Theater, it is said, is ephemeral. But some shows are more ephemeral than others. Take a stupendous Broadway musical flop. There will never be a cast album, a national tour or any revivals. And for a certain kind of connoisseur, the bigger the disaster, the greater the allure of having witnessed it.
One of the biggest was 1988's Carrie: The Musical, which even before its Broadway previews had generated buzz that the then-unheard-of $8 million premiere of Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen's musical take on Stephen King's teen horror classic would be the Battle of Stalingrad of flop musicals. And it was — such a jaw-droppingly outré debacle that accounts of its five performances invariably compare it to Springtime for Hitler, Mel Brooks' apocryphally apocalyptic Broadway bomb from The Producers.
But infamy carries its own kind of cult immortality. And rather than going gentle into that good night, Carrie stubbornly persisted, in bootleg recordings and underground outlaw stagings that culminated in 2012's "tastefully" retuned Off-Broadway revival.
But according to Tony Award–winning producers Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman (I Am Harvey Milk, The Scottsboro Boys), Carrie has never received what they are promising La Mirada Theatre audiences: the definitive, Platonic ideal of what Carrie could have been, should have been all along — a fully audience-immersive, horror-musical thrill ride.
How exactly will they transform the 1,200-seat La Mirada Theatre, with a traditional proscenium layout, into an intimate, environmental approximation of Carrie White's doomed high school? During a Saturday morning rehearsal break, director Brady Schwind, who may be best known in L.A. for his acclaimed regional premiere of the Craig Lucas–Adam Guettel musical The Light in the Piazza, reveals the secret.
Schwind explains that the audience won't sit in the auditorium. He's putting them onstage, smack dab in the middle of the production numbers. Bending over a puppet theater–sized miniature of designer Stephen Gifford's four-walled, fully enclosed set, Schwind excitedly demonstrates the four sets of mobile bleachers that will constantly move a portion of the 250-member audience in and among the actors during the performance, offering them constantly shifting, in-your-face views of the action.
He says the idea of pulling off a successful Carrie first occurred to him as a teenager in Texas when he stumbled upon Ken Mandelbaum's 1991 bible of Broadway flop musicals, Not Since Carrie, in a theater greenroom.
"Someone in the show I was doing at the time had a bootleg audio of it," he remembers. "And I listened to it and fell in love with the music. It seemed so exciting, that I think, for a young person, your mind starts thinking about, 'Oh, what would I ever do if I ever staged this show, or if I ever had the chance to work on it?'"
Schwind finally got his chance after director Stafford Arima coaxed the writers into reworking their book and score into the relatively bloodless and scaled-down Off-Broadway version.
"I really admired what Stafford had done in the sense that he took an approach that centered really on the characters," Schwind says. But, he adds, "It needs to be about the big themes that the piece is: retribution, betrayal, cruelty. It's like Medea in its scope. It is a parable but it is also pop culture and it's also a very American horror story. And I think it needs to kind of have everything."
"Everything" means both the nuanced psychological mother-daughter portraiture of the Arima production along with dazzling effects to show Carrie's telekinetic powers, including the de rigueur bucket of pig's blood (albeit presumably splatter-free) that fans of the novel and the iconic, 1976 movie version might expect. "That's what this is — it's intimate and epic," Schwind says.
The writers signed on to further reimagine Carrie for the La Mirada staging in what turned out to be a two-year process. Harris says it has given them the opportunity to fix what they've never had the opportunity of fixing in 27 years.
"I don't want to use the word 'fix,'" the producer corrects himself, "because that's not what we're doing — we're just making it better. I think it will be very close to their hearts, closer than it's ever been — if not the right, perfect product."
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La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd, La Mirada, March 12-April 5. (562) 944-9801, lamiradatheatre.com.
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