Recently, Riverdale, the CW’s edgy take on the Archie Comics characters, explored that time-honoured trope of the “musical episode”. Most musical episodes tend to either present original songs, well-known covers or Broadway standards (or sometimes a mix of all three). But those kids from Riverdale High always like to shake things up, so for an episode revolving around the annual high school musical, which production did they choose to mount? Only a show inspired by one of the biggest, most infamous Broadway flops of all time – Carrie: The Musical.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Broadway’s Carrie, but are familiar with the works of Stephen King, then the first thing that popped into your mind is correct. Once upon a time, some people convinced some other people that if they took Stephen King’s horror novel about a telekinetic teen who gets bloody revenge on her tyrannical mother and tormenting peers and turned it into a full-blown musical, it would be the biggest thing to hit Broadway. And soon they had millions of dollars invested in their ambitious nightmare.
How was it a nightmare?
Here’s a quick “highlight reel” of the ill-fated initial run of Carrie:
- Workshopped in 1984, announced for Broadway in 1986, funding not raised until 1987, finally mounted in 1988.
- A four-week trial run in Stratford-upon-Avon receives mixed reviews, show undergoes numerous script revisions and is plagued by technical problems.
- Barbara Cook (playing Carrie’s mother, Margaret White), after almost being decapitated by a set piece on opening night, announces she’s quitting the show and only stays on until the end the trial run.
- Carrie moves to Broadway with a then-outrageous (and still hefty today) price tag of $8 million dollars. Betty Buckley replaces Barbara Cook and the show begins previews (of which there will be 16).
- Throughout previews the show is met with equal parts cheers and jeers, receiving standing ovations for Buckley and star Linzi Hateley some nights, “boos” and hoots on others—and sometimes a combination of both.
- Opening night is well-received but the reviews are devastating, prompting the financial backers to cut their losses and withdraw their support. Even though the initial shows were selling out, Carrie closes after only 5 official performances, cementing its place in Broadway flop infamy (so much so, that Ken Mandelbaum titled his definitive history of Broadway flops Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops)
So, what made it so disastrous?
You could cite many reasons: inconsistency in theme, varying quality of material or that the special effects ran from cheesy (a “Disney Princess” moment where Carrie’s telekinesis-powered hairbrush and hand mirror swirl about her) to ineffective (the climatic pig’s blood dousing scene goes from being delivered via a rope-pulled bucket high in the rafters to Chris just tossing the bucket of blood in Carrie’s face, like she’s PETA’s Public Enemy #1) to dangerously unsafe (did we mention how Barbara Cook was almost decapitated?).
The original production can be viewed in bits and pieces in all its low-res glory on the internet, and from what I could tell, confounding set design and questionable costume choices and characterization were a big part of the problem. The novel and the subsequent movie starring Sissy Spacek both served up depictions of typical 1970s teens – how they talked, how they acted, how they dressed. However, the teen scene in Broadway’s Carrie is presented like some avant-garde take on an 80s teen flick wrapped within a gothic jazzercise fever dream.
For example, one moment the high school teens are singing and dancing in a very Bye Bye Birdie-esque set up at a drive-in movie. Next, they’re all geared up in head-to-toe spandex and leather, slinking and gyrating around in the darkness of an underground afterhours club. As one does. When you’re in high school.
However, there are some redeeming qualities – the performances were strong and some of the musical numbers at their core were very good (the bare-bones workshopped recording of “Do Me A Favour”, profiled by Broadway deconstruction master Seth Rudetsky here, is so much better than the oh-so-80s synthed version that eventually made it into the actual production (see above), but ultimately, they were brought down by the problems with the overall production.
Back from the dead
Turns out many people still saw the promise in Carrie, and were convinced she could rise from the grave and be redeemed. And in 2012 that’s exactly what happened when a revamped Off-Broadway production was mounted. With a handful of new songs and a more traditional staging and styling (welcome back, normal-looking teens!), this new version—Carrie: The Musical—was given a welcome reception during its limited run, garnering 5 Drama Desk Award nominations in the process. Redemption at last.
And it’s this version that the gang from Riverdale mounts, 70s-style, for the Spring musical (and really, if there ever was a more appropriate musical for Riverdale to do, I’ve never heard of it). But choosing the better Carrie doesn’t prevent it from being a disaster (minor spoiler alert if you’re behind on Riverdale).
While the high school’s production is tight and it doesn’t get slayed by the critics, Midge, the production’s understudy-made-star, unfortunately does get slayed—by the Black Hood killer. Which is dramatically revealed center stage when the spotlight shines on her bloody, crucified corpse.
Alas, poor Carrie White—even fictional productions of her musical quickly get the ax one way or another.