Nearly a quarter century after its notoriously brief run, the musical Carrie remains Broadway’s most infamous bomb. Despite praise for Betty Buckley as the mother of a girl with telekinetic powers, the $8 million adaptation of Stephen King’s novel earned savage reviews and shuttered in 1988 after just five performances. On March 1, a new, drastically overhauled version will premiere Off Broadway. We talked with stage vet Buckley (who recently tweeted against American Idol judge Randy Jackson for his criticism of contestants as ”too Broadway”) about the ill-fated original.
You played a gym teacher in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version of Carrie. How did you end up in the musical?
Betty Buckley [Lyricist] Dean Pitchford and [composer] Michael Gore, who are friends of mine, said, ”We’re doing a musical of Carrie and we want you to play the mother.” I was thrilled, and then we couldn’t come to business terms. They moved on to Barbara Cook [who played Carrie’s mother in a U.K. tryout run] and it got killed by the critics. Barbara said she wasn’t coming to Broadway with it. So they called me back.
Were there any technical issues with the show?
Buckley Oh, yeah.
Because there’s a rumor that Barbara Cook was nearly decapitated during the U.K. run.
Buckley There was this house set that comes down while another’s going up. That was a pretty scary moment. But they worked that out in New York. And I was always prepared to run from the set. [Laughs] But the fire sequences? That was pretty frickin’ scary. I mean, Linzi [Hateley, who played Carrie] had fire in her hands at one point. I was like, ”Damn!”
This was actual fire?
Buckley Yeah. I was real happy it wasn’t me holding the fire. That’s not my bailiwick.
What reaction did you get from audiences?
Buckley People were crazed. I’ve never been a part of anything like it. At the end of the show, Carrie stops my character’s heart on the stairway after I’ve stabbed her, and then Carrie crawls down to the front of the stage and dies. There’s a blackout, and then Linzi and I take a bow. The first night we finished and the entire audience, with one voice, started to boo. It was terrifying. The lights come back up on Linzi and me and the house jumps to their feet and gives us a standing ovation. It was a wild thing. But some people didn’t just dislike it, they loathed it.
Like New York Times critic Frank Rich, who compared the show to both the Titanic and the Hindenburg in the same sentence.
Buckley He loathed the show, but he liked Linzi and me. But he wrote these accolades about us in such a way that it was impossible to lift a quote about either one of us.
What do you think of the revival?
Buckley People have wanted to revive it for years. The writers just didn’t want to because they were so hurt. But enough time went by, and then a new collaborator [Altar Boyz director Stafford Arima] came in. To be honest, I wish I was in it!