‘Carrie’ musical the right fit for Bailiwick Chicago
By Misha Davenport For Sun-Times Media May 28, 2014 12:52PM
Callie Johnson stars as the title character in "Carrie: The Musical." | MICHAEL SCHMIDT / SUN-TIMES
Jun 1-July 12
Bailiwick Chicago at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. $15-$40
(773) 871-3000; bailiwickchicago.com
Updated: July 1, 2014 6:13AM
Carrie White, the telekinetic-empowered teen protagonist from Stephen King’s iconic novel, is coming to Chicago seeking musical redemption.
Bailiwick Chicago is no stranger to edgy theater; they produced last year’s regional debut of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” This year the company will stage the Chicago area premiere of “Carrie: The Musical.”
The Bailiwick’s production is based on the 2012 Off-Broadway revival, which featured a revised book, music and score by the original team behind the infamous 1988 musical flop (playwright Lawrence D. Cohen, lyricist Dean Pitchford and composer Michael Gore). “Carrie” hits the Windy City with the kind of cultural baggage that would kill most other shows.
“In 1973, I was working as a reader for a producer and this manuscript landed on my desk simply called, ‘Carrie’,” says Cohen , who grew up in Wilmette and Glencoe. “Five pages in, I knew I was holding an amazing book by a then-unknown author and I knew this little Cinderella story with a vengeance would resonate with an audience.”
Cohen even landed the gig to write the 1976 screen adaptation. With a budget of only $1.8 million, the film would go on to make more than $33 million, and earned Sissy Spacek (Carrie) and Piper Laurie (Margaret, Carrie’s mom) Oscar nominations.
Cohen was in good company when adapting the material for the stage, too. Composer Michael Gore won an Academy Award for best original score for 1980’s “Fame,” and lyricist Dean Pitchford wrote the screenplay for the 1984 hit “Footloose.”
“We were three kids in our 20s that had enormous success out of the gate, and our individual projects put a lot of people on the map — not just ourselves,” Cohen says. “We all believed in ‘Carrie.’”
The show was plagued by rewrites and accidents — most notably Broadway veteran Barbara Cook, who was initially cast as Carrie’s religious mother Margaret, but resigned from the show after she was nearly decapitated by an elaborate set piece. Betty Buckley, who had played gym teacher Miss Collins in the 1976 film, replaced Cook.
Cohen says when the show finally opened on Broadway in 1988, the audience reaction was less than ideal.
“At the first final black out, several people started to boo, and when the lights came back on, other people started applauding and cheering,” he says. “I’ve never seen a show get both of those kinds of reactions.”
The original 1988 Broadway production ran for a total of 16 previews and five performances and lost $8 million (at the time, the most expensive and quickest flop in Broadway history). “Carrie: The Musical” literally wrote the book on being a Broadway flop. Ken Mandelbaum titled his 1992 book on Broadway failures “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops ,” and the original troubled production figures largely in the book.
And yet, the show has gone on to have a life despite being a colossal financial failure. An official Broadway cast album was never recorded, but, in the age of YouTube, several bootleg audio tapes as well as grainy video footage of scenes of the 1988 production have been floating around the Internet.
Fueling theatergoer interest is the fact that Cohen, Pitchford and Gore, refused to allow the show to be licensed until now.
“Had we liked what we had seen on stage and the critics and audience were still as polarized, we probably would have let it go,” says Cohen. “We were horrified, bruised and banged up by the difference of what we had envisioned and written and what ended up on the stage.”
The trio was hell-bent on taking another stab at adapting King’s first horror novel for the musical stage, though. Cohen says he is particularly attached to both the source material and Carrie herself.
“Growing up in Wilmette and Glencoe, I did get bullied and a part of me identified with what she went through,” he says. “All three of us felt like the question to revise the show was not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’.”
The trio declined multiple offers over the years to license the 1988 version. It wasn’t until they were approached by Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winning director Stafford Arima (“Altar Boyz”) that an off-Broadway revival became a reality.
“Arima had seen a matinee of the original Broadway production when he was 16 years-old and saw the potential of the show,” Cohen says.
The limited engagement revival of “Carrie: The Musical” played to sell-out crowds. Ghostlight Records recorded the revival recording and released it in September 2012. Additional productions of the show in San Francisco and Seattle have been well-received by critics and audiences alike. And now Chicago gets its chance to see “Carrie” in all her bloody, musical glory.
It’s the right piece for Bailiwick Chicago,” says Jeff-nominated musical director Aaron Benham. “So many people in Chicago have never had the opportunity to see the show.”
Callie Johnson, who plays Carrie in the Bailiwick production, says fans of King will not be disappointed. “This version of the musical is the closest version to the book, she says. “It’s ultimately a very relatable tragedy about a mother who loves a daughter a bit too much.”
Johnson says the production doesn’t skimp on Carrie’s powers, nor the horror of the original book. “Buckets of pig blood will be spilled,” she says with a laugh, recounting one of the most iconic moments of the film. “I’m going to be covered with it nightly and it’s a good thing. It helps me get in the right emotional frame of mind.”