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Richard Jordan: Is it time to reassess one of the most notorious musical failures of all time?

Yesterday marked the 31st anniversary of one of the most infamous moments in musical theatre history.

On May 15, 1988, the big-budget Broadway production of Stephen King’s Carrie, which was created by the Royal Shakespeare Company, closed at the Virginia Theatre after just five performances, at a loss of $8 million.

This notorious production, by US composers Dean Pitchford, Michael Gore and book writer Lawrence D Cohen, has been called both the worse musical ever written and the greatest flop of all time.

Yet, over these intervening years, have we done it a huge disservice? With a turbulent story of how it got to the stage, the question is whether it was a victim of circumstances and decision-making rather than artistic delivery.

Many judge Carrie on its all-too-brief run: five shows on Broadway must surely indicate a terrible show. However, the swift closure was a decision made by its German producer Friedrich Kurz, who exercised a specific clause in Broadway regulations that allowed a producer to close a show without giving notice if it was within four days of opening. The decision effectively saved him $150,000.

What’s seldom reported was Carrie had begun to build audiences. The theatre owners were encouraging Kurz to stick with it and invest another $2 million towards boosting the marketing. Kurz was a businessman who had picked up the rights to Cats and Starlight Express in Germany at a time when musicals were only just becoming global exports – and before Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber had fully realised the potential of those markets.

Beginner’s luck on two established shows gave Kurz the confidence to originate a new musical himself, even though he lacked experience. By the time Carrie opened on Broadway, he was battered and bruised. Even if he could find another $2 million, the businessman in him had made the decision to cut his losses.

The place Carrie holds in Broadway history today is arguably entirely down to Kurz’s decision to close without notice. Otherwise, it may have become one of those middle-of-the-road musicals that trudged along to be largely forgotten. As a score, it’s not Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein but it’s certainly superior to many other musicals – including even several new musicals in this current Broadway season.

Carrie’s legendary status was possibly further cemented because there was no original cast album of the 1988 production. It would not be until a first revival Off-Broadway in 2012 that the show would get a cast recording released. Before then, only a bootleg copy of the original Broadway show ever existed. And in listening to that, what’s most noticeable is the audience reaction, and the stellar performances by Linzi Hateley and Betty Buckley, none of which sounds like a failing musical.

Its notoriety has created the belief that Carrie received a critical annihilation on Broadway. Despite being panned by the all-important New York Times, a number of other reviews were favourable, with it even securing several notices that were better than those for The Phantom of the Opera. The difference was that Lloyd Webber’s hit West End transfer had opened with a $20 million dollar advance.

Carrie’s February 1988 try-out in Stratford-Upon-Avon had garnered much poorer reviews. Yet just as audiences had done several years earlier with Les Miserables at the Barbican, they were ignoring the critics and flocking to see it. Most significantly this was, again, a new audience for the RSC.

Kim Criswell and Evelyn Hoskins in the 2015 revival of Carrie the Musical at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Carrie may have suffered because it arrived just at the moment of the Brits-on-Broadway backlash. By 1988, the British musical invasion had overtaken Broadway, which wasn’t happy. Although Carrie was by two US composers, this was seen as another British-made musical landing on the Great White Way.

With the success of Les Miserables and a West End transfer of Kiss Me Kate, musicals were becoming a component of RSC programming but were unpopular with members and critics. However, new artistic director Terry Hands had seen the weekly royalty cheques the company and his predecessor Trevor Nunn were banking and was looking out for his own commercial musical hit. In Carrie he saw a modern-day myth.

With Kurz, the RSC made an advantageous deal that meant it never lost money on Carrie, though it still suffered in the absolute humiliation that followed. Whether Kurz felt he had been taken as a gullible fool by the company or not, his swift closure may have proved an exacting and lasting revenge.

I have always considered Hands one of the biggest losers in this sorry saga. Carrie and his subsequent return to Broadway in 2000 with Macbeth, starring Kelsey Grammer (which lasted only 13 performances), have overshadowed the recognition he deserves as one of the UK’s great directors with works such as Singer, Tamburlaine the Great, Poppy and Cyrano De Bergerac.

Neither is it ever recognised that with Carrie, Hands pioneered a groundbreaking deal with American and UK Equity that allowed the company to be half US and half UK – this laid a foundation for such exchanges to continue to develop.

The personal attack on the RSC and Hands’ decision to produce Carrie, largely led by the media at the time, and a stuffy attitude that it wasn’t the sort of work the RSC should do, ended what may have been a valuable new musical programme of main-stage works by the company. That lasted for 22 years until Matilda [1].

Instead, Carrie’s legacy is better reflected in the path it has laid for commercial musicals such as Heathers and Mean Girls. It continues to fuel interest today, even inspiring an episode of the current popular US drama Riverdale.

Carrie’s journey reveals that there’s much more to learn from a flop than a hit, and in making our judgement, it’s important to understand that why a show fails is often much more than simply being about music, lyrics or book.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan [2]

Mark Shenton: My favourite musical flops [3]