‘Carrie’ returns for a second shot at success

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‘Carrie’ returns for a second shot at success

NEW YORK - When the musical “Carrie” had a sudden early death on Broadway in 1988, few were as unhappy as three men who worked hard to give it life.

Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, who wrote the script, music and lyrics, clearly weren’t happy with the final product, which closed after five regular performances, lost $8 million and became the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.

Despite offers to produce the show elsewhere, the trio refused.

“We had no desire or intention to re-experience the ‘Carrie’ that closed on Broadway in the state that it was in ever again,” said Cohen. “If we were ever to see it again, we were determined to go back to work on it and get the show that was in our heads.”

That day, he said, has now dawned - 24 years later.

A new version of the show that became a yardstick for failure - critic Ken Mandelbaum named his book about stage failures, “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops” - opens Thursday off-Broadway at MCC Theater.

“We’ve gone back and looked at every single inch - even numbers that were working fine - to see if we could do better, if they could be deepened,” said Cohen. “It was important to look at everything and scrutinize it from that perspective.”

There may be few more fraught undertakings in the theater than what Cohen and his team have done - the so-called “reimagined” work. Reinterpreting a classic, even if the original was a failure, is a risky business.

The new “Carrie,” directed by Stafford Arima, will be the third high-profile reimagined musical in New York this season, following “Porgy and Bess,” which is a hit, and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” with Harry Connick Jr., which failed.

Revising, reinventing or reworking shows is, of course, nothing new. Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” was edited to remove stereotypes for a 1999 revival and some of Sondheim’s own lyrics for “West Side Story” were translated into Spanish in 2009. The current revival of “Godspell” has been rejigged to include jokes about Steve Jobs and Charlie Sheen.

But the long road back for “Carrie” must be perhaps the bravest. After all, the original creative team has returned to the scene of the crime and rolled up their sleeves to look again at the story of a bullied teen with telekinetic powers who struggles against her overbearing mother.

One of the driving forces behind the reimagining is Arima, who saw the original, much-maligned, production when he was a 19-year-old visiting from Toronto with his mother for a blitz of theater.

“The main thing I remember about experiencing ‘Carrie’ was the audience,” he recalled. “There was such a visceral response and I’d never been to something where the roars of reaction were very, very clear.”

The reimagined “Carrie” has new songs, a different structure, and the story is told from a different point of view. It also teases out two themes that seem very current: bullying and religious fundamentalism.

Arima said he was unwilling to just tinker with a couple of notes or a couple of scenes but wanted to really give the reworked musical “Carrie” its own identity separate from Stephen King’s novel, the 1976 film directed by Brian De Palma or the 1988 musical.

“What I’ve never been a fan of - and not just with ‘Carrie’ but anything - is if you take source material that was a film or a novel and you merely put that film or novel onto the stage, you’re doing a disservice to the theater audience,” he said.

Cohen said there are lessons he’s learned that could apply to all reimagined shows: Try as best as you can to get the piece onstage to match your vision. Go back to the original story. And don’t be scared of ripping it all up and starting over. He thinks he and his team have done that now. Finally.

“I don’t think we wanted vindication per se at all. I think we wanted to see the vision irrespective of the world, irrespective of the critics which we can’t control, irrespective of anything. We wanted to see the version of it that we hadn’t seen.” AP
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