High school was both an inspiring and hellish time for out writer and producer Lawrence D. Cohen, who originally grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Wilmette and Glencoe.
"I was lucky enough to have amazing teachers and come of age in a way in terms of my writing," said Cohen, who is best known today for his TV and film adaptations of Stephen King horror novels like IT, The Tommyknockers, and especially Carrie. "But I was also a bullied kid. I was skinny with Coke-bottle glasses and a wise mouth and I had the crap beaten out of me periodically."
So in 1973when Cohen was working as a reader for a New York film and TV producerhe was extremely lucky to come across a manuscript of what would become Stephen King's 1974 novel Carrie. The novel resonated deeply with Cohen and he immediately pressured his boss to obtain the movie rights. Cohen correctly predicted that millions of readers and movie audiences who survived high school would identify with King's horror story about the bullied teenager Carrie White who enacts a horrific revenge on her classmates when she mysteriously acquires telekinetic powers.
"I've always called it 'Cinderella with a Vengeance,'" Cohen said. "With Carrie, I think Steve as a populist writer puts his finger on a quality of the outsider."
Cohen would go on to pen adapted screenplays of both film versions of Carrie, first with the classic 1976 Brian De Palma original and also Kimberly Pierce's 2013 remake, co-authored with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. But Cohen's most elusive take on Carrie was the 1988 Broadway musical version that featured a score by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford. Carrie: The Musical is only now making its Windy City debut in a production by Bailiwick Chicago at the Victory Gardens Richard C. Christiansen Theater.
Carrie: The Musical has the notorious reputation of being one of the biggest flops in Broadway history. A transfer from the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K., Carrie: The Musical shuttered after just two weeks of previews and five official Broadway performances.
But Carrie: The Musical refused to perish in the hearts of many diehard Broadway fanseven though it didn't have an official cast recording. A large part of that has to do with Ken Mandelbaum's juicy 1992 book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.
Mandelbaum dedicates two entire chapters of his book to Carrie: The Musical, opening it with his detailed memories of attending the show's first Broadway preview ( which simultaneously elicited a chorus of boos and hearty cheers from the audience at the curtain call ). Mandelbaum then closes out his book by puzzling over what went right and wrong with Carrie: The Musical. He lavished praise on its spellbinding stars of Linzi Hatley as Carrie and Betty Buckley as her religiously fanatic mother, Margaret, while also questioning the unintentionally campy staging ideas by director Terry Hands and his production team.
Cohen and his Carrie: The Musical writing collaborators "were by and large horrified by what we saw on stage and the show being done had precious little to do with what was in our minds and the way we wanted to do it," said Cohen about Hands' Broadway production.
Despite multiple offers to restage Carrie: The Musical in the ensuing years for fundraising benefit concerts and even campy drag versions, Cohen and his collaborators flatly refused for the longest time because "we weren't interested in seeing the same show that had closed on Broadway ever again."
But that changed when the three authors finally got a chance to revise Carrie: The Musical to their liking for a 2012 off-Broadway revival for MCC Theater led by director Stafford Arima, who incidentally saw Carrie on Broadway during its original brief run. It's the 2012 off-Broadway version of Carrie: The Musical that is now available for licensing.
Cohen has been particularly pleased to see how resonant Carrie: The Musical is with young audiences at the dozens of high schools and colleges that have already staged the show, especially with recent high profile efforts in the media to combat bullying. And for his hometown's first production of Carrie: The Musical, Cohen was intrigued by the reputation of Bailiwick Chicago for producing unconventional shows like Violet, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Dessa Rose.
"When Bailiwick approached us about licensing it, we looked at what their history was," Cohen said. "It's always a leap of faith with a new production because it's about the director and their vision for it, but they seemed to be exactly the kind of theater with the right venue that Carrie ought to be in."
But one disadvantage of Carrie: The Musical being readily available is that has put a kibosh on previously produced parody versions of Carrie. Hell in a Handbag Productions artistic director David Cerda mentioned that he received a cease and desist letter from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization which licenses the show the last time the company revived its campy Carrie spoof called Scarrie.
Nonetheless, Cerda still plans to see Carrie: The Musical if he can ( he's busy appearing in a revival of Hell in a Handbag's musical Caged Dames ).
"Who hasn't felt like Carrie White? When I grew up in the 1970s, those mean girls in Carrie were the kinds of people I dealt with in high school," Cerda said. "My telekinetic powers was my gayness."
"The notion of being different is what Steve really drew on in the most profound way," said Cohen, who showed how casual he was with author Steven King since he repeated referred to him as "Steve" throughout the interview. "I think Steve literally spoke to all of us who felt like Carrie at that extremis in the hell of high school."
Bailiwick Chicago's Carrie: The Musical continues through Saturday, July 12, at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $40 and $30 for groups of 10 or more; call 773-871-3000, or visit www.victorygardens.org or www.bailiwickchicago.com .