Whether in reference to Stephen King’s 1974 novel or either of the two film versions, the name “Carrie” instantly conjures images of a homely high school outcast covered in pig’s blood terrorizing her tormentors with telekinetic powers. Soon fans will be able to add singing and dancing to that visceral image.
Theatre Unchained’s production of Carrie: The Musical opens Oct. 10, just in time for the Halloween season’s horror binge. But the musical also offers a strong anti-bullying message, according to director Thomas Jacobsen.
“Bullying is a serious issue that, as uncomfortable as it is to discuss, demands our attention,” he says. “I think that is why Carrieis such a chilling piece of literature.”
In the play, Carrie White (Anna Pfefferkorn) is the only daughter of an abandoned mother (Liz Norton), whose fundamentalist fervor has flowered into full-blown psychosis. Her high school classmates endlessly abuse Carrie. When she experiences her first period in the shower after gym, the abuse ratchets to a fever pitch. At the story’s climax, she’s mockingly crowned as prom queen, then bathed in blood poured from the gym rafters.
Unfortunately for the bullies, Carrie has destructive telekinetic powers. With a few blinks of the eye, she conjures the ultimate revenge.
“You look at Carrie and see someone that could’ve been you, and that connection stimulates a lot of the terror in this piece,” Jacobsen says. “In lieu of horror fiction that attempts to scare audiences with shock and gore, this Halloween season we are hoping to haunt audiences with something far more harrowing — a story that reflects the realistic horror of bullying.”
That’s not to say Carrie: The Musical doesn’t provide some fun along the way to making its points, including a pop score by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford, who are best known for their collaboration on the musical Fame. Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted King’s novel for the 1976 Brian DePalma film starring Sissy Spacek, wrote the show’s libretto.
Despite its artistic pedigree, the original 1988 version of the musical opened to bad reviews and a very short run. The show was reimagined, and a new version opened in 2012 to a much better response, Jacobsen says.
“The 2012 version maintains some of the material from the (original) show, but it has also seen a number of improvements, including new songs and re-worked scenes that improve the show and make it more accessible to modern-day audiences,” the director says. “Furthermore, much of the camp humor that made the show infamous was removed from the book.”
The music runs the gamut from rock opera to pop ballads, depending upon whether Carrie is confronting her high school tormentors or her mother, who torments Carrie in a different way.
“Carrie is a more realistic portrayal of horror than Sweeney Todd, which obscures some of its darker elements with humor,” Jacobsen says.
Carrie’s telekinetic powers will be on full display in Theatre Unchained’s production, complete with books opening, chairs moving and doors slamming shut.
“The prom scene will also incorporate a variety of effects, including moving objects, sparks and dry ice,” says Jacobsen. “Making these special effects appear realistic onstage is a challenge, but one that we are excited to undertake.”
There also is, of course, the blood, and lots of it. Unlike the recent touring production of Evil Dead: The Musical, which played in Madison in September, there is no “splatter zone” to enable audience members to share viscerally in the production. Jacobsen plans to keep his audiences clean while fully saturating his actors.
“After quite a bit of research, the production team decided to move forward with making our own stage blood in two different varieties,” Jacobsen says. “As an homage to the 1976 film, we will be dumping a gallon of blood on Carrie each night, using the original formula of corn syrup and red food dye.”
The crew has concocted a washable mixture of laundry detergent and red children’s paint to use on costumes the director can’t afford to permanently stain. And, the director says, the bloodletting will be blocked so no audience members take home unwanted red souvenirs.
The musical stays surprisingly close to the book rather than the film versions, with some obvious exceptions. Onstage, Carrie doesn’t set the town on fire and cause stones to rain down from the sky. The play’s close association with the novel is what Jacobsen likes most about the show.
“As a Stephen King fan myself, I have taken most of my inspiration for characters and costumes from the original novel, as opposed to the films,” he says. “There is a reason the novel is considered a horror classic, and I wanted to use it as a reference point to stage the best show possible.”
Theatre Unchained’s production of Carrie: The Musical runs Oct. 10–26 at 1024 S. Fifth St., Milwaukee. For more information, visit theatreunchained.com or call 414-391-7145.