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Birgit Nilsson as Elektra, 1960's

Elektra and Carrie

In April 1988 the musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie began a chaotic series of previews at Broadway’s Virginia Theatre; the show never opened officially and for years was best remembered from author Ken Mendelbaum’s descriptions of it in his funny, insightful study of failed Broadway musicals, Not Since Carrie (1991). According to Mendelbaum, Carrie was not merely a flop but a catastrophe whose physical production “ranks as one of the most misconceived in theatre history, often wildly off in tone and unintentionally comic.” Because that production was both big and abstract, inspired as it was “by Greek tragedy and morality plays,” it did the opposite of clarify Carrie’s bizarre plot for the uninitiated in the audience: “By now, anyone unfamiliar with the…novel on which the musical is based, or the subsequent film version, wouldn’t have the slightest idea what’s going on, or who the characters are, or even where the show is taking place,” writes Mendelbaum at one point in his blow-by-blow summary of the first preview performance. (According to librettist Lawrence D. Cohen, director Terry Hands misunderstood him when he asked for a production based on Grease; Hands thought Cohen meant Greece.) And yet the fact that its director did see Carrie as a kind of Greek tragedy fits with my own impression of watching online the (newly revised) show’s more realistically and intimately staged off-Broadway revival of 2012, and hearing the cast album made from this: that in its plot and musical structure, Carrie occasionally resembles Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra.

Based on Electra by Sophocles, the one-act Elektra—with its enormous orchestra and violent libretto into which Strauss collaborator von Hofmannsthal worked Freudian allusions—was a shocker at its 1909 premiere. Its opening scene conforms to the convention of ancient Greek drama in which the protagonist is discussed before we meet her. In the palace courtyard, five serving maids gossip about Elektra, daughter of the late King Agamemnon, who since the murder of the King years ago by the Queen and “the man who sleeps with her” has been a raving outcast, living outside the palace gates. Carrie opens in the high-school gym with a song, "In," that establishes Carrie White's classmates as unremarkable, conforming teenagers; classical convention takes hold in the second scene, set in the locker room, where unpopular Carrie finds she is bleeding from her first period. She fears she is dying; the other girls mock her for her ignorance of menstruation and continue to taunt her after she exits. The “primal” nature of this episode recalls Elektra’s setting in antiquity—an era before many of our modern ideals of decorum existed—as well as its themes of blood sacrifice.

Now a grown woman, Carrie can take matters into her own hands and not dream of this only, as Elektra does. Left, each of them, alone onstage, Carrie and Elektra reveal themselves in, respectively, the song “Carrie” and the aria “Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” Mendelbaum calls the former “one of the most overwrought and lengthy solos ever in a Broadway musical, in which [Carrie] expresses her isolation and longing for acceptance”; for some time now, I’ve wondered if Gore and Pitchford, its composer and lyrist, consciously modeled it on the latter. To compare the two may seem absurd on the face of it—what does late Romanticism have to do with ‘80’s rock?—yet the similarities are real.

"Carrie" sung by Molly Ranson:

The fact that both solos are about the painful past or present (Elektra “relives” King Agamemnon’s brutal murder while in his bath; Carrie tells of being bullied daily) as well as an imagined, triumphant future (Carrie dreams of acceptance and fame; Elektra dreams of revenge) is reflected in their musical alternation between lyricism and force. Yet the most obvious similarities are the lyrics’ repetition of names (Carrie’s in “Carrie”; Agamemnon’s in “Allein!”), their mention of dancing, and the music's dance rhythms. Both solos seek our sympathy with a potential revenge killer. Both are vividly orchestrated and vocally exciting; when the audience in the small Lucille Lortel Theatre cheered Molly Ranson as Carrie after her solo, they were reacting, like an audience at Elektra, to the sheer thrill of a “heroic” (i.e., a “belting”) female voice having just met unusual challenges related to intonation, rhythm, stamina, and emotion. Their disparate musical styles notwithstanding, Carrie’s and Elektra’s soliloquies have several important similarities and perform the same dramatic function.

A scene between Elektra and her mild-mannered sister, Chrysothemis, follows “Allein!” Carrie has no sister, but she does have a mother who is, like Elektra’s, an antagonist. Elektra has a long confrontation with Queen Klytaemnestra; Carrie has a long confrontation with Margaret White. The Queen, hostile to Elektra, is obsessed with deciphering a recurring nightmare; Margaret is obsessed with a literal, fundamentalist reading of the Bible that casts Carrie as a natural sinner. Both confrontations end thrillingly: the one with Margaret forcing Carrie down into the cellar to pray for forgiveness, the other with Elektra gloating that Klytaemnestra is in mortal danger from Orest, her banished son who will return home without warning. Yet Elektra and Carrie each have a spiritual skill their mothers must envy: Elektra can interpret dreams, the Queen says; Carrie has the power of telekinesis (i.e., she can move objects just by thinking about them), as the dramatic conclusion to Act I shows.

Carrie (2012): Marin Mazzie, Molly Ranson

The nearest equivalent Carrie has to Chrysothemis is Sue, Carrie’s former bully; and their friendship has a slight homoerotic quality that faintly recalls Elektra’s elaborate flattery of Chrysothemis after learning of Orest’s “death.” Here she wants Chrysothemis’ help in carrying out the revenge plot Orest was meant to execute. Carrie’s mass payback takes place at the prom; Orest returns, alive and well, and murders Klytemnaestra and Aegisthus “offstage.” For neither Elektra nor Carrie does vengeance truly satisfy and, with no further life purpose, both heroines die: Elektra collapses trying to do a victory dance, whereas Carrie is stabbed by Margaret. From its first scene to its last, Carrie often evokes Elektra in its rawness; as critic Rex Reed wrote of the revival, "The show has guts."

Molly Ranson as Carrie

If Carrie ’s stage littered with bodies recalls Shakespeare more than Sophocles (deaths in Greek tragedy take place offstage), its ending is a cathartic one for a "madly feverish" (critic Ben Bradley's words) work. From the standpoint of Greek drama, this is its most important parallel with the ending of Elektra.

Strauss’ opera is one of the greatest of the twentieth century; the musical Carrie (despite the generally positive reviews its off-Broadway revival got) will likely never be more than a cult classic. Yet when Cohen, Gross, Pitchford, and Hands chose to musicalize Carrie, their model of Greek tragedy was the only one that could have worked (ultimately) for such a story. There is one final similarity: like Elektra, which at its premiere met with reactions polarized among “conservative” and “progressive” musical lines, Carrie divided the members of its first Broadway preview audience, some of whom wrote it off by intermission, and more of whom found it (or, its production) “alternately thrilling and ridiculous” to the end:

Mrs. White lies dead on the platform, and as the lights dim to black, boos ring out from the upper balcony while below, others begin an ovation. As the audience files out, some members appear thrilled, others appalled; the word most frequently bandied about is “unbelievable.” For show freaks, this has been a night unlike any other…These fans will tell their friends to get to the Virginia Theatre immediately, and many of them will return to Carrie two or three times during the two weeks of previews that remain. Carrie has become an instant legend.

That was the ever-entertaining Ken Mendelbaum in Not Since Carrie.

Updated Jun-25-2019 at 04:34 by Bellinilover

Tags: musicals, opera
Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Opera