SAYS WHEN THEY REFERRED TO 'GREASE', DIRECTOR THOUGHT THEY MEANT ANCIENT GREECE
The Brooklyn Rail's Tommy Smith posted a Q&A with Lawrence D Cohen yesterday, in which the Carrie screenwriter (and Carrie: The Musical book writer) discusses differences among the three different adaptations he's done of Stephen King's novel. Smith asks Cohen for some details about how seeing a production of the Alban Berg opera Lulu prompted the idea of turning Carrie into a musical.
Rail: How would you articulate that experience? What aspects of that did you use for creating Carrie?
Cohen: Intensity. My partner Michael Gore, the composer, and I walked out of Lulu that night and he looked at me and went, “If Alban Berg were alive today, he’d be writing Lulu for the Met.” And it was one of those “ah-ha” moments where the light bulb went on. And I didn’t say a word. I looked at him. He looked at me. And we started walking up to Café Luxembourg from Lincoln Center, jabbering a mile a minute, with a gazillion ideas. What Carrie had was highly intensified, hugely heightened, operatic-like moments. I like that kind of theater. I really respond to that intensity of performance. Carrie was very weird material to choose to musicalize, until we thought about it and it didn’t seem weird to us at the time, at all.
"THEY WERE DANCING AROUND IN TOGAS DURING THE OPENING GYM SEQUENCE"
Elsewhere, Cohen contrasts the new version of the Carrie musical (potentially "our dream of the piece") with the 1988 version ("It was our nightmare of the piece..."). Cohen is then asked to provide a "Reader's Digest" account of what made the 1988 version so wrong:
We ended up being asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They had done Les Mis and were looking for a follow up. Having gone through a lot of really major directors, we ended up being persuaded that Terry Hands was the right match. He had come to New York with two productions with Derek Jacobi—a Cyrano and Much Ado that were brilliant—and he talked a really good game, and we were three smart guys, and when the RSC says we’d like you to be our next production? It was pretty hard to turn our 20-year-plus-old selves to say no to that. It turned out to be a pretty dreadful mistake. Meaning, this director thought when we referred to, in conversation, Grease: The Musical, he thought we were referring to ancient Greece, G-R-E-E-C-E. And they were dancing around in togas during the opening gym sequence. It was deranged. It was like, the ship has sailed, there is no stopping it, other than to kill it, but we had no power to do anything. And Terry was used to working with a lot of dead writers, starting with William Shakespeare. So three feisty guys like us? We gave him notes and they went into the Bermuda Triangle. So as a result, we didn’t recognize the show, other than watching Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley, who had thrilling, wonderful moments on stage; the rest of the piece was just like being on Mars.
DE PALMA'S MOVIE "HAS THE INCREDIBLE ILLUSION OF FIDELITY" TO THE NOVEL
Cohen also gets a bit into the differences between the various versions of Carrie when asked by Smith whether he thinks "the myth of the previous production is contributing to this [new] show":
Cohen: Definitely. It’s to the good and to the bad. The good is that it has kept the show very much alive and mythic—people wanting to do it, people wanting to see it. And that’s great. The bad is that I think that people saw a version of it and that’s what they think the show is. The reality is, the book is the book, and it’s that story. The movie has the incredible [i]llusion of fidelity, but its very different as an adaptation—it stays true to its core value, absolutely, and it has eliminated everything else. The musical was its own 1988 version. And this is another attack at it. They’re all valid to me. They’re just different. One isn’t better or worse. They live as their own thing, which I think is cool.
Rail: It’s a different take on the same structure of this fable of Carrie, and each incarnation has had a reverberation of its own for the time.
Cohen: Utterly right. With this version, what ended up happening was, we got together and had a chat about what we would each like to do, and we were very much on the same page about getting on the horse again, and ready to do it. Because there were so many requests, we wanted to put a version of it out there in the world that we liked, as opposed to one we hated. And it was really in answer to that demand that wasn’t going away. And we felt badly the show we wanted wasn’t there. There’s an audience that’s determined, at whatever cost, they want to see the old Carrie, and they’ve got that in their minds and they know the lines by heart like it’s the Rocky Horror show. There’s nothing to say or do.
1988 'CARRIE' MUSICAL: CLIVE BARNES WAS RIGHT(?)
About a month ago, Isn't It Delicious posted a look back at the 1988 version of Carrie: The Musical, placing quotes from some of the rare positive reviews at the top of the page, including this one from the New York Post's Clive Barnes: "Surprise, Surprise! Terry Hands blood, sweat and tears staging of Carrie for his Royal Shakespeare Company works. ...a project that seemed unlikely from the outset, has unexpectedly emerged as a strong, effective and remarkably coherent piece of terrific total theatre." The Newyork Times' Frank Rich is quoted, "...the fiercely concentrated Ms. [Betty] Buckley brings theatrical heat to every slap-happy bout of corporal punishment, every masturbatory hand gesture indicating her sexual repression, and every aria invoking Jesus and Satan." The blog post includes a terrific array of pictures from the production, as well.
Cohen talked to Playbill's Harry Haun about the reviews of the 1988 show, and how they don't exactly reflect the legend of it:
There are a zillion myths concerning the production — partly, I think, because we've chosen not to speak for all these years, and those are the bits that have just gone on. For example: we got a devastating review — a withering review — from Frank Rich in The Times, and people think they were all like that. They weren't.
If you went back and looked at that, Clive Barnes in The Post was every bit as much a rave. We would be running today, had Clive Barnes had his way in terms of the review. The Hollywood Reporter review — if our mothers had written it — couldn't have been better. But, in the myth of the past, all the reviews were terrible.
Gore then explains to Haun the real reason the show closed after five performances: "Because Ken Mandelbaum never chose to interview the authors or anybody who was at the heart of that production, most people don't know that — three performances in — our producer, who was European and not experienced on Broadway, got nervous because he didn't get the [Frank] Rich rave he wanted, closed his bank accounts, then got on a plane to Germany. The reason the show closed after five performances is that there was no payroll to pay anybody. Regardless of the perception — whether audiences didn't like it or the show wasn't doing well — the reality was he left town, there was no money to pay anybody, and it was too difficult — and too late — to find other producers." The article by Haun then gets Cohen's, Gore's, and lyricist Dean Pitchford's collective perspective on what went down:
Carrie got on the wrong track right at the get-go. Because Michael Bennett was a friend, he gave the three creatives some of his rehearsal space at 890 Broadway so they could do a backers' audition — Pitchford directing, Gore playing the piano and Cohen reading the script. "Based on that, all of a sudden, it was moving," Gore says. "We had producers before we had Act Two. It was on a fast track, and the next thing we know — wow! it was up!"
And who can fault them for going with their most prestigious offer? Terry Hands, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, offered the facilities at RSC, his proven skills as a director and, head-turning most of all, $8 million. They said yes!
"It was irresistible as an offer," Cohen recalls. "He had 20 years experience directing and running with Trevor Nunn the RSC, so all three of us were thrilled at being a part of that esteemed company. He also spoke a really good game, and he was very, very smart. Then, we moved into the process of actually putting on the show."
The warning signs came early, according to Gore: "There are so many elements that just have to come together correctly in any play or musical, and we knew it was over when we saw the costumes, which were very abstract and looked like Greece. Not the show — the country. Every area, actually, did not resemble what we had in mind."
Carrie — in the hands of Terry Hands — became an unrecognizable, Anglicized aberration of their original concept. "He had all kinds of classical ideas about how this was to be done, and he decided it was a tragedy in 12 tableaus," Pitchford relays with a discernible grimace.
"Tableaus," Cohen underlines archly, "is a word we no longer use."
"Every day he was just taking out dialogue," Pitchford continues, making a vicious ripping gesture in the air. "The through-sung musical like Phantom of the Opera is very much a British creation — different from American musicals where you stop and talk and then you sing a song and then go back to talking — and Terry's only frame of reference was Phantom, Evita and Les Miz. He wanted to lessen the distance between musical numbers, and they were tumbling one on top of the other, without the story being quite covered. The American musical is a very homegrown kind of animal, and we had a British director who had not grown up in the traditions the three of us had."
"Nor," notes Cohen, "had he gone to an American high school or understood what that was about. The word 'prom' didn't mean the same thing to him that it meant to all of us. It was a chasm. That we spoke English in common was the confusion."
PLAYBILL VIDEO FEATURES SEVERAL SONG CLIPS FROM NEW 'CARRIE' MUSICAL
Meanwhile, film and theatre enthusiast Mark Leonard says he has the ticket stub and Playbill to prove he was at the notorious 1988 show, and recalls the rather passionate standing ovations afterward. "Audience members were practically standing on their chairs," he states. "This thing was getting to some people." Leonard has seen the new version, as well, and says that while it is not perfect, "they mostly pull it off!" He adds, "This subdued production, with standout performances from [Marin] Mazzie and Ranson may not belt a home run. But it’s, at least, a ground-rule double—and decidedly worth your while."
VANITY FAIR: MALE AND FEMALE PERSPECTIVES ON 'CARRIE: THE MUSICAL'
Over at Vanity Fair's Hollywood Blog, Bruce Handy (who also says he saw the 1988 version) and Juli Weiner provide male and female perspectives on the new version of Carrie: The Musical. Unfortunately, both perspectives seem to be in agreement that the new show is not very good, although Handy steps out to praise Molly Ranson's performance ("she gave the whole thing a weight it didn’t deserve"). Weiner was surprised at "how much of the dialogue was sung: I’d say there were probably 25 lines of spoken dialogue in the two-hour production. It was essentially an opera." The two bloggers discuss how the songs are not catchy enough to be memorable (but they do provide a sample of the lyrics), which leads them into a discussion of the non-main characters, and the new show's minimalist depiction of Carrie's telekinesis:
Juli: I can’t remember a single melody or hum a few bars of anything. We did scribble down some of the silliest lyrics, though. You had a good one …
Bruce: I did! Although I may have misheard it. After Chris hatches her plot to humiliate Carrie, her boyfriend sings, "You always amaze me, the way that you think/If I was your daddy I’d buy you a drink." At least that's what I heard. I think you heard, “If I was your daddy I’d get you a shrink,” but I think my interpretation is the more authentically Freudian. Did you have a favorite cast member?
Juli: Well, there were so many tiny strings of plot that never went anywhere or tied to anything! My favorite characters were those that had to do with nothing: the popular boy who can’t help himself from making homoerotic comments to his friends, and the Lolita-esque student who tries to seduce her teacher for maybe (?) half a sentence and then is never heard from again. I love these characters for their gratuitousness; their presence is just so extravagant! Who was your favorite character?
Bruce: I liked all the mean students because the actors who unconvincingly played them were so clearly theater nerds who had presumably been picked on in high school and were now acting out their mean-kid fantasies. It was like seeing Curt from Glee play Jack in a Lord of the Flies musical. (Hey, that’s a great idea! They could even use the kill-the-pig song from the original Carrie.) We haven’t talked about the almost non-existent telekinesis, which I remember as sort of the point of any version of Carrie in any medium.
Juli: First of all: “medium”—good pun. Second of all: what telekinesis? You mean that time a chair tipped over, perhaps accidentally, and the lights flashed? How did the original production do it? I was incredulous they dumped red paint on Carrie offstage instead of rigging a bucket to the ceiling! I paid—well, not actually, but theoretically—to see that actress get covered in red paint! (Carrie is really bringing out the mean high-schooler in me, too.)