Lawrence D. Cohen is the screenwriter of Brian De Palma’s legendary adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie and book writer to the equally infamous 1988 Broadway musical adaptation. The new version of the musical—staged by Stafford Arima with an entirely new cast and design team—is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Tommy Smith (Rail): Your stated impetus for turning Carrie into a musical was that you saw Berg’s Lulu and you wanted to create something that was that jarring of an experience.
Lawrence D. Cohen: The inspiration is not Lulu per se, but the kind of experience that Lulu was, and how out of the box Berg’s thinking was, that it still looks pretty radical when you see it now.
Rail: How would you articulate that experience? What aspects of that did you use for creating Carrie?
Cohen: Intensity. My partner Michael Gore, the composer, and I walked out of Lulu that night and he looked at me and went, “If Alban Berg were alive today, he’d be writing Lulu for the Met.” And it was one of those “ah-ha” moments where the light bulb went on. And I didn’t say a word. I looked at him. He looked at me. And we started walking up to Café Luxembourg from Lincoln Center, jabbering a mile a minute, with a gazillion ideas. What Carrie had was highly intensified, hugely heightened, operatic-like moments. I like that kind of theater. I really respond to that intensity of performance. Carrie was very weird material to choose to musicalize, until we thought about it and it didn’t seem weird to us at the time, at all.
Rail: What was the decision to set this production of Carrie now versus the period of the book or the movie?
Cohen: We did the movie in ’76, we did the musical in ’88, and now we’re now. So those were set in each of their respective time periods. It wasn’t consciously a period piece then. It’s something about Steve King, when all is said and done. He was, with this little Cinderella-With-A-Vengeance high school fable, he was incredibly prescient about a world that was going to change in a way he had no clue to then, nor did any of us. There was no Internet when he wrote it or when we did the movie.
Rail: Or the previous musical.
Cohen: Yes, very little in that period of time. And we went: Bullying has become epidemic on a level that is just fierce, and that aspect resonated, weirdly, more now than then, partly because of the Internet and partly because you open the paper and turn on the news every night and there’s another horrible story.
Rail: Given that there’s a ton of images and lines and dialogues from the book, from the previous musical, from the movie, what is the deciding factor in keeping those in the text?
Cohen: Had the 1988 musical production been the musical that the three of us as authors had in our heads, as opposed to what happened in ending up with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then in New York, we probably wouldn’t be here now. We wouldn’t have gone back to it. Had we been happy with it, we wouldn’t be here now. Somebody else might be reviving it, or the hundreds and thousands of requests we get from theaters or high schools or colleges—we would have permitted it, but we didn’t permit anybody to do it. Because we really weren’t happy with the piece. It was our nightmare of the piece, as opposed to our dream of the piece.
Rail: What about it was?
Cohen: It’s a long, long story but let me try to hit it to the chase.
Rail: The Reader’s Digest version.
Cohen: We ended up being asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They had done Les Mis and were looking for a follow up. Having gone through a lot of really major directors, we ended up being persuaded that Terry Hands was the right match. He had come to New York with two productions with Derek Jacobi—a Cyrano and Much Ado that were brilliant—and he talked a really good game, and we were three smart guys, and when the RSC says we’d like you to be our next production? It was pretty hard to turn our 20-year-plus-old selves to say no to that. It turned out to be a pretty dreadful mistake. Meaning, this director thought when we referred to, in conversation, Grease: The Musical, he thought we were referring to ancient Greece, G-R-E-E-C-E. And they were dancing around in togas during the opening gym sequence. It was deranged. It was like, the ship has sailed, there is no stopping it, other than to kill it, but we had no power to do anything. And Terry was used to working with a lot of dead writers, starting with William Shakespeare. So three feisty guys like us? We gave him notes and they went into the Bermuda Triangle. So as a result, we didn’t recognize the show, other than watching Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley, who had thrilling, wonderful moments on stage; the rest of the piece was just like being on Mars.
Rail: As a writer, when did you know you weren’t going to get what you wanted?
Cohen: We knew it almost instantly. He was a really superb lighting designer, in addition, and once we moved into tech and all those stages of it, he went under the headphones and never came up again. He didn’t like America. He didn’t like high schools. He didn’t like prom—didn’t know what it was. So everything is alien in a way that his solution to the material and his failings with the material was to just cut the book. Meaning, let scenes be “tableaux,” so the story didn’t get told.
Rail: Do you think that the myth of the previous production is contributing to this show?
Cohen: Definitely. It’s to the good and to the bad. The good is that it has kept the show very much alive and mythic—people wanting to do it, people wanting to see it. And that’s great. The bad is that I think that people saw a version of it and that’s what they think the show is. The reality is, the book is the book, and it’s that story. The movie has the incredible allusion of fidelity, but its very different as an adaptation—it stays true to its core value, absolutely, and it has eliminated everything else. The musical was its own 1988 version. And this is another attack at it. They’re all valid to me. They’re just different. One isn’t better or worse. They live as their own thing, which I think is cool.
Rail: It’s a different take on the same structure of this fable of Carrie, and each incarnation has had a reverberation of its own for the time.
Cohen: Utterly right. With this version, what ended up happening was, we got together and had a chat about what we would each like to do, and we were very much on the same page about getting on the horse again, and ready to do it. Because there were so many requests, we wanted to put a version of it out there in the world that we liked, as opposed to one we hated. And it was really in answer to that demand that wasn’t going away. And we felt badly the show we wanted wasn’t there. There’s an audience that’s determined, at whatever cost, they want to see the old Carrie, and they’ve got that in their minds and they know the lines by heart like it’s the Rocky Horror show. There’s nothing to say or do.
Rail: What is your reaction to those people?
Cohen: Well I love it and I hate it. I think we face moments when our cast stares it fiercely down, because it’s not the camp show that some people expect it to be. It’s not our intention, not that we couldn’t have done it, but it wasn’t what interested us. (ere will always be an element that we will never give them what they’re looking for, because they like the very things we don’t like.
Rail: Or that are just completely out of your control.
Cohen: Oh, totally.
Rail: You can’t help how a line that is necessary for the narrative is taken.
Cohen: You got it. There are areas where we are sensitive to it, which is, we don’t deliberately play into where the volatility lies, but we’re also not afraid of it. It’s been an interesting balance. The most interesting thing is seeing those people be won over, most of them anyway, and watching that transformation where they suddenly get very quiet. Those people who laughed are the first to applaud, and they’re the ones leading the standing ovation, and I view that as a huge mountain moved.
Carrie: The Musical, book by Lawrence D. Cohen, music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, based on the novel by Stephen King, choreographed by Matt Williams, and directed by Stafford Arima is produced by MCC Theater and runs through April 22 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., Manhattan. For tickets, visit: web.ovationtix.com. For more info, visit mcctheater.org.