The Making of Carrie: the Musical; 1st in Series
Lydia Strong—an unnaturally red-headed sophomore who is the closest thing to Anna Kendrick I’ll ever meet—leads me into the faculty lounge in Maloney Hall at Central Connecticut State University. Squished into the too-small room are rows of bookshelves, artwork, filing cabinets, and a conference table full of department staff and students. The curtains have opened on the very first production meeting of Carrie: the Musical.
In a flurry of bright pink paper Ed Wierzbicki, the director, leads the meeting. “What I value most about Carrie’s story—and why I believe in it and think it will speak to an audience (especially young people)—is because it’s about a real and relatable struggle that many of us go through. It’s rough and raw at times. We’ve all been pushed around.” The white-haired Wierzbicki, with a youthful disposition and warm smile, explains his goal to connect voice and intent. He doesn’t want it to be funny or spoofy because there is a serious message to be portrayed. “There isn’t an ‘after-school special’ ending. Just a cautionary message about how fragile we all are. So why not be kind?”
But, effectively portraying this message has historically been challenging. First produced on Broadway in 1988, the play was as popular as Carrietta White herself. Carrie: the Musical was hardly out of its adolescent stage before it flamed out after five performances. It became one of the most expensive (approximately eight million in losses) flops in Broadway history. However, in the same year the Mayans predicted the collapse of the world, Carrie: the Musical rose from the ashes in its first Off Broadway revival at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, making the Manhattan Class Company the forerunners of this resurrected musical. Now, in 2016, CCSU’s theatre department needs to channel the 2012 revival rather than repeat the past running joke of Broadway.
The production meeting explores endless and costly issues. There are costumes to design, set placements, lobby decorations, scene breakdowns, and everything in between. There’s a long discussion on Carrie’s prom dress between Wierzbicki; Christopher Hoyt, the costume designer; and Joel Porter, the stage manager. “She’s becoming a woman, and so we want to allow her to kind of own her woman-ness with her dress as well,” explains Porter. It needs to represent her adapting womanhood, while still obviously remaining high school dress code appropriate. Though details about design still need to be worked out, the crew intends to stick to the tradition of a pink dress. After eighty-eight minutes, the meeting is adjourned, and the paper settles.
An air of excitement lingers after the meeting. The crew is eager to begin this new project. “Now that I’ve studied it and worked on it, I’m really passionate about it,” Wierzbicki admits. “I think it’s really got some cool stuff in it—storytelling perspective, character development, there’s some great challenges special effects-wise, soundscape…who wouldn’t want to do this?” Yet, in the heart of it all is the question of how to keep that serious Carrie theme that Wierzbicki wants, especially given the timeframe. The first preview is in six weeks, after all.
Three weeks later I meander into the basement of the Fine Arts building, oddly blocked off by a swing open metal gate, as if the stairs led down to an amusement park ride. It seemed fitting considering I was going to a meeting dedicated to a terrifying roller coaster like Carrie: the Musical. Without my liaison Strong, who is already sitting in the meeting, I hesitantly push through the basement door. Immediately to my left is the costume shop, the meeting room for today. A washing machine bangs in the background. I am perched on a metal stool at the end of the table, stationed in front of one of the many sewing machines.
This is a student-fueled production and the students need to own the process. While Wierzbicki has his own ideas for the play, instead of giving directions, he asks questions. There are a lot of decisions to be made still, such as where the sewing machine should go on the table relative to the Bible. Many placement calls they make are items of discussion the audience may never think about. Wierzbicki gives an impassioned argument for his vision of the prayer closet as “a torture chamber,” stressing how it would be horror-like, but he gets pushback from some who see it as an ordinary closet. Wierzbicki points out that Carrie is trapped in this closet for four or five hours. “We don’t get into this but the book says she has to go to the bathroom in there. That’s what’s in the book. I just wanted to make sure we got some of that creepiness, however we do it.” It’s not going to be a cute little prayer nook for her; it’s going to be pretty desecrated. The clashing concepts of crazy horror and muted simplicity go back and forth until it is called to a stalemate and they decide to sleep on it.
I leave as Wierzbicki and Hoyt huddle around a drawing of the set design, trying to figure out prop details in an attempt of “trying to keep things to the right.” There’s no doubt this crew still needs to overcome several challenges; in the New York Times Patrick Healy argued that Carrie: the Musical presents “far more than the usual share of difficulties.” For the CCSU team, there’s still the looming question of how to handle the blood, literally hanging over the crew’s head. Having few previous productions to look to, and only a month and a half left to plan, I cannot help but wonder: how will they do it?