Lawrence Cohen Discusses Stephen King’s Carrie: The Book, The Movie, and The Musical!

Lawrence D. Cohen’s first feature script was his adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel, CARRIE (1976), which became the basis for the classic Brian de Palma film. Continuing his relationship with King after CARRIE, he wrote the 4-hour teleplay of IT, which People Magazine called “the year’s strongest, scariest miniseries,” and which Robert Bianco in USA Today called “the scariest movie ever made for TV.” Cohen’s subsequent adaptation of King’s THE TOMMYKNOCKERS (1993) starring Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger was the ABC’s 4th-highest watched King miniseries (24.4 million viewers).  In the summer of 2007, his script of King’s THE END OF THE WHOLE MESS for TNT’s NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES anthology series reunited him with the Master of Horror for the fourth time.

For the stage, Cohen wrote the book for the legendary 1988 Broadway musical, CARRIE. A new and revamped production with off-Broadway’s prestigious MCC Theater played at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the spring of 2012 where it earned 13 theater award nominations, won Best Revival by the Off-Broadway Alliance, and was taped by the New York City Library for the Performing Arts for its archives at Lincoln Center. A long-awaited premiere cast recording has just been released on the Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight label, and his book chronicling the experience, THE CARRIE CHRONICLES: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?, will be published next year.

BJF: Can you describe anything you remember about the first time you read Carrie?

LC: About four years after graduating college in 1973, I was living in New York, and my evenings were spent working as a theater stringer, reviewing opening nights on and off-Broadway for one of the Hollywood trade publications. As a day job to help pay the rent, I also worked as a reader for legendary producer and talk show host David Susskind. I came back from lunch one day to find a manuscript waiting on my desk by a first time novelist — an English teacher from Maine by the name of Stephen King.

I can still remember reading the first dozen pages like it was yesterday — the hair on the back of my neck going up as I read the “newspaper” report about the rain of stones that occurred when Carrie was three; the shocking incident in the shower room and the sentence “What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic”; Carrie’s first period in the shower and the girls’ LORD OF FLIES like reaction. And I remember thinking then that this was the debut of a major storyteller who knew how to grab you immediately and keep going for all he was worth, right to the very end of his indelible, amazingly prescient story. I did everything I could to persuade my boss, Mr. Susskind — who wasn’t interested in the least — and every other movie studio exec I knew — to option the book, all to no avail. And that, for the time being, was the last that I heard of it.

BJF: How did you come to write the screenplay?

LC: A few years later, I’d gone out West to line-produce a screenplay I’d come across working for Susskind — this one by a first-time screenwriter who was also an English teacher named Robert Getchell called ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. When the movie finished shooting, I was once again hunting for a job, and was put together with another legendary producer by the name of Paul Monash. Paul had produced movies like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. He had a development deal at 20th Century Fox and was looking for a story editor. I wasn’t interested in working for a producer again, nor did the material he had under option really interest me. I thanked him and said goodbye, and just as I walking down the studio hallway, he called after me that he’d forgotten to tell me that he’d optioned one other little piece that I’d probably never heard of — and of course, it was CARRIE!

I took the job working for him, and when the first screenwriter didn’t work out, I asked for and was given the opportunity to try my hand at the adaptation. It was one of those moments in life of utter serendipity, and it changed my life forever.

BJF: Where did the idea to try to turn the material into the original Broadway musical come from?

LC: Composer Michael Gore and I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York one night to see a very unusual and out-of-the-box opera by Alban Berg entitled LULU — the story of an amoral temptress who sleeps with a variety of lovers and betrays everyone, only to end up a prostitute who has a fatal encounter with Jack the Ripper. It was an unusual, very arresting piece to say the least — unconventional when it was written back in the 1930s and still unconventional a half-century later, even by opera standards. Michael and I were walking down the steps of Lincoln Center when he turned to me and said, “You know, if Alban Berg were alive, he would be writing a musical of CARRIE.” There was a long silence — it was one of those lightbulb going off, “a-ha!” moments in the air — and we were up until dawn brainstorming about its possibilities — not as an opera but as a piece for the theater. Those two worlds — Margaret and Carrie’s virtually operatic scenes with their virtually aria-like intense encounters — and the pop world of the kids — seemed like a really fascinating mix.

BJF: After the musical closed, did you have a feeling it would be back again some day?

LC: Honestly, for the show’s three authors, it was always more a question of “when” rather than “if”. The 1988 production with the Royal Shakespeare Company was a hair-raising experience, and aside from our pleasure in the lead performances by Linzi Hateley as Carrie and Betty Buckley as Margaret, we really didn’t recognize our work on stage. It received hugely divisive responses — both from audiences that cheered and gave it standing ovations, as well as booing like they were at a rock concert or an opera at La Scala, and from critics — some of whom panned it, some of whom raved. In any case, the show closed not as myth would have it because of reviews (we got enough good ones to run), but because the German producer who backed it ran out of money and fled the country in the middle of the night, closing the bank accounts without telling any of us.

In the intervening years, many bootleg clips from the show — shot from the balcony during its run on Broadway — surfaced on YouTube — well over 100,000 hits — that stirred up enormous “cult” interest.

BJF: How did this revival of the musical get started?

LC: As authors, we received a zillion requests from high schools, colleges and theater companies around the world to mount new productions of the show. Frankly, we weren’t interested in seeing the same version of the show that had closed in 1988 again. But we were interested in revisiting and revamping the material which we loved so we’d be able to answer all those inquiries and release a version of CARRIE that was closer to our dream. About three years ago, Michael, lyricist Dean Pitchford and I were ready to do just that. By sheer serendipity, a director named Stafford Arima called out of the blue to ask if he could meet with us to discuss the possibilities of staging a version. And it snowballed from there. Bernie Telsey, the artistic director of MCC Theater, fell in love with the piece and persisted until he got us to agree to join forces and stage the show off-Broadway this past spring, and as a work process, it was everything we hoped it would be. The show received 13 theater award nominations including a Best Revival Award by the Off-Broadway Alliance; it was honored by being filmed by the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center for its theater archives; the premiere cast CD was recorded by Sh-K-Boom Ghostlight Records, and R&H (Rodgers and Hammerstein) Theatricals acquired the rights to license the show globally.

It’s been an amazing and gratifying journey, and in two words, Carrie lives!

You can order the Ghostlight Records recording of the premiere cast CD from Cemetery

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Please Note: Carrie is available for theatrical performances through R&H Theatricals,

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