Last Updated on 5th February 2021
Carrie the musical is the stuff of legend. We spoke to the show’s lyricist Dean Pitchford to get the real story of what went wrong as a revised version of the show gets set to open at Southwark Playhouse.
“Never have so many people who missed a flop musical wished so fervently that they had seen it. Many of those who did see it found themselves unable to stop talking about it…Carrie was fascinating, thrilling, horrible and unbelievable” Ken Mandelbaum – Not Since Carrie.
Carrie has been labelled perhaps the greatest flop in musical theatre history. That’s a big mantle to take on, and an even bigger label to crawl from under, and yet twenty-seven years after its catastrophic openings in Stratford and New York, Carrie is back, with seasons Off-Broadway, in Los Angeles and now in London selling out.
Ken Mandelbaum in his Book Not Since Carrie (40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops), provided some insight into the behind the scenes nightmares that led Carrie to closure, but sitting with Dean Pitchford, lyricist on the show, we were offered some new insight into the creation of Carrie and her resurrection some 27 years later.
IN THE BEGINNING
“I had been writing in New York with Peter Allen, and as a result of that Michael Gore called me to come and work on a film called Hot Lunch (which turned into Fame). He and his partner Larry (Lawrence D Cohen), were looking for a lyricist for Carrie. I was just looking to keep a leg in the theatre, so I said yes and we began work on this project. Lawrence had written the screenplay of the film and had optioned the musical rights for $1. We went through any different number of producers along the way including the likes of Barry and Fran Weisler. Somehow we finally ended up with a producer called Freidrich Kurz and the show was scheduled to be first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford as their follow-up to Les Miserables.
Carrie the musical as a show suffered terrible schizophrenia. One of the reasons was down to the director Terry Hands who really didn’t know musicals. The only thing he had done before that was a musical called Poppy. I can’t speak for him or for the reasons he wanted to do it, I had not realised at the time the difference between American Musicals and British Musicals. British musicals were not constructed in the same way. Cats or Phantom are different to a book musical with song and dance going in and out of real book scenes.
In the world of Carrie you are either at home with mother or at school with the other kids, so effectively the show was cut in half. Terry left the schools scenes to choreographer Debbie Allen and spent 98% of his time with Barbara Cook and Linzi Hateley working on the “at home” scenes, so you ended up with this unholy marriage of the two. Had he been working with a British choreographer maybe it might have melded better, had Debbie been working with an American director maybe it might have worked, but in the end the seams showed because they were both doing different shows.
The writing team had arrived in Stratford and were not allowed into rehearsals. By this time we were having huge disagreements with the director, and we were told we could meet in the lobby of the theatre and give him notes before the show each night. It became more and more a meeting with Terry’s assistant. We were watching the show each night and watching changes that were happening and we just didn’t understand. In Stratford, we were isolated and adrift.
HELLO AND GOODBYE TO BROADWAY
We went to New York minus Barbara Cook. None of us knew if the show had a future without Barbara.
Enter Betty Buckley!
I had always loved Betty since she had played my wife in Pippin, but no one knew if she would throw her lot in with what was already being reported as being a troubled show. But she generously jumped in, and we were back up and running again, but the schizophrenia remained.
I had an apartment in New York but was predominantly living in Los Angeles at the time and I was hold up in my apartment. I didn’t go to rehearsals because I couldn’t. I’d go to the show sometimes and end up at opposite ends of the lobby looking at Michael and Larry – we’d go in for the same moments and walkout at the same moments. I was a prisoner of my apartment and so unhappy. I was ordering take out and having it delivered for fear I would see friends who would ask who they would have to call to get house seats for my show. I only left my apartment when I had to buy new trousers. I was comfort eating and had gained 11 pounds. Nothing I had bought from California fit me.
Freiderich Kurtz – our producer, who had never produced on Broadway, had been counting on the New York Times review. Any experienced Broadway producer goes into Broadway with a strategy, none of us realised how ill-prepared he was for not getting a New York Times rave. He had no reserves, no backup plan.
People think we got across the board terrible reviews. In truth, we got blasted by the New York Times, and we got a rave from Clive Barnes in the New York Post. For every bad comment, there were also people who were fascinated and thrilled with the show. A seasoned producer would have known to put together quote ads and start rolling out advertising and run away from the reviews. Stephen Schwartz says if you can get six weeks away from your reviews you can run, and we hoped we could do that.
We opened on Thursday, I headed back to California on Friday for the weekend planning to be back in time for the cast recording the next week. On Saturday evening Fritz Kurtz went to the theatre. Calling all the company together, he said we are going to run the show critics be damned. There were hugs and kisses. He got into his car and headed to the airport and on the way, he called his business manager and had him close all of his business accounts and he flew away never to return to New York.
When the cast arrived on Sunday they walked in to find a closing notice had been posted.
On Monday morning his producing partners discovered that there were no funds, there were bonds posted for actors, but nothing else. He had shafted his business partners and walked away. The other producers tried desperately to cobble together some money, but by Tuesday they realised it was an impossible task. The show closed and as a result, there was no cast recording, which is why the pirate recording became such a currency.
I was in California ready to come back and got calls from Michael, Larry and from Terry Hands, who had also been blindsided by this. He called me to tell me what had happened and as a result, I didn’t go back to New York. As a result, I never said goodbye, there was no closure in my mind – they all just slipped away.
BETTY AND LINZI
Two years ago, I came over to see Betty Buckley in Dear World and she surprised me by taking me to dinner with Linzi Hately for a reunion. I had seen Linzi a few times over the years in shows like Chicago and Mary Poppins, but this night would be special.
On that evening, we revisited Carrie in a way that I had never revisited with Linzi on her own. I was embarrassed and ashamed to learn what her experience was. I was in LA licking my wounds, but there was Linzi who had been plucked from obscurity, shot through a canon, relocated to New York, and went on this incredible roller-coaster ride only to have the door slammed in her face.
The show closed Sunday and come Monday she was left to pack and try and get out of a lease she had signed. All of the other Brits were affected in the same way. I didn’t know the only person who came to her side had been Betty, they had worked so closely in rehearsals. It had never occurred to me in my pain to think about how the cast had been affected. Nobody was more numbed that a seventeen-year-old Linzi, who was having her first-ever theatre experience, 3000 miles from home. Betty came to her rescue.
CARRIE BECOMES LEGEND
I don’t know that the show would have achieved a mythic status were it not for the jarring sudden closing. Had it limped along for another ten weeks it might have missed out on getting the strong defenders it did. Had there been a cast recording it might not have achieved the level of fandom that followed it.
The book was a double curse, had the show not been so misunderstood and not been consigned to the slag-heap of history, it might not have come roaring back.
Michael, Larry and I had talked about Carrie on occasion over the years, and at times I would feel like OK I’m ready to have another go, but they weren’t and at other times they would be keen but I’d be busy.
We’d received numerous requests to stage the show as a concert, the only thing was we didn’t like the show that had opened on Broadway, we didn’t recognise that show as the one we had written. The idea of doing a concert of a show where we would be cringing at every three minutes going “no not like that” was not a prospect we wanted to do.
We realised how much work needed to be done and we were not prepared to roll up our sleeves and do an enormous amount of work just for a one night only concert. In a short space of time, we got approached about preparing the show for community theatre rental and this got us talking. Over the years our representatives had always said we weren’t interested, well word got out that we were talking again.
A RAVE FROM THE TIMES
Out of the blue Christopher Isherwood did a feature in the Friday Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times.
It had a grid of sixteen screenshots and the premise of the article was “you missed Maria Callas doing that amazing performance of La Traviata” or “oh you missed Beverley Sills in the closing night of such and such”. His premise was that now through the magic of YouTube we could revisit all of those one only classic moments. He went on to write a massive article. 15 of the shots in the 4×4 grid were classical productions and the 16th frame was Betty and Linzi doing And Eve Was Weak from Carrie.
He said on the basis of this, the score needed to be examined. We had no idea this was being done but we awoke one Friday morning to find the Times had given us a posthumous review – we got a rave from the Times!
A NEW APPROACH
Stafford Arima had seen a Saturday matinees of Carrie as a young man and his agent arranged a meeting with us at a time when he was rising high with an off-Broadway hit called Altar Boys. He sat with me and we talked. All of his comments were about the text. I was very impressed that he didn’t speak about the staging just about the text. I suggested to my collaborators that they should also meet with him, which they did. None of us knew where it might go, but we agreed that it might be time to roll up our sleeves and Stafford offered us a chance to work with a new fresh fourth voice.
Once the word got out, we started getting enquiries. One of the first enquiries came from Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum who had been successful with Rent. The first workshop was a cast of 24 with a few tweaks. We felt that it needed a massive rethink and were aided by an approach from Bernie Telsey from MCC Theatre, who asked if MCC could look at it, but, could it be done with four people and a mailbox! We came up with 14 on stage and an orchestra of 7. By that time I was having success with Footloose. It took all that encouragement to get us going.
Larry went back to the script and rewrote, bringing the story back to the point of view of Sue, who is the only surviving member of that class. It’s Sue who tells the story of Carrie. From that point on we were on our way.
Now Carrie is happening all over the world and it’s wonderful.
It’s evolving as it goes. There have been tweaks to the London production. Stephen Sondheim said that musicals are never truly finished just abandoned. There’s always something more to do, but trying to slip these changes into a pre-existing script just doesn’t work.
We’ve had a brilliant relationship with Gary Lloyd and his team here who have given us the opportunity to play with and refine the show. We’ve had the opportunity now to tinker and I just think of this as an opportunity maybe not to get it right but maybe to get it righter!
We’ve been writing this show for 35 years but every now and again somebody holds it up to us and says did you ever think of this!
We were just so lucky that so many factors conspired to allow Carrie to come roaring back”.
Carrie is running until May 30, 2015 at the Southwark Playhouse, London.