Riverdale and The Mind-Blowing History of Carrie: The Musical

We look back at the incredible history of the most notorious Broadway musical ever made, Carrie: The Musical.

Long before Riverdale decided to mount a production of Carrie: The Musical for tonight’s episode, the stage show was already the focus of cult adoration and critical derision. Debuting on Broadway in May of 1988 and lasting through only 16 previews and five regular performances before abruptly closing — losing $7,000,000 in the process — it became the most expensive bomb in theater history at the time.

But is the show — based on Stephen King’s best-seller and its subsequent film adaptation — as bad as its reputation suggests? Of course not. In reality, Carrie: The Musical is a wildly entertaining effort whose mixture of rock devotionals and shoulda been hit ballads merely had the misfortune of being ahead of its time.

Recent years have seen several remountings of the show that, paired with critical re-evaluations and word of mouth being spread like a telekinetic fire in the Bates High auditorium, have finally given the show the respect that it so deserves. And with Riverdale providing the with musical the highest-profile push since its initial failure 30 years ago, Carrie: The Musical is poised to once again make a comeback…if not become more popular than ever before.

So before we see how Archie and the gang contextualize the story of a bullied teen with supernatural powers into their own drama, let’s take a look back at the history of Carrie: The Musical for some insight on how we got here.

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Why am I here?

Carrie: The Musical began its rocky road to acceptance in the early 1980s, after the film’s screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, teamed up with lyricist Dean Pitchford and composer Michael Gore in an attempt to adapt the story for the stage. At the time, Pitchford and Gore were riding high from the success of their work on the music for Fame, and the pair’s ability to tap into the youthful zeitgeist of the time made them the perfect choice to help bring Carrie’s tumult to the Great White Way. Above, Cohen and Betty Buckley (who portrayed the kindly Ms. Collins in the film and Margaret White in the Broadway run) discuss the project’s genesis.

While working on the songs and book, and already envisioning groundbreaking stage special effects and choreography that would give the extensive dance sequences in the piece a “very ’80s, very MTV-styled approach,” Cohen, Gore, and Pitchford staged a 1984 workshop for the embryonic show’s first act. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, this material has survived, and it illustrates the early power of some of the songs (including the ultra-catchy title track as well as “And Eve Was Weak,” the most traditional musical number in the show).

So Carrie: The Musical was starting to take shape. But a great show isn’t anything without investors, actors, and a place to stage it before their Broadway dreams could be realized. And for some of these things, the men behind the musical were going to have to travel to Shakespeare’s old stomping grounds, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

In the sort of dramatic twist that the Bard himself would find amusing, the steeped-in-American culture (although very twisted American culture) story Carrie was first professionally produced in England during a month-long run that was co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. On February 13th, 1988, the show opened with UK actress Linzi Hateley starring as Carrie, and with a cast that also included “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”/Lethal Weapon legend Darlene Love and Fame’s Gene Anthony Ray as the doomed villain, Billy Nolan. In yet another Fame connection, Debbie Allen provided the musical’s choreography, providing the show — whose very existence was raising eyebrows among theater snobs — with some much needed legitimacy.

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While the four-week run was not without its problems, including the sort of constant revisions that often are a regular part of the try-out process, and a much-publicized opening night snafu in which Margaret White actress Barbara Cook had a potentially fatal run-in with some stage scenery that made her want to bow out from the show, Carrie: The Musical still had no idea of the darkness that lie ahead.

Thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company archiving their productions, you can see the rare, initial performance of Carrie: The Musical in its entirety above. Or, if you just want to jump to the money shot, here’s the aptly named “The Destruction” sequence:

They’re all gonna laugh at you

On April 28, 1988, preview performances of Carrie: The Musical began at the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre) on West 52nd Street, with many of the previous cast remaining from the UK production. Due to the fact that, unlike Little Shop of Horrors, the genre musical was meant to be taken seriously, audiences didn’t know what to expect from the work.

Further complicating matters was the show’s confusing marketing, which was overly dire and gave no idea of what the music featured within was actually like. (The minimialistic key art featuring Carrie shedding a tear of blood seems ripped from a Patrick Nagel nightmare). Then there’s the TV spot, which laughably feels like something devised by Frank Cross in Scrooged:

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Yikes.

But initially, the weird promotional tactics didn’t matter. Early sales were good, the buzz was there, and with the then-new Phantom of the Opera proving that audiences of the time had an appetitte for horror-themed musicals, Carrie’s future seemed bright.

And then it all went to hell.

Critics were absolutely savage to Carrie in a way they hadn’t been since yet another Fame collaborator, screenwriter Christopher Gore, unleashed his science fiction musical Via Galactica upon audiences in 1972. When watching the following compilation of reviews of Carrie: The Musical, it becomes clear that an attempt to make such a non-traditional show was viewed as an insult to the rich history of the theater — at least by those who were paid to critique the artform at the time.

Some takeways here. It is important to remember that in the 1980s, and unlike today, theatrical works based on films were a rarity…for better or worse. And so there really was a preconception by critics that a musical based on a movie which was itself adapted from a horror novel — something that the intellectual elite considered a pedestrian work — couldn’t possibly have any artistic merit. Therefore said critics went into the production with their minds already convinced that the work would be garbage. (This speaks more of the insular nature of professional critics and their tendency to have a disconnect from populist entertainment, but I digress). The point is that there was no way that most critics would give Carrie a rave, let alone a decent review, or risk being ostracized from their peer group and/or being denied the fun that is a game of good, old-fashioned kick a production when it’s down.

So I ask you, were the critics every bit the bullies that Carrie herself battled? Well, yes and no.

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In fairness, the initial Stratford-Upon-Avon and Broadway runs did have some issues. “In,” arguably Carrie‘s best song and one that attempts to humanize all of the characters, was confusingly initially conceived as being more of an aerobics workout than show opener. As such, it doesn’t set the tone for the show or properly utilize Darlene Love’s considerable talents, something that is unforgivable. And yeah, it’s super goofy as originally performed.

Elsewhere, “Don’t Waste the Moon” sounds like a brain-damaged answer to Grease‘s “You’re the One That I Want.”  Much of the critical scorn was directed at the number “Out for Blood,” a unintentionally hilarious ode to revenge and animal slaughter that makes The Smiths’ “Meat Is Murder” seem subtle by comparison. These combined with orchestrations and some Debbie Allen choreography that haven’t aged well means the the original production was far from perfect, yet still not worth the bile spewed upon it. While the revivals have addressed some of these problems, Carrie: The Musical still feels like it needs to cut two songs before it can be a masterpiece — i.e. jettison the second act reprises.

Nevertheless, the critics managed what was seemingly impossible: They defeated Carrie White. After the reviews hit, the show’s financial backers bailed and the show was forced to die an early death. But legends never really die, do they?

It’s beautiful

Here’s a pet theory of mine: Carrie: The Musical and Howard the Duck are one and the same. Seriously, think about it.

Both were adaptations of pre-existing works that were considered risky to translate to other mediums, and ones whose subsequent failures made them the source of much derision and endless punchlines. They each also went on to become cult successes. These projects were celebrated by outsiders who could see themselves in the unconventional lead characters. Just as Howard the Duck found an audience through video rentals and cable TV airings, Carrie: The Musical also experienced a resurgence through the tape-trading underground, as musical theater nerds and Stephen King fans alike passed along grainy VHS copies of the Stratford-Upon-Avon performance — regularly seen on sale at comic cons throughout the 1990s — and bootlegs/unofficial soundtracks of the show’s truncated Broadway run were early Napster grabs.

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The Carrie Nation (with apologies to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls fans) was growing, and soon, Carrie: The Musical would rise from the grave.

Everyone isn’t bad, mama! Everything isn’t a sin!

The Carrie revival officially began in 2006 when playwright Erik Jackson tried and failed to get permission to stage a new version of the musical. What he was able to do however was to mount a play based on the material with King’s blessing, a campy and fantastic affair that cast drag queens in the title role.

Following a successful New York City run, the production was moved to Philadelphia, where irreverent theater troupe Brat Productions took over the sprawling Underground Arts venue to stage the work — complete with an area where audience members could have their own prom pictures taken. This staging ran from October 2 to November 7th, 2010, and threw fans of the musical a bone by creating an original song, “There’s No Place Like the Prom,” that was used to promote the show:

This was all a lead up to the main attraction, namely the revival of Carrie: The Musical. Near the end of 2009, Lawrence D. Cohen, Dean Pitchford, and Michael Gore held court at a reading of a revised, streamlined version of the show that added new songs, replacing others — fare thee well, “Out for Blood” — with new choreography, and generally shaping the production into the telekinetic powerhouse fans always knew it could be.

(Well, most of them anyway, some of the Carrie devoted who enjoyed how much of an interesting failure the first version of the show was were bummed that the work was being changed at all)

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The trio announced plans to bring their show to Off-Broadway, specifically the Lucille Lortel Theatre, produced by the MCC Theater company.

After a month-long previews period, the show opened on March 1, 2012 Off-Broadway to mixed reviews that were nowhere near as harsh as those recieved by the first iteration, and closed the following month after 46 regular performances and 34 previews. Songs like “Unsuspecting Hearts,” “A Night We’ll Never Forget,” and “Why Not Me?” deserve to be considered as contemporary showtune classics, and indeed, in some circles they are.

But the Carrie: The Musical story doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the success of the revamp, fans now have a official version of the soundtrack to enjoy from the Off-Broadway cast, and a 2015 production in London’s West End and a Seattle production which starred acclaimed Next to Normal star Alice Ripley:

Leave it to LA to take things to the next level. Carrie: The Killer Musical Immersive Experience, yet another revision of the source material that put audience members on stage throughout the production, played at two Los Angeles theaters in 2015.

This was easily the most innovative version of the show to date, a fact that is punctuated by this ABC News report:

Taking a page from the Evil Dead: The Musical playbook (with shades of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for good measure), Carrie: The Killer Immersive Experience was as much about theatrical spectacle, bombast, and, yes, blood splatter aplenty as it was the source material. And it looks incredibly fun, so much so that, even three years later, I’m holding out hope that it comes to the East Coast sometime.

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Still not sold? Check out this bootleg footage of the production’s “The Destruction.” Theatrical carnage has never been this much fun before:

And here’s more footage from this incarnation of the show, via Playbill:

“A Night We’ll Never Forget” indeed.

Many people’s first thought upon hearing that Riverdale would be doing Carrie: The Musical was “would any high school actually stage that?” With the answer somewhat surprisingly being yes.

The show has been performed at several schools across the country in recent years, although given the violent content of the play and the shitstorm of a real world we live in, this always hasn’t been a popular move:

Which brings us to Riverdale itself. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa infamously began his career with the original play Archie’s Weird Fantasy, a dark take on the comic characters that foreshadowed his creation of Riverdale…and earned him a cease-and-desist notice from the company he would later help revitalize and become the Chief Creative Officer of. His love of theater runs just as deep as that of his knowledge and appreciation of the horror genre — this is the man who created Afterlife with Archie after all.

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More than just a fan, he has been front and center in the theater world, writing numerous plays as well as helping to perform triage on another infamous musical, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (for which he revised the book) and writing the book for the American Psycho musical. The fact that he also worked on Glee and wrote the script for the 2013 remake of Carrie means that this episode of Riverdale isn’t as much fate for Aguirre-Sacasa as it is the convergence of all of his fantastic influences. Obviously we can’t tell you too much about the episode just yet, check back for our review tonight, but we can say that lovers of Carrie: The Musical have nothing to worry about.

The brilliance of this is that there are some clear parallels between the Carrie and Riverdale characters, something that tonight’s episode has a lot of fun with. (High-strung Alice Cooper as the fanatical Margaret White, I’m talking to you). But the best thing about Riverdale doing Carrie: The Musical is that it will introduce the production to an entirely new audience, likely inspiring additional stagings and a renaissance for the oft-maligned Broadway dud. After all, life just doesn’t begin until you’re in.

Chris Cummins is a writer and Archie Comics fanatic who hasn’t been this excited about an hour of television since the Head of the Class kids mounted a production of Little Shop of Horrors. Ask him about his ideas for a Basket Case musical on Twitter @bionicbigfoot.