Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Theatre: Carrie the Musical, Merrily We Row Along

Recently I had the occasion to watch a live performance of Carrie the Musical based on the Stephen King horror novel, and a documentary about the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along.  These two shows each have the dubious distinction of being a huge flop in the 1980s, playing for only 5 and 16 Broadway performances respectively.  Subsequently, both shows have developed a bit of a cult following, resulting in revivals and re-stagings of new adaptations in Off-Broadway and smaller community theatres.  These new productions produced slightly better results but still were not considered to be hits.  For each musical, it is interesting to reflect upon what made it such a resounding failure in its first production, and what improved in subsequent adaptations.

Most people know the premise of Stephen King's 1974 novel Carrie, about a socially awkward, telekinetic girl with the oppressive, religious fanatic mother.  Relentlessly bullied at school, Carrie is pushed to the point where she loses control and uses her powers to wreak death and destruction at her high school prom.  The story was adapted into an iconic movie starring Sissy Spacek in the titular role in 1976, then less successfully turned into a musical in 1988.

With its dark subject matter, Carrie the Musical might have done better Off-Broadway. Instead, it was thrust into the mainstream during the heyday of the mega-musical where productions had to be big, bold and technologically challenging spectacles.  The initial production focused more on hydraulic lifts, strobe lighting, fireball and laser beam effects, and less on character or plot development.  It was plagued with script issues from the start, prompting incessant rewrites of dialogue and songs.  This resulted in campy, confused scenes not aided in the least by bizarre costumes (toga-like gym uniforms, leather jackets and tight body suits) that did not reflect the adolescent characters or the high school setting.  The second act opens with the song "Out for Blood", which some argue may be the worst song ever written, with lines like "Chop! Kill the pig!  Pig, pig! Kill, kill! ... We’ll make ’em bleed!" ¹ as the bullies Chris and her boyfriend Billy butcher a pig and smear blood on themselves in a ritual dance.

There were technical challenges as well.  The climatic bucket scene at the prom had to be scaled back when the overhead drenching of Carrie with "pig-blood" caused the actress' microphone to malfunction right before her big song.  Instead, Billy runs out with a small bucket and tosses a small amount of red goop over Carrie's head.  So after all the buildup, rather than a spectacle, the central moment fizzled.  The audience did not know whether they should laugh or boo or leave in disgust at the mess of a show, which closed after 5 performances, lost $8 million dollars and is still considered the most infamous Broadway flop to date.

But there were some good songs and the potential of a better musical to be salvaged.  The opening song "In" about the pressures of all students (not just Carrie) to fit in has some poignant lyrics ("life just doesn't begin until you're in" ¹) and a good melody but just fell flat with the original staging and costumes.  Carrie the Musical continued to be rewritten. Half the original songs were jettisoned including the awful "Out For Blood" and new songs were added to provide a more cohesive story that down-played the horror aspects and focused on the theme of high school bullying.   The song "The World According to Chris" replaced "Out For Blood" and gave insight into why Chris had become such a vicious bully with lyrics like "My daddy taught me you get nowhere being nice .. Better to strike than get struck ... Better to screw than get screwed" ¹.  There is also the implication that Chris is in an abusive relationship with Billy, and these glimpses into her character humanize her slightly and give her more depth.  Similarly the new song "Stay Here Instead" sung by Carrie's mother Margaret shows that in her own crazy way, she does love and is trying to protect Carrie.  By amping down the fanaticism and showing real concern for her daughter, Margaret gains a bit of sympathy, making the fatalistic finale all the more tragic.

An off-Broadway revival featuring the latest rewrites ran for 46 performances (almost 10-fold longer than the original run) in 2012.  Learning from past mistakes, the new production reduced the camp, dressed the cast like actual high school students and tried to make the anti-bullying plot more relevant in the Internet age by incorporating the concept of selfies, social media and online bullying with the use of video.  Since then, community theatre groups have been encouraged to put their own spin on the musical, continuing the search for a workable version.  

I recently attended a production of Carrie the Musical performed by University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre, which seems to have adopted the most recently revised libretto.  Being what I consider a "semi-pro" production by a community theatre, there was the expected mix of singers ranging from OK to fantastic.  Unfortunately the poor sound quality in the Hart House Theatre did not do any favours for those with weaker voices.  The two stand-out performers with amazing voices were the actresses playing Carrie and Margaret, who also had the most powerful songs to sing and did them justice.

I actually enjoyed this production up until the last scenes.  For the most part, I thought the songs were interesting and did a good job of telling the story and conveying the motivations and feelings of the various characters.  That is what I look for most in a musical.  However I thought the climax and finale were poorly staged and therefore felt limpid and disappointing. The small drizzle of "blood" that fell on Carrie did not seem to warrant all that fury and her "Destruction" scene involved her waving her arms around while people seemed to faint around her.  The ineffective use of strobe lighting made it so dark that it was difficult to see the various characters meet their demise.  Then after the penultimate scene between Carrie and Margaret, an epilogue with Sue and Carrie tried to bring healing and closure to the events but didn't quite make sense.

In the post show talk, the cast discussed how to some degree, "we are all Carrie" or at least fear that we could become the target of bullying if we don't succumb to peer pressure and join the mob and partake in the bullying--echoing the sentiments that Chris sings about in her song.

The musical "Merrily We Roll Along", written by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Harold Prince, seemed like it would be a sure-fire hit on paper, based on the pedigree and previous successes of the collaborators.  The issues leading to the failure of the show are examined in a documentary called "The Best Worse Thing that Ever Could Have Happened", directed by Lonny Price, one of the leads in the original 1981 Broadway production.

Although I have not had the opportunity to watch a live performance of Merrily, I did watch the documentary as well as video highlights from the musical.  I have also listened to the entire soundtrack while following along with the lyrics and commentary written by Sondheim in his autobiographical book "Finishing the Hat".  From what I heard and saw, I can understand why the show did not succeed, and it was not due to a lack of some great songs.

Based on a 1934 play of the same name, the musical Merrily We Roll Along deals with the same basic plot line and uses the same gimmick of telling the story backwards.  We meet Franklin Shepard, a successful movie producer and former composer.  Despite his financial success, Frank lives an empty, meaningless life, having tossed aside old friendships with childhood friends Charley and Mary, and lost the love of his first wife Beth and son, all in pursuit of his climb to the top.  As the show progresses, we move backwards in time, stopping at various key moments that led Frank to his eventual fate, until we reach the beginning when the young friends first meet, full of hope, dreams and ambition.

The story spans over two decades, following the characters from their mid 40s back to early 20s.  For some reason, it was decided that the cast should be made up of young actors between the of ages 16-25, who would play roles significantly older than themselves in the beginning, but would eventually reach their actual ages by the end of the show.  This concept just did not work. Although all extremely talented singers, dancers and actors, the members of the young cast were not mature nor experienced enough to pull off the cynicism and gravity of the show's initial numbers and just appeared like youngsters playing dress-up.  This did not help an already confusing plot that was difficult to follow with its backwards timeline.  When the audience could not tell the characters apart, it was decided to forgo the wardrobe and put all the actors in sweatshirts with their character's name or role emblazoned on the front.  This merely accentuated the already amateurish feel of the show.  During the 6 weeks of 52 preview performances, changes were made to the script and songs after just about every show.  Add this to the fact that Sondheim works usually require more effort and attention to fully appreciate with complicated lyrics, intricate scores and multiple people singing at the same time and it was all just too many conceits for an audience to overcome at once.  In subsequent revivals of the show, adult actors were chosen for the parts, the wardrobe was resurrected, several songs and parts of the book were re-written in order to make the story flow better.

Lonny Price's documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened deals with the making of Merrily We Roll Along, using archive footage of the audition process, rehearsals, previews and performances including interviews with the cast, director and composer about what this show meant to them.  Now over 30 years after the show closed, Price interviews some of the main cast members to discuss how the experience of being on the show and then enduring its failure has affected their lives.  Lonny Price (Charley), went on to have a very successful career as a theatre actor, producer and director. Jim Watson, who at the last minute replaced the original actor cast as Frank, also continued successfully on Broadway.  We all know what happened to Jason Alexander (Broadway producer Joe) after his first theatrical role, as he went on to fame and fortune playing George Costanza on Seinfeld.  But most of the other young cast members were not able to parlay this experience into a career and have left the show business scene. 

When I first listened to the Merrily soundtrack, it came across as a cacophony of sounds with not enough exposition in the lyrics to guide me in understanding what the story was about.  Even when I listened to it again, this time reading along with the lyrics and stage directions, it still took some effort to follow what was happening.  So I could just imagine how the audience felt coming in cold to see this show.  But something happened as I listened to the songs more and more.  Unconsciously, I found myself infectiously humming the first few lines of the opening title song .. "Yesterday is gone .. see the pretty countryside" ².

The songs slowly came to life for me and I started to appreciate what Sondheim was trying to do.
The beautiful, haunting tune "Not A Day Goes By" is sung twice, once as a tender ballad between Frank and Beth as they declare their love for each other that gets "better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer" ² and then as a Beth's bitter admonishment at the end of their marriage after Frank cheats on her, where the words to the same tune become "cursing and crying and turning and reaching and waking and dying .." ².  But because the story is told backwards, what is usually the bitter reprise is actually sung first and then the hopeful love song later on.  Sondheim delights in turning an old musical trope upside-down by creating the "reverse-reprise".  He does the same with the catchy song "Old Friends", where a snippet of the song is sung at the beginning of the show and then the full song sung later, revealing its full meaning.  One of my favourite songs of the show is Charley's manic, out-of-control delivery of "Franklin, Shepard Inc." in which he lambasts Frank for selling out and giving up on their dreams of writing musicals together.  I had to listen to it a few times before I fully grasped the genius of this song, but now I'm fully on board.  It was incredible to learn that this was a last minute song substitution that Lonny Price had only several days to learn on the fly before performing it live.  Finally in last part of the song "Opening Doors" which Sondheim has claimed to be his most autobiographical song, Frank and Charley are just starting out and trying to get musical producer Joe to take on their show.  Sondheim spoofs his own personal experiences when Joe's reaction to Frank and Charley's song is "That's not a tune you can hum.  There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum .. give me some melody". ² Knowing Sondheim's eclectic and often weird body of work, one wonders how many times he has heard sentiments like that directed at him?

The metamorphosis of my opinion regarding Merrily We Row Along reinforces the idea that appreciating and understanding Sondheim requires effort and dedication, but the rewards are worth it.  Therefore it is equally clear why the show was universally panned when it first came out, but is still frequently revived today.

Despite initially being huge Broadway failures, Carrie the Musical and Merrily We Row Along have each found semi-redemption in smaller-scaled revivals.  In each case, once you look beyond the show's surface flaws, you can find elements of an entertaining musical.  You just have to care enough to look.

¹ Lyrics quoted from Carrie the Musical by Dean Pitchford
² Lyrics quoted from Merrily We Row Along by Stephen Sondheim

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