The phone rang. It was Richard from Rochester.
"Go to the box office of the Virginia Theatre and get two tickets immediately. I'm driving down tonight. We don't want to miss this one."
Richard visited Manhattan often, staying with me at my West 24th Street apartment He saw every Broadway musical in those days, and I mean everything. But this one was going to be special because Richard was a connoisseur of turkeys and he smelled fowl all the way up in Rochester.
I ran over to the Virginia and got orchestra seats for opening night, May 18, 1988 for the new Broadway musical, Carrie which was based on the Stephen King horror classic of the same name. The word on the street and in the theatre pubs during previews was incredible. Everyone was talking about it using incredulous adjectives like fantastic, insane, wacky, weird, unbelievable or you just name it, it described Carrie for the musical was all of that and then some!
Betty Buckley was recruited to play the role of Carrie's mother after Barbara Cook abandoned ship in London. Linzi Hateley, then 18, performed the title role. Darlene Love played the part that Buckley played in the film, that of the gym teacher. Others in the cast included Scott Wise, Charlotte D'Amboise and Lillias White who was listed as standby for Darlene.
We arrived at the theatre where there was an air of excitement permeating the house. Theatre nuts arrived with cassette recorders, some in the balcony even brought binoculars for the word was that you didn't want to miss a single scene. The theatre had been painted black and we felt we were in a funhouse or a black box.
Right from the start in the gymnasium scene you knew something was wrong because the cast didn't look like high school kids, but older and plumper chorines. Howard Kissel, in his review the next day, described them as "like they've just come off a rough bus-and-truck tour playing the hookers in Sweet Charity." Kissel was dead-on! For the next scene we got to watch the girls shower in their undergarments. I turned to Richard, "do you believe this?" He deadpanned, "it gets better," meaning it's going to get a lot crazier and indeed it did. Absolutely nothing made sense, the book was impossible to follow, but each scene kept attacking the senses. After forty-five minutes, I heard a cassette being flipped. Finally, at the conclusion of act one, cheers, boos, and catcalls emitted through the house. However, I don't think anyone left.
Theatre-goers were talking a mile a minute. Some loved it, some hated it and many didn't even understand what was going on. I just stood in the lobby with my mouth half open staring at Richard. He said, "Why John, you look like the poster boy for the Truly Dumb!" And that is how I watched act two, with my mouth half open, and not believing what I saw on that stage. Oh, and they saved the best for last, or next to last in if I could call it, the eleventh hour number called "Destruction." On the edge of my seat, ol' poster boy was in awe as Carrie killed the cast, blood flying all over the place, lasers dancing over the heads of the audience, the music blaring until the final shattering note when Carrie stood center stage dripping with blood. There was silence The audience was aghast. And then I turned to Richard, "Holy Mother of God!"
A couple more killings in the final scene and I figured there wouldn't be a curtain considering everyone was dead except the audience, but there was and what a curtain call it was. Shouts of "Bravo", all kinds of wild cheering to drown out the balcony of "boo-ers."
Heading out of the theatre everyone was talking like mad. I was ecstatic with joy, having loved the entire insanity of what I had just seen. Over at Barrymores bar, I was spreading the word that Carrie was incredible. One fellow asked me in detail about the show. I showered it with superlatives. I can still hear my words, "It's a hit!" When the guy left, I was told he was one of the producers.
The next morning, Carrie got nailed by every single newspaper in town. Kissel, in the news, stated in his first paragraph: "Carrie is so disgusting it makes Chess look adorable." His review headline read "Don't Carrie' Me Back to Ol' Virginny." Soon, Carrie was history.
Mandelbaum, in his book, makes a reference to Springtime For Hitler and it's perhaps the best comparison. The only way you could possibly do a musical like Carrie is the way Zero Mostel did in The Producers or hire a large creative team and forbid all of them from ever being on the same page.
Still, Carrie enjoys popularity because of it's cult status, and also because the score had some decent moments. Even today, there is talk of a concert version, perhaps at Encore.
Nine years later, almost to the date, I was getting the daily mail when I noticed a package arrive addressed to Talkin' Broadway. I unwrapped it carefully and inside were two cassettes each labeled with one word: "Carrie."
And then that same dumbstruck look from years ago came back to my face.
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