation (see right), the coach parties must have been hammering at the doors? Phil remembers looking at the audience’s faces, it was like the “Springtime for Hitler” scene in The Producers, jaws were hanging open in disbelief.

The bizarre, stark, all white box set (designer Ralph Koltai – who was Phil’s neighbour at that time -fascinating eh?) at least hinted at excessive bloodletting to come. White to emphasise the blood and a plastic shiny surface presumably nice and easy to wipe clean? No, the famous scene where Carrie (Linzi Hateley) is drenched with pig’s blood by her fellow students was realised by a plastic bucket being jammed on her head and a few dribbles of stage blood, all performed in a red spotlight of course.

Carrie’s telekinetic destruction of the high school prom was an orgy of noise and lasers with the cast, in their fabulous eighties outfits, writhing amongst them (choreography, Debbie Allen of Fame fame). Oh, and there was even a musical number to accompany all this, helpfully called, er…“The Destruction”.

But before all this the audience had a chance to savour immortal lines like those sung in the drive-in movie scene (right), and one has stayed with Phil to this day:

“I don’t need romance,
I just wanna get in your pants”


Yes, Sondheim’s crown was ripe for the taking, but these memorable lines don’t appear to have made the Broadway version. The lyrics Phil’s unearthed feature this:

“All we ever do is park
Then for hours you grope me in the dark”

A vast improvement.

Stratford was a sort of out-of-town try out for the Broadway production, the programme boasted “Carrie makes history as the first truly Anglo-American enterprise!”, yes, it made history alright.

Also featured in director Terry Hand’s fantastic farrago were the late Fame star Gene Anthony Ray, “Da Doo Ron Ron” singer Darlene Love, the excellent Sally Anne Triplett and Charlotte d’Amboise. The book was by Lawrence D. Cohen (who scripted the film of Carrie), lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and music by Michael Gore (both also Fame collaborators).

To be fair and balanced (for once), Cook sang her fabulous heart out but looked like she’d rather be somewhere else (along with most of the audience) and Linzi Hateley made a remarkable debut, having been cast at the age of 17 for the lead. What a memorable way to start a career.

Barbara Cook quit the show before it reached Broadway, apparently after being nearly decapitated (you really couldn’t make this stuff up) by the set on the opening night (a massive heavenly staircase that descended from above for the “climax”) and was replaced by Betty Buckley (who played the gym teacher in the film of Carrie)-hadn’t she heard?

Now who could have anticipated the Broadway critics giving it a resounding thumbs down? After a couple of weeks of previews it managed just 5 performances after the opening. Phil happened to be in New York just as it closed and remembers seeing the sets being thrown into skips outside the Virginia Theatre where it had made it’s unique Broadway history. Shaudenfreude in a skip? If only he’d been carrying a camera.

Phil, whose jaw had almost needed rewiring after the experience, was in shock for days, wrote a letter of sympathy to Barbra Cook, who replied with a lengthy and frank account of what had happened. Unfortunately he can’t quote from it as it’s currently lost amongst his many precious whatnots, but expect it to appear on eBay one day.

Such is Carrie – The Musical’s legend that it lent its name to the book for afficionados of the genre, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.

There’s even a fan’s website for those who (like Phil) really have nothing better do, providing more information than you could possibly ever want, bizarrely set up by someone who never even saw the show. You can see images and listen to huge appetising chunks of the score and it has it’s own unofficial website.

And if that’s still not enough there’s quite a few moments captured on YouTube, but to save you time, and since you’re still with us, here’s the American TV ad for the show:

But to get a true feel of the show try the “Wotta Night”(sic) number, it’s tantalisingly fuzzy – a bit like viewing through Andrew’s winceyette nightie :

And for the masochists among you here’s the opening number “In”, and if you make it through to the end of the clip you’ll just glimpse Carrie’s first appearance before the spectacular finish:

Gone With the Wind – The Musical (sorry, play with music) was just boring, Carrie was hilarious. Phil remembers the long journey back to London from Stratford going in a flash as they chewed over what they’d just witnessed. How Andrew would have loved it. The Whingers are petitioning for a revival.


7 Responses to “The Very Worst Musicals – No 1. Carrie (an appreciation)”

  1. Mark Shenton Says:

    One of my proudest theatrical boasts is that I saw CARRIE *both* in Stratford-upon-Avon *and* New York!!! And no, it didn’t get any better between the two outings. As a cub journalist (and already devoted fan), I interviewed Barbara Cook ahead of the UK premiere, and wasn’t surprised when she jumped ship — but what a pity that her return to musicals turned out to be so brief. And Betty Buckley was amazing to see in it, too….

  2. Webcowgirl Says:

    Wow! How exciting to read a first person account of this nightmare! I can only hope I’ll see a Carrie some day, but instead it looks like I’ll just wind up slogging through drek Fram (um … or leaving at intermission). God! The scene with the igloo and all of the talk of farting! It was just TOO MUCH!

    And I remember seeing Hedda Gabler and not understanding why there was a clear curtain up in front of a certain window … but that’s what you get for not reading the script. On the other hand, the power of a moment like that coming as a surprise cannot be underestimated …

  3. george hughes Says:

    Got tu go disco
    Home,Sweet Homer

  4. Daniel Urwin Says:

    Hey, I just wondered if anyone of the infamous West-End Whiners wanted to borrow and take their own copy of the full show, filmed by the management at the back of the auditorium. Up to you, just thought I’d give you the offer! E-mail me if you want. . Thanks

  5. True as you said, I never saw the show (live, at least — I’ve seen the tape of the full Stratford show and huge chunks of the Broadway video). I set up the fan site 5 years ago, which had a little about all of the versions of “Carrie” that I knew of, but it was mainly aimed at the films. Last year I started adding more info about the musical and it suddenly snowballed. Didn’t realize that there were so many fanatical ‘bleeders’ who LOVE the musical — they keep contributing and nowadays the biggest chunk of the traffic I get is in that wing of the site… plus you’ve sent more traffic my way.

    The “I don’t need romance, I just want to get into your pants” is most likely not something you’ve concocted in your mind. The lyrics and song structures underwent constant daily changes (which has been a nightmare for my lyrics section) and, as one of the stars recently wrote to me, “The same show was NEVER performed twice.”

    If you ever find that letter from Barbara Cook, I’d love to know what she had to say!

  6. Simon Barnard Says:

    While waiting for the revival of ‘Carrie,’ I heartily recommend ‘Haunted,’ now playing at the Arts Theatre. Awful, but nevertheless quite enjoyable in a can’t-quite-believe-how-bad-this-is-sort-of-way. When Jessie Wallace gets possessed at the end your jaws will drop, I promise. The last 20 minutes the audience were giggling in all the wrong places, but at least the poor cast had the good grace to look shame-faced when they took their bows. A night I’ll remember for a long time.

  7. ichyn Says:

    The more I learn about this show, the more I think it is criticized a a little more than it actually deserves. I might be biased, since a “Carrie Musical” is two things coming together nonetheless, but I still think it can´t be denied that the show has many high points (“And Eve was Weak” being the strongest song). The cheesy 80s pop tunes for Carrie´s peers are terribly ill-siuted, but I think what hurts the show most is, indeed, the staging. It appears there´s a revival in the works – won´t believe it till I see it but I got high hopes. If they treat the story seriously, with a big budget, appropriate special effects and a MAJOR rewrite, I think it CAN definately work. There have been worse ideas for musicals and you all know it!^^

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