Q&A: “Carrie, the Musical” Director Stafford Arima on Camp, Blood, and Telekinesis

Q&A: “Carrie, the Musical” Director Stafford Arima on Camp, Blood, and Telekinesis
Stafford Arima
(Photo © Joshua Bright)

“Blood or no blood?” This was the question facing Stafford Arima, director of the off-Broadway revival of the 1988 musical “Carrie.” In his best-selling 1974 novel, Stephen King left it up to the reader’s imagine. Brian DiPalma’s film classic, which came two years later and starred Sissy Spacek as the bullied telekinetic teen, there was plenty of blood — both menstrual and porcine. And, in 1988, the  lavish Broadway musical adaptation from London’s National Theatre (!) bathed its final prom scenes in buckets of red goo. The show quickly folded. The creators — librettist Lawrence Cohen and songwriters Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore — were so bloodied by the experience that they would never allow anyone revive it, despite numerous entreaties.  That is, until Stafford Arima (“Altar Boyz”) came calling. The Canadian-born director had seen the Broadway musical when he was 19 and had never forgotten the audience’s response. “I felt like I was at La Scala,” he says of the frenzied reaction, which included both booing and cheering as the curtain fell. He figured less would be more. His impressionistic production of “Carrie, the Musical”  opens on Thursday, March 1  at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, and there will not be blood — or campy histrionics, for that matter. “Our ‘Carrie’ is totally reinvented,” he says of the new production, which stars Molly Ransom as Carrie and Marin Mazzie as her abusive, Bible-spouting mother Margaret.  

Given the iconic nature of the material, how did you meet the challenge of audience expectations or preconceptions, especially regarding the prom scene?
People have such a sense of ownership — King fans, DiPalma fans, fans of the 1988 musical — and it extends to all aspects of the story, but most specifically they come in wanting to see blood. I wanted that scene to be centered on what must it be like to be totally humiliated, to have your dreams shattered in that one horrific moment. What people really want from that scene is not necessarily blood but a visceral, heart-catching moment and I, along with our design team,  tried to deliver that theatrically with a representation that was abstracted, internal and expressionistic but, hopefully, just as horrific. I wanted that moment to have as much power as it did in the novel and the film.

Carrie’s telekinetic powers are represented with more subtlety as well. Is that just the limitations of stage?
No, it’s a choice. In our version,  Carrie having her period, that drop of blood, sets off her discovery and growing awareness of her telekinetic powers. It awakens her spirit  to understanding herself as a woman, her relationship to other women, her mother and other men. She’s been a sheltered woman for most of her seventeen years and now she starts to understand other aspects of life and living, that boys aren’t dangerous, love can exist and it’s possible to challenge authority. Combining this psychological development with telekinesis is a lot more fun than just prom dresses flying in the air.

Do you believe in telekinesis?
I don’t know if I believe in telekinesis per se, but I’m open to the fact that such a phenomenon could exist. I come from a background that is very open to all the possibilities of human creativity and I don’t think we’ve begun to tap into those hidden depths of physical, mental and spiritual powers.

Were you bullied in high school back in Toronto?
Not bullied but made fun of because I was a theater geek, I was heavy and not a sports person.  My parents were both Canadian-born, my mother is Chinese and my father Japanese, but I wasn’t made fun for being Asian, apart from that “Ching-Chong” stuff. I think it’s gotten worse now because of social media and the passive-aggressive, anonymous way it allows you to harass. Just look at the news reports. I think young people have a new sense of entitlement and that includes the right to bully.

What specific quality were looking for in casting Carrie?
There’s an innate sensitivity to Molly, an innocence and humbleness to this girl so unlike the kind of Broadway chutzpah, pizazz-y diva you see in so many others. We saw it the minute she walked into the room for her audition.  A naturalness that would allow the audience to identify with her and join in on the journey.  

And Marin Mazzie as Margaret?
We needed someone who had the vocal prowess and acting chops who could believably create a flawed woman who nonetheless loved her daughter deeply and wanted to protect her.  You could think of her as loon, a crazy bat, but we certainly didn’t see her in that light and we wanted somebody who could come on that stage and people wouldn’t automatically think, “Here comes the villain, an evil witch in a black robe, swinging a cross.” Marin can convey a complex reality and still could seem like a woman who works at a laudromat, shops at Whole Foods,  reads the Good Book as a means of survival and teaching.

In a 2008 speech, Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum maintained that Satan was targeting the United States for corruption.  That sounds very Margaret-like.
He calls it Satan, I call it fear. Fear is gripping the world — Democrats, Republicans, gays, straights, the rich, the poor. Fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different. I don’t personally attach a religiosity to my way of being but it’s clear that there are members of the political class using it to garner votes. Stephen King in 1974 created a work that was so prescient, foreshadowing so many things that are so relevant, perhaps more so now than then. With this show, we’re continue to ask those questions: When did we become so fearful of being different? When did that become so terrible? When did that become a sin?

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