Sunday, February 5, 2012

CARRIE THE MUSICAL: a DELICIOUS look back at the closing of the legendary 1988 cult musical

“Surprise, Surprise! Terry Hands blood, sweat and tears staging of Carrie for his Royal Shakespeare Company works. ...a project that seemed unlikely from the outset, has unexpectedly emerged as a strong, effective and remarkably coherent piece of terrific total theatre.”   ~ Clive Barnes, New York Post

“...the fiercely concentrated Ms. [Betty] Buckley brings theatrical heat to every slap-happy bout of corporal punishment, every masturbatory hand gesture indicating her sexual repression, and every aria invoking Jesus and Satan.”   ~ Frank Rich, New York Times

“CARRIE MAKES A POWERFUL MUSICAL. ... [It] brings together all the forces that make live theatre so exciting: brilliant performances and an exciting story, reinforced by the physical production and fashions them into a truly unforgettable event.”      ~ Ernest Albrect, The Home News

“...compellingly written and overpoweringly performed...the scenes between Carrie and her mother crackle with longing. ...The conflict between the girl’s aching to be normal and the mother’s fear that she will go astray aspires to metaphysical tragedy.”    ~ William A. Henry III, Time Magazine

“I had a bloody good time. Carrie is edge-of-your-seat all-out entertainment.”   ~ Larry S. Ledford, The Monitor

These are some of the things written about the 1988 cult-flop musical CARRIE (I bet you heard there were no good reviews.) In honor of the newly rewritten off-Broadway revival opening in March 2012 (just 24 years after the originals disastrous 5 performance run) I thought we should go back in time to 1988 to revisit the drama behind the spectacular closing of one of Broadway’s most enduring legends. Enjoy!

Carrie’s $7 million close shows why musicals are like dinosaurs
by William A. Henry III, Time Magazine/ May 30, 1988

Just a few days earlier, Choreographer Debbie Allen had been counseling the young performers of Carrie about how to handle sudden stardom. But as the disheartening word spread backstage, the ensemble members realized that they might have to learn instead to handle sudden unemployment. Last week, less than 72 hours after it opened as the Broadway season’s most opulent American musical, Carrie closed. Stephen King’s 1974 novel about a tormented teenager with psychic powers became a best seller, then a multiple Oscar nominee as a 1976 movie. But onstage it set records of a different sort: losing more than $7 million made it Broadway’s biggest failure ever.* Said President Rocco Landesman of Jujamcyn Theaters, which invested $500,000 and provided a house for the show: “This is the biggest flop in the world history of theater, going all the way back to Aristophanes.”

Carrie is just one more example, if an especially lurid one, of the self-destructive expansion of the Broadway musical. The form has become as ungainly and vulnerable as the dinosaur. Although the season just past is regarded as the strongest for musicals in a decade, eight of its 15 musical productions have just closed, and two may soon join them.

Still, with Carrie the actors were not the only ones startled by the abruptness of the shutdown. The technical staff, the press agent, even the creators thought they had been assured of at least one more week by Producer Friedrich Kurz, 39, a West German impresario making his Broadway debut. Although most of the reviews had been scathing – particularly about the superannuated kick line of high school girls, cumbersomely elaborate sets and an inadvertently hilarious dance number about slaughtering a pig – a number of critics nonetheless expected the show to find an audience and thrive. That is what happened , despite savage reviews from the London critics, during a four-week British run at the Stratford-upon-Avon home of the co-producer, the Royal Shakespeare Company. And night after nighr during Broadway previews, while some audience members laughed derisively, others thundered applause for the pelvic dances, the pyrotechnic effects and the open-throttle singing of Stars Linzi Hateley and Betty Buckley.

But after surveying the prospects, Kurz, who has prospered by importing Cats into his home country, flew back to Europe without telling Landesman or many of his other collaborators that he had ordered a closing notice to be put up at the theater. According to investors, Kurz thereby saved an estimated $150,000 to $175,000, the difference between another week’s operating costs and the projected box-office income. He was really prompted, however, by what usually determines the fate of unfavorably reviewed shows: he had run out of money. To have any hope of turning things around, he needed an additional $2 million or more. That would pay for TV advertising and cover losses for up to two months until the ads and word-of-mouth might bring in a profitably large audience. “I made an economic decision to cut my losses,” said Kurz in his Hamburg office. “Broadway is Russian roulette, and I’m not a gambler.”

The advertising-and-word-of-mouth strategy worked for Evita (1979), which opened to unenthusiastic reviews yet ran for almost four years. But it is not infallible: an additional $1 million enabled the 1985 Singin’ in the Rain to survive almost a year, yet apparently did not recoup theshow’s $5 million-plus investment. Still, says Carrie’s composer Michael Gore, whose credits include the movie Fame, “you can’t produce a Broadway show without a reserve fund. That is my major dissatisfaction with the show.”

Carrie might have had just such a reserve if it held to its original $5 million budget. The show was eventually capitalized at $7 million, primarily by British and West German investors who had scant Broadway experience. But runaway costs reached, by some accounts, about $8 million, attributable partly to high-tech fashion in current musicals, partly to the complexity of multinational production, partly to old-fashioned indulgence. Says the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Terry Hands, who staged the show: “It started to be laded with lavish trappings, none of which I believe were necessary.” Sources involved in financing the project estimate that the show’s design elements alone cost nearly $4 million, including about $1 million each for costumes, sound and the elaborate hydraulically powered sets. About a third of Jujamcyn’s $500.000 investment was spent on repainting its Virginia Theater black, to suit Carrie’s somber theme, and on installing electrical wiring for the laser barrage at the climax, when Carrie burns down her school gym.

The Royal Shakespeare Company was paid for mounting Carrie as part of its season, and thus secured a profit fo roughly $500,000. As a result of the unusual transatlantic production, there was a hefty bill for transport and lodging of the creators and the Anglo-American cast. On Broadway, some 20% of each week’s box-office income was set aside for royalties to the creative team, including Novelist King, who otherwise had no role in the show. Another debated expenditure was $500,000 plus for a print, poster and TV ad campaign in New York City before the show opened, much of it teasingly mysterious rather than hard sell.
As a result of all these costs, Carrie barely had carfare home after its Broadway opening night. There was no contingency play, just a hope against hope for generosity form the critics. When that failed, Gore, Librettist Lawrence D. Cohen and Lyricist Dean Pitchford started shopping for emergency investors to create an instant reserve fund. Landesman pondered stepping in with more cash from Jujamcyn but in the end decided not to underwrite even one additional week’s losses so the search for investors could go on. Explains Landesman: “I would have put up $500.000, but I didn’t see the rest of the $2 million coming from anywhere.” After a last forlorn scramble, neither did anyone else.

And the rest is theater history. TTFN my darlings. See you all at the new CARRIE.

* This dubious honor has been handed over to many, many other Broadway flops since then.


  1. Thank you for this great article - I would have given my eyeteeth for a chance to see this infamous show!! It actually looks very very entertaining and dramatically staged. Maybe was mounted before its time...

    1. I missed this and have been kicking myself ever since. I have the wonderful two cd set of the entire 1988 show. The music and performances are just incredible. The scenes between Buckley and Hateley are astounding!
      I saw the newly re-written Off-Broadway production and while I did enjoy it a lot, it's not nearly as much fun (or as strong) as this first version.


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