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Folks behind 'Carrie' return to boldly re-imagine

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 6:15 a.m. MST

In this theater image released by Jeffrey Richards Associates, Audra McDonald, left, and Norm Lewis are shown in a scene from "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" in New York.

Jeffrey Richards Associates, Michael J. Lutch, Associated Press

NEW YORK — When the musical "Carrie" had a sudden early death on Broadway in 1988, few were as unhappy as three men who worked hard to give it life.

Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, clearly weren't happy with the final product, which closed after five regular performances, lost $8 million and became the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.

Despite offers to produce the show elsewhere, the trio refused. "We had no desire or intention to re-experience the 'Carrie' that closed on Broadway in the state that it was in ever again," said Cohen. "If we were ever to see it again, we were determined to go back to work on it and get the show that was in our heads."

That day, he said, has now dawned — 24 years later.

A new version of the show that became a yardstick for failure — critic Ken Mandelbaum named his book about stage failures, "Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops" — opens Thursday off-Broadway at MCC Theater.

"We've gone back and looked at every single inch — even numbers that were working fine — to see if we could do better, if they could be deepened," said Cohen. "It was important to look at everything and scrutinize it from that perspective."

There may be few more fraught undertakings in the theater than what Cohen and his team have done — the so-called "re-imagined" work. Reinterpreting a classic work, even if the original was a dismal failure, is a risky business.

The new "Carrie," directed by Stafford Arima, will be the third high-profile re-imagined musical in New York this season, following the reworking of "Porgy and Bess," which is a hit, and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" with Harry Connick Jr., which failed.

Diane Paulus knows all too well what that nervous "Carrie" team is likely going through, having survived what she called the "lion's mouth" of critical bashing even before her re-imagined "Porgy & Bess" made its way to New York.

Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, adapted the Gershwin opera for the Broadway stage with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray.

The team condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. Their effort generated headlines when purists including Stephen Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.

"People maybe interpreted that we were saying we thought we could do something better than the opera or could replace it, but that was never the intention," Paulus says by phone from Montreal, where she's directing the Cirque du Soleil show "Amaluna."

"We all hope that people will see the work and see the work with an open heart and see the work as what it is," she adds. "Whatever happens, the classic texts will always live because that's what makes it a classic."

The controversy actually may have helped sell tickets on Broadway. "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" opened in January starring Audra McDonald, David Alan Grier and Norm Lewis to strong reviews and has been extended to September.

"What kept me focused throughout this journey and the process was the commitment to the work and just feeling clear that the work had to speak for itself," said Paulus, but adds with a laugh: "Maybe we should have never talked about anything prior to the show being done."

The other side of the "re-imagined" coin was the failure of Connick's show, which only played 29 previews and 57 regular performances. Like "Porgy & Bess," more than a scalpel was used on the original 1965 musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

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