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Resurrecting Carrie: A musical flop gets a second chance

Molly Ranson in a scene from MCC Theater's "Carrie"

Joan Marcus

Stafford Arima will always stick up for the underdog. And that's not just a personal principle – it's professional.

The 1988 musical Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel and Brian De Palma film of the same name, is widely considered the greatest flop in Broadway history. Technical difficulties, poor effects, a song and dance to the slaughtering of pigs – it was a bloodbath both on the stage and in the papers. It closed after 16 previews and five shows, and at the time, its $8-million price tag was a devastating loss (though the recent Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark cost 10 times as much). Its legend lives on in the title for Ken Mandelbaum's account of musical mishaps, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, and its own parody Scarrie! the Musical.

But more than 20 years later, Carrie is getting a second dance with Arima taking the lead. In August of 2008, the Toronto-born, New York-based director – whose work includes Altar Boyz, the West End's Ragtime, Stratford's Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – revisited the show with its composers and lyricist, Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford, and Lawrence D. Cohen. It was the first time the creators allowed anyone to resurrect the musical since its infamous run.

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"Our intention was never to revive it; we've gone back over the last few years to develop and workshop the material," Arima said from the off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre, where Carrie officially opens on Thursday – with drastic changes to the script and score. "The original production was very true to the film. When one decides to make an adaptation of a well-known piece of literature, or film, or poem, or whatever it might be, it's our task as theatre-makers to find a way into the piece that is unique."

With MCC Theater behind the production (a company that focuses on staging new works), the Carrie that emerged from the ashes concentrates on heart rather than horror.

"At the core of this story is a character who is an outsider, an outcast. I began to see her power as a metaphor for being different," Arima said about the teenager – currently played by Molly Ranson ( August: Osage County) – who uses telekinesis to exact revenge against her high-school tormentors.

Arima also sees Carrie's dangerously pious mother Margaret, played by Marin Mazzie ( Ragtime, Next to Normal), in a surprisingly sympathetic light.

"She is looked upon as a demonic woman, but at her core is a woman who loves her daughter unconditionally … Every decision she makes is about protecting the child and giving her the best life possible."

Arima was a teenager himself when he saw the 1988 production while on a trip to New York with his mother, an annual tradition that sparked his love of theatre. In fact, it was his mother's death that brought Carrie to his mind decades later. That same year, he began reinventing the play to give these misunderstood characters a voice.

"The underdog, the disenfranchised, the outcast – it appeals to me but it becomes a very universal character. It creates a universal story that all of us can connect to."

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When it was first announced, Arima's rendition of Carrie had musical-theatre fans, websites and blogs buzzing over the fabled catastrophe's potential triumph. And at the first preview in January, viewers raved when Ranson and Mazzie took the stage.

"We're allowing Carrie the character and Carrie the musical a chance to be understood," said Arima. "That's all the character of the novel wants – to fit in. As I'm sure is what any great piece of theatre wants – to be understood and to fit in with the cannon of great musicals."

Unlikely movie-to-musical adaptations

Crossover between the screen and the stage is common on and off Broadway – even when you'd least expect it:

Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical – An off-Broadway version of the pornographic film premiered in 2002 and toured internationally (playing, of course, in Dallas).

High Fidelity – Despite taking place mostly in a record store, audiences didn't buy these dejected clerks breaking into song. It closed on Broadway after 14 performances.

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Silence! The Musical – A satire of the acclaimed thriller Silence of the Lambs, it broke box-office records at the 2005 NYC Fringe Festival and is currently in an off-Broadway run.

Metropolis – A silent film would naturally be the last thing to inspire a musical, but sure enough in 1989 it premiered at the Piccadilly Theatre in London.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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