Scary Carrie, a fright for our times

Stumptown Stages' musical version of the Stephen King tale gets uncomfortably contemporary: mayhem in the schools


The leaves are turning toward autumn. Hybrid pumpkins fill our porches, and Portland’s moving toward its inevitable bunkering-down for winter. The usual ghost stories are popping up to haunt us as Halloween approaches, and right on cue, Stumptown Stages has put on Carrie: The Musical for us.

Does anything scare us today that deals with death?

Not all theater has a message, but the advice underlying Carrie: the Musical is clear: never let your high school gym teacher try to save your miserable existence. It’ll begin with fake bloodshed, move on to misguided telekinesis, and end in double murder.

Stumptown's "Carrie": It's a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Stumptown’s “Carrie”: It’s a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Soon after Stephen King’s breakthrough novel became a bestseller in 1974, the first version of the musical was workshopped by Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the screenplay for the hit 1976 movie), Michael Gore (no puns here) and Dean Pitchford. Cohen, interviewed by the New York Times, said that if Alban Berg, the avant-garde composer of the opera Lulu, were composing at the time of this material, Carrie would be the plot he’d mine for inspiration. This trivia provides the platform for Carrie: The Musical. A playwright, librettist, and composer tried to take the old-fashioned fairytale of Cinderella and push it to a supernatural and psychotronic end. As the saying goes: “It’s all fun and games, until someone gets an eye poked out.” One wonders, why didn’t Cohen, following a dubious line of creative choices, take his inclination to the next level and make a musical of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!, or dig from Hammer Films? At the end of the day, though, Cohen, Gore and Pitchford were correct: the idea of Carrie was worth the effort.

Carrie: The Musical sings out with reminders of the stage musical Flashdance, for which Pitchford wrote the lyrics. In a similar context, Carrie’s gym teacher is the first person to be sympathetic to her, to show her a door to the outside world. The next decades of Disney films would take their cue from his popular score, and the public would give in to the familiar sound: less like a traditional musical, more like an pop-operetta. The orchestration of the choruses doesn’t follow the typical musical line. There’s a little Mozart in here: antagonist in minor, protagonist in major, and it makes a sonic harmony between an odd libretto: “Men are demons of romance,” or, “Cheesy, but nice.” There’s  choreography to Carrie: The Musical, but it’s not ballet or dancing in the classic musical-theater structure. Which brings us back to the point: Carrie is meant to be a serious production. We’re all in a postmodern candy shoppe, where metaphor is how we connect.


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