There’s really no better time for a revival of the musical Carrie, a show that not only demonstrates the harrowing effects of bullying, but also features rich people treating lower classes cruelly (which is so Occupy-appropriate). But for more than 20 years, such a revival has seemed totally out of the question. The adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and Brian DePalma’s film was perhaps the most notorious flop in Broadway history, an $8 million production—an exorbitant sum for 1988—that closed after only 16 previews and 5 performances. Its creators, alumni of Fame and Footloose, blamed the original director Terry Hands, in a recent interview with the Times, for letting the production get out of control. They never recorded a cast album, and they’ve refused to allow anyone to mount a professional production—until now, that is. Director Stafford Arima, who helmed Altar Boyz, convinced the creators of his sincere appreciation for the show, and spearheaded this extensively reworked version for the MCC Theater. Many songs have been cut, and new ones have been added; scenes have been restaged. This is much closer to what the creators always envisioned, they said. And that’s too bad, because it’s way too safe.
It reminded me of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and not just because this Carrie is all bullying-by-numbers. I never saw Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man or Hands’ Carrie, but both sound bananas. Act II of 1988’s Carrie opened with a number called “Out for Blood,” in which jocks-in-leather chanted “Kill the pig” as the animals’ squealing howls filled the theater, and one character rubbed his body with their blood. That sounds interesting! Act II of this new version opens with fashionably dressed teens singing a pop song about how totally awesome the prom is going to be. Who wants to see that?
This Carrie‘s biggest problem is the abundance of such hokey high-school numbers. (Seriously, how many teenagers outside of television-shows-about-teenagers are so earnest about their prom? Especially ones whose private angst, at odds with their public bravado, this show takes such pains to establish?) They lighten the mood of a piece that at its core is tragic, which will inevitably end operatically, awash in fire and blood, with a mother and daughter murdering each other. There’s a whole lot of death and gore, it seems, for something otherwise so corny. Carrie is best in its darkest moments, its infamous prom as well as its domestic scenes, where the sweet title character (Molly Ranson, a solid center) is put upon by a hysterical and overprotective mother (Marin Mazzie, who steals the show in a part meant to steal it) governed by her fanatical religious faith. In the duets between Ranson and Mazzie, we see flashes of the boundary-pushing that the show could use a lot more of.
By sanctioning theater like the reworked Carrie, or Philip William McKinley’s Spider-Man—by saying they’re better than the “messes” they replaced—we encourage theater artists to stay blandly within the confines of what’s considered commercially viable. That’s not to say good art is inherently unprofitable, but that tame work that restricts itself for the sake of popular acceptance will never be great. I understand producers encouraging such an attitude, because of the money they have at stake (Spider-Man alone cost an estimated $65 million, a ludicrous sum), and even artists, many of whom strive for success, whether critical or commercial. But as audiences, we should be demanding more, championing those artists who are willing to take risks, even if those risks don’t always pay off. Let’s encourage artists to try, even if they fail; eventually, some of them will produce great works of art, and not merely pleasant ones. In the meantime, I’ll always take an ambitious failure over a cautious success.
MCC’s hot-ticket production of Carrie runs through April 22. More info here.
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