Carrie the Musical

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15.

YOU want to talk about a Broadway flop? Carrie the Musical will have to work harder. We read in yesterday’s The New York Times of investors reeling at the news of the closing announcement for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Yes, the show has been running since November 2010, but that span includes an unprecedented number of previews and the weekly running costs are so high that in recent months Spider-Man has struggled to cover costs. The loss is projected to be $US60 million.

The 1988 version of Carrie the Musical – the current Sydney production is of the 2012 revision, which had a short Off-Broadway run – lost about $US7 million or $US8 million, depending on who you believe. It’s large amount to be sure, and Carrie had only five performances after the preview period. Not a success by any means, but the standard-bearer for Broadway flops? It does seem unfair. It’s as if the subject-matter of Carrie spilled over into life. There are many nerds, geeks and perceived failures around, but when the brutal in-crowd decides to home in on one target, that individual gets to be the universal punching bag. Why, there’s even a book called Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, by Ken Mandelbaum. (It’s a most entertaining read; I recommend it.)

Before getting to Squabbalogic’s production, it’s worth revisiting some of the Great White Way’s disasters just to put things into perspective. As you’ll see I think even in revised form Carrie the Musical has only intermittent merits, but it wasn’t a bad decision by Squabbalogic  to stage it. There is much love among avid music-theatre fans for something with Carrie’s history and Squabbalogic is a gutsy little company with an eye to provocative and unusual projects (such as its most recent show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson).

In January this year The New Yorker‘s Michael Shulman did an entertaining round-up of opinion about which musical deserves the title of worst flop. There were many candidates, including Into the Light, a 1986 musical about the Shroud of Turin (nominated by Paul Rudnik). Frank Rich, The New York Times’s chief theatre critic from 1980 to 1993, says Carrie was far from the worst, and so bad it was almost good. In fact, he described it in his review as “a typical music-theatre botch”. (Rich’s Carrie review was, however, considered a key reason for the show’s very brief tenure on Broadway.) Rich likes Legs Diamond as a strong candidate for best worst. Michael Riedel of The New York Post cites Senator Joe, about Joe McCarthy. He says: “It ran exactly a performance and a half – they closed it at intermission, if I’m not mistaken.” He says his favourite fiasco is the first preview of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark and its three and a half hour first act.

As I mention it below in my Squabbalogic review, I need to point out that Rich describes the 1983 Moose Murders as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. Mind you, he was writing this in 1994 just after departing the theatre critics’ chair. He may well have seen worse as a civilian in the succeeding 20 years. Nevertheless, he did use it as a point of comparison when reviewing the original Carrie the Musical.

Another musical to get the Rich treatment was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, unloved by him and many others on its premiere in 1981 (it lasted 16 performances). How wonderful to report that the Menier Chocolate Factory revival in London this year was a big hit, and it’s been possible to see the results in cinema screenings this month around the country.

But back to Carrie the Musical and the Squabbalogic production. What follows is the review that appeared in The Australian on November 18, with a couple of expansions.

Hilary Cole at the climax of Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole at the climax of Squabbalogic’s Carrie the Musical. Photo: Michael Francis

SMALL, smart, ambitious company Squabbalogic makes a gallant but doomed case for Carrie, a musical that, as any aficionado of the genre knows, has a fraught history. As such it is catnip to the cognoscenti. That’s just the way it works.

In 1988 the original musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel was a flop, despite the participation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – or perhaps that was part of the problem. Anyway, it got hammered by critics, chiefly the one who mattered most, Frank Rich of The New York Times. The Butcher of Broadway mentioned Carrie in the same breath as the notorious Moose Murders. (For the record, the 1983 Moose Murders closed the night it opened, and was described by New York magazine’s John Simon as looking as if it were staged by “a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin”.)

Job done. Blood is a central motif in Carrie and the sharks smelled it. The show didn’t last a week.

But unlike its heroine, a girl with telekinetic powers oppressed beyond endurance by bullying schoolmates and her manically religious mother, Carrie the Musical wouldn’t die. It was revived as an Off-Broadway chamber piece last year and it’s this version we see from Squabbalogic.

Despite the tinkering Carrie unfortunately remains a misfit, saddled with a wonky flashback structure, odd tonal shifts and a score (by Michael Gore) that only intermittently gets the blood pumping, if you’ll forgive me. The bigger problems are a book (Lawrence D. Cohen) that flattens all the secondary characters and lyrics (Dean Pitchford) that too often resemble the motto for today: “What does it cost to be kind?” The song Unsuspecting Hearts is mind-altering drivel in itself and in its relation to the drama.

Most fatally Carrie the Musical has the weightless, sketchy feel of a piece that just knows the audience members will be familiar with the influential 1976 Brian de Palma film so they can fill in the texture and detail themselves.

Director Jay James-Moody, to his credit, plays with a straight bat where it may have been tempting to camp things up as a diversionary tactic. Cohen told The New York Times last year the creative team emphatically did not want a Rocky Horror version, and James-Moody has played fair. As it is, though, his limited means unsparingly illuminate the show’s weak spots. (Mind you, on Broadway in 1988 a big budget did exactly the same thing. Discuss.)

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

The production is best – in fact, very strong indeed – in the series of mother-daughter scenes where the themes of sexual awakening, religious fervour and a heart-breakingly misplaced sense of exceptionalism collide with a thunderclap. Margi de Ferranti (Margaret) and newcomer Hilary Cole (Carrie) are mesmerising and have the richest music and lyrics by far. And then it’s back to the depressingly one-note (and over-amplified) shenanigans of Carrie’s classmates, made tolerable, just, by the fine singing of Adele Parkinson (good girl Sue), Rob Johnson (good boy Tommy) and Prudence Holloway (bitch Chris).

There is excellent work from Mark Chamberlain’s small band and Sean Minahan’s evocative, impressionistic design is another plus. A veil needs to be drawn over Shondelle Pratt’s clumsy, uninspired choreography.

Squabbalogic does an honourable job of dealing with the incendiary ending, albeit needing a bit of audience indulgence. It’s not the production’s fault, however, that Carrie the Musical then sputters to a close. Remember the film’s heart-stopping ending? It’s nothing like that.

Until November 30.

An indie theatre mini-festival

Delectable Shelter, The Reginald, Seymour Centre, August 13. Fireface, ATYP Under the Wharf, Sydney, August 14. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Factory Floor, Marrickville, August 15

I HAD the interesting – and unique – experience this week of having an invitation to the theatre withdrawn. I was to have reviewed, for The Australian, visiting US music-comedy show Blue Man Group, now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Its producer, Rodney Rigby, decided he didn’t wish to provide me with a complimentary ticket. I go into this in a little more detail on my DJ’s Diary page on this blog, but mention it here because I rearranged my week in light of this event. Instead of seeing Blue Man Group on Wednesday I decided to see independent company Stories Like These’s Fireface, by Marius Von Mayenburg. The night before I’d gone to the tiny Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre to see The Hayloft Project’s Delectable Shelter; the following night  – last night – I was at Marrickville’s The Factory Floor for the Australian premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. BBAJ is a deliciously dishevelled musical about, yes, the seventh president of the US.

So: three nights, three independent companies, three small and endearing theatre spaces and three reminders of the imaginative reach of theatre made outside the mainstream. It was like having my own little indie theatre festival – an event that could be replicated by Sydneysiders this weekend, and indeed would have to be replicated this weekend, as Delectable Shelter and Fireface end tomorrow. You could start off tomorrow at 2pm with Fireface, see Delectable Shelter at 8pm tomorrow, and then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at 5pm Sunday. The latter does run until September 1, but two shows don’t stack up as a mini-festival, do they?

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

You may even divine some (very broad) connections between the three pieces, part of the joy of seeing them in close proximity. In Fireface a family is destroyed; in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson there is wholesale slaughter of a continent’s original inhabitants (sound familiar?); in Delectable Shelter the entire world is imperilled. And further joy: the productions could not be more dissimilar.

Fireface is apprehended as if by flickering light. In the space of 100 minutes a multitude of short scenes burst into life and are quickly snuffed out. But we get the picture clearly enough. Kurt (Darcy Brown) is an unexploded bomb, ever more unstable as he rejects his parents (played by James Lugton and Lucy Miller) and gets inappropriately close to his sister Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson), who understands too late the extent to which she is playing with fire by aligning herself with Kurt. Except for a scene in which Kurt and Olga poeticise an adventure they have in a factory, Fireface is claustrophically enclosed within the family. The apparently ordinary, middle-class home is posited as a place of torment and disgust, and one is reminded with a shiver of the horrors that such places can hide. Brown is extraordinarily good but Irwin-Simpson is one-dimensional and unconvincing, which diminishes the horror of Luke Rogers’s production. But certainly worth seeing.

Delectable Shelter is a slightly over-extended apocalyptic fable but so much fun that writer/director Benedict Hardie is forgiven. The world has been so badly damaged that the only hope for human survival is for a lucky few to take refuge in underground shelters, wait for, oh, three and a half centuries, work hard at repopulating, and try again up on the surface. We soon realise that the chosen are very few in number indeed – five, to be exact – and obviously they are rich and white. Except for a group of Chinese people on a space station.

With this tiny gene pool responsible for humanity’s future the omens are not auspicious. It’s clear it would take more than a nuclear winter to rid the world of privilege, xenophobia, religious fervour, sexual politics and the apparently unquenchable desire for power. Yesse Spence, Simone Page Jones, Jolyon James, Brendan Hawke and Andrew Broadbent are all wonderful and as a bonus intersperse the action with 1980s pop songs performed a cappella in the manner of sacred music. A further treat is Claude Marcos’s dazzling design, brilliantly lit by Lucy Birkinshaw.

It’s hard to understand why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should ever have been considered a sensible choice to take to a Broadway theatre, where it appeared relatively briefly after being performed Off-Broadway in 2010. It is no Once, the gentle love story that won a Tony Award for best musical last year. BBAJ is a raucous grunge musical that presents Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States and founder of the Democratic Party, as a deeply flawed but super charismatic rock star; the guy who put the “man” into manifest destiny. Did I saw deeply flawed? Jackson ruthlessly drove Indian nations from their lands and if they wouldn’t go, they were slaughtered. “We totally know you were here first. We don’t give a shit,” he says exuberantly. Was he a great president or a genocidal murderer – you decide, dude!

Writers Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) manically elide early 19th century American politics with those of the present day (the show is performed in modern slacker dress). Taxes, big government, election stealing, conservative thinking – “It’s morning in America” – and a host of other references are slyly inserted into the roiling mix of comedy, political satire and song. Attention has to be paid to a piece that throws in Alexis de Toqueville, a funny song about metaphor, a bitter version of Ten Little Indians and a whole load of early American presidents (Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams) with zero explication.

The cult of personality in politics is depicted with the kind of vim and zest that apparently got Jackson elected way back then and which persists to this day and not only in the US. Australian political parallels will be noted. All of this is very good indeed and happens at breakneck speed under Craig Stewart’s direction. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is over in a bouncy 90 minutes, although it would be an even stronger piece with a few excisions. Jackson is seen in Injun-killing or betraying mode rather too many times.

Squabbalogic’s no-frills show (set Sean Minahan, lighting Mikey Rice) is just right for the piece. The excellent band is up the back and the hard-working actors up the front, there are some fairy lights on the ceiling, a generally brothel-red glow throughout, some bits and bobs around the place and that’s that. Peter Meredith (Andrew Jackson) anchors the show forcefully and Jay James-Moody stands out in an array of characters. The singing, by and large, is pretty ordinary, and the use of microphones erratic and therefore puzzling. Nevertheless, Squabbalogic has come up trumps by giving the Australian premiere of this work. Fascinatingly the company is going to follow up with another premiere, the revised version of Carrie the Musical.  It’s impressive programming.

If you were to see these three shows, you would have to spend no more than $120 for the lot. Just as a point of comparison, top price for Blue Man Group on a Saturday night is $150.

Fireface, final performances tomorrow (Saturday August 17) at 2pm and 7.30pm. Delectable Shelter, final performances tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ends September 1.