PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: Twenty-Five Years After Broadway, Carrie the Musical Makes High School Debut
By Adam Hetrick
Playbill.com takes a look at the first-ever high school production of Carrie, the musical based on the Stephen King horror novel, as part of our new PlaybillVIP.com Spotlight series. Organizations across the country can now create an authentic Playbill as part of this new venture.
Twenty-five years after her first disastrous prom night, Carrie, the Broadway musical flop about a tormented girl with telekinetic powers who destroys her high school, makes its high school premiere beginning Feb. 28 in Albuquerque, NM.
R&H Theatricals licenses Carrie, which has over a dozen productions currently in place to roll out this year. Sandia Preparatory School is the first high school in the country to stage the musical that met with a critical drubbing on Broadway in 1988. It remained hidden in the shadows of cult musical lore until MCC Theater reunited the original writers to reshape the work for a 2012 Off-Broadway production that refocused the musical into a modern-day pop rock morality tale about school bullying.
Based on Stephen King's 1974 horror novel, the musical grapples with personal issues faced by nearly every high school student, many of which are rarely, if ever, presented on stage. Early in the musical, bullied teen Carrie White gets her period for the first time during gym class and is taunted by her peers; she returns home to face an overbearing mother who is so religiously devout that she denies her daughter's own maturation; and later, after being asked to the prom as "a favor," Carrie is humiliated in front of the entire school. Like the iconic Brian De Palma film, the dark heroine of the musical takes vengeance by destroying the school gymnasium and killing her fellow classmates.
This is a clear departure from family-friendly, feel-good fair like Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof and High School Musical, which Sandia Prep staged in recent years. It also eerily resonates with the immediate history of school violence that has gripped America.
"We have done many of the traditional high school musicals," said Carrie director and Sandia Prep Performing Arts co-chair Timothy McNamara. "These shows are, of course, an important part of the musical theatre style. We also attempt to produce plays that offer our students a glimpse of other theatrical styles, which are evident in our recent productions of Les Misérables and The Pirates of Penzance."
Another component that drew McNamara to Carrie was its focus on bullying, which Sandia Prep is concentrating on during the current school year. "Bullying is a huge issue in our education system," McNamara said. "This musical is the ultimate story of how bullying can destroy a community. It is a very powerful message."
Carrie's dramatic thrust wasn't always about school politics and the ravages of high school bullying. The original Broadway production was a large pop spectacle that lurched between violently intense scenes for Carrie and her mother, and campy 1980's dance numbers. It lasted for only 21 Broadway performances and was shelved by the writers. Despite an unauthorized production of Carrie in its original format at the performing arts summer camp Stagedoor Manor several years ago, the musical has been unavailable for live performance until R&H Theatricals began accepting licensing applications in January.
This new, streamlined version retains the original stand-out material for Carrie and her mother Margaret, but has been largely rewritten, with new songs and scenes added. The 2012 revival fared better with critics than its original predecessor; however, reviewers were left divided and rather cool on the production that traded spectacle and danger for a more intimate approach. Perhaps the biggest success of the Off-Broadway revival is that the musical is finally in strong enough dramatic shape to enter into the world of amateur and professional licensing.
McNamara, who said he had never seen the film and only became aware of the musical title when lyricist Dean Pitchford presented a workshop promoting the material at a theatre conference, had initial concerns about convincing Sandia Prep administrators to green light the production. He cites a supportive and open-minded Head of School, Steven Albert, in having the vision to proceed with the show.
"The show examines the behaviors of and interactions among teenagers in a manner that will motivate powerful and important conversations in our Upper School," Albert said in production notes for Carrie. When asked if bullying was a major behavorial issue at Sandia Prep, he added, "While I am pleased that the issue of bullying is far less prevalent at Sandia Prep than at most high schools, it's an issue that needs to be addressed using a multi-pronged approach."
Only a small number of parents expressed concern over Carrie's suitability for a high school production, McNamara said, and the school also offers the disclaimer that the production is not suited for most middle school students. The school also presented The Laramie Project in previous years.
"Shock and disbelief" is how McNamara described students' reaction to audition notices. However, once they read the newly-imagined script by Lawrence D. Cohen and heard the score by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Pitchford, he said they were immediately captivated by the material.
Subject matter aside, Carrie is one of a handful of musicals that actually allows student performers to play age-appropriate roles. This was a deciding factor for Sandia Prep. "In the world of educational theatre, we are most often faced with casting our teenagers as characters much older than they are in real life. It is nice to let students develop characters who are their own age," McNamara said.
Students Mackenzee Donham and Lyric Urzetta portray Carrie White and her mother, Margaret, respectively. McNamara describes the energy in the rehearsal room as "very intense." Much of the cast has been gathering backstage to watch the final moments of the musical play out as Carrie and her mother share their final, deadly scene.
Students working on the production team are also testing new ground, creating the various special effects for Carrie, which include the levitation of several objects as well as the fiery destruction scene. Akin to the Off-Broadway production, the dramatic prom scene in which Carrie is doused with blood, will incorporate lighting and projection effects. Carrie will also vaporize a few of her classmates with the help of some additional stage effects.
"We enjoy challenging our students as well as our audiences," McNamara said. "Anytime that we can motivate our students to discuss current issues we grab that opportunity. This is one such opportunity for us. As the director of this production, I also feel that the piece is very worthwhile artistically. Michael Gore's music is moving and exciting as it builds the audience's anticipation of the arrival at the prom. Lawrence Cohen's book is intense, realistic and very believable. The dialogue flows naturally and was very easy for our students to grasp. Dean Pitchford's lyrics are concise and inspired while capturing the spirit of today’s young people. It is simply a great piece of theatre. It is also exciting to be the first authorized [high school] production of this incredible work!"
Adding to the excitement, Sandia Prep students are among the first to be featured in a Playbill VIP, the Virtual Internet Playbill, which allows amateur organizations to create an authentic Playbill for their own production. Read more about PlaybillVIP.com here.
Carrie runs through March 3 at Sandia Prep. You can check out Sandia Prep's Playbill VIP here. Just like the Playbills found on and Off-Broadway and in numerous theatres across the country, the Playbill VIP contains billing features identical to those used by award-winning theatre professionals for decades.
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