News Column

Original 'Carrie: The Musical' flopped, but Minneapolis Musical Theatre doing revised version

October 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 01--My reaction to the news that Minneapolis Musical Theatre was taking on "Carrie: The Musical," which opens Friday, was two-fold: "Bravo!" and "Yikes!"

Based on the Stephen King horror classic that became a classic Brian DePalma movie, "Carrie" seems like the sort of bold-but-simple story that could work as a musical. And plenty of talented people, including several Tony Award winners, were involved in its creation.

Still, the original production in 1988 is never mentioned in the same sentence with the word "classic." It's such a legendary flop, in fact, that a whole book about legendary flops was named after it: Ken Mandelbaum's "Not Since 'Carrie.' "

Despite its reputation as a bomb, "Carrie" has long been of interest at MMT, where the mission is to perform little-seen shows. One problem: No one would let them read it, much less perform it.

"It's been on our list of shows to look at for a while, but we've never been able to get ahold of it," said Steven Meerdink, MMT's artistic director. There have been a couple of campy, unauthorized productions of "Carrie: The Musical," but until an off-Broadway production last year, the original creators declined to let anyone produce "Carrie."

As a result, the musical -- like its bullied title character, whose telekinetic powers are unleashed when a cruel trick is played on her -- has seemed to be cursed. In a pre-Broadway engagement, the legendary Barbara Cook, playing Carrie's psycho mom, quit in the middle of the run after nearly being decapitated by a chunk of falling scenery. Audiences reportedly chuckled at the meant-to-be-serious moment when singing teens converged on poor Carrie, having her first period during gym class. And when the show finally lurched its way to Broadway, critics essentially threw buckets of pig's blood all over it. "Carrie" closed after only five performances.

Things started to go from "Yikes!" to "Bravo!" last year when the off-Broadway revival, which was substantially revised, earned respectful reviews and finally resulted in the recording of a cast album (the original closed before one could be made).

"The biggest thing they did is make it a smaller, more intimate show. I didn't see the original show, but they tried to make it a big blockbuster," Meerdink said. "Based on the clips I've seen, that was the biggest problem with it. It had a 'Phantom of the Opera' feel, rather than focusing on the characters and story, and I think that's what they've done now by reducing it to a smaller version."

The revised version is the one MMT will be doing (the original remains unavailable) and, although the Broadway production proved Carrie's mom's prediction -- "They're all going to laugh at you" -- all too true, MMT is decidedly not going for laughs.

"It's not a camp show at all. It's going to be a hard thing for us to convince people of, since we did 'Evil Dead' and 'Bat People,' but it's very much a serious piece that is relevant in today's society," said Meerdink, who notes that the setting has been shifted from the 1970s to the present, in part to reflect modern concerns about bullying.

Having never seen the original script, Meerdink isn't sure about all of the changes that have been made. He says seven or eight songs have been eliminated or altered, but based on clips of both productions, he's confident the new version is "much better than the original."

If he's right, that would bring about poetic justice for "Carrie: The Musical" -- giving it an opportunity to follow in the title character's footsteps and get its own revenge.

Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.

What: "Carrie: the Musical"

When: Oct. 4-27

Where: New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Tickets: $29-$24

Call: 612-455-9525

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(c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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