Curtain Call

Carrie’s Mom Was Right

Reconsidering one of the most reviled mothers in the history of horror.

Carrie on Broadway.
A scene from the off-Broadway show Carrie

Photograph by

Let’s face it: Carrie’s mom was right. As she predicted, going to the prom at Bates High School turned out to be a really bad idea. And while stabbing your daughter with a knife may be taking the Tiger Mom approach a bit too far, Carrie was, at that point, a mass murderer with serious self-control issues. It’s time to reconsider one of the most reviled mothers in the history of horror.

In Brian De Palma’s classic movie, Margaret White is a religious nut and villainous lunatic. When Carrie mentions the prom to her, thunder actually explodes outside and Margaret tosses a drink in her daughter’s face. In order to get us to cheer on the outcast who destroys her high school, the movie makes us hate her mother. If it weren’t for a fleshed-out back-story (complete with her own evil step-father), Stephen King’s original novel would be even less sympathetic to Margaret. King describes the relentlessly abusive parent, an atheist’s nightmare of a religious fanatic, in animalistic images: her hands “claws” and her tiny head “on the end of her strong corded neck.”

In the fascinating new musical revival of Carrie, however, we finally get a fair take on Margaret White. Marin Mazzie, who plays Margaret, rejects the easy caricature of her as an unthinking zealot, and delivers a complex portrait of a mother who is passionate, well-intentioned, and tragically flawed. It’s a magnetic performance that never tips over into camp. This new Carrie dispenses with the blood-splattered baroque style of the original musical and the Grand Guignol suspense meets 1970s porn of the classic movie. In an age of jokey musicals, this sober, emotionally earnest show has the audacity to take Carrie seriously.

The minimalist production, with a revamped book by Laurence Cohen, who adapted the movie screenplay, also tries to make you care about the mean kids who come off as victims of an unchanging high school caste system as much as creators of it.

(The bully Chris has her own difficult parent.) And by showing Carrie—played with strong voice by Molly Ranson—struggle to harness her supernatural powers, she becomes a character with more agency than she is in the film. She doesn’t merely lose herself like some kind of teenage Incredible Hulk; she fights to gain control over her powers. Puberty strikes, she tries to deal with it, and she loses.

Does this new Carrie succeed in all its ambitions? Not even close. A pointless framing device distracts from the central mother-daughter drama. The high school kids remain too blandly undifferentiated. And the director Stafford Arima never finds a suitable visual vocabulary in the prom scene, which is an unforgivable dud, complete with jittery, chaotic video and static staging. I wish they could have found some joyous choreography to simulate the thrill of the movie’s 360-degree camera swivel during the prom dance between Tommy and Carrie. Conning you into believing in unlikely love is something musicals can do as well as any art form.

Still: Carrie fans should give this show a chance, mainly because of the provocative reimagining of Margaret White. Piper Laurie, who played the role in the movie, has said she never liked the script, that it worked better as comedy, which comes across in her performance, a devilishly fun cartoon of judgmental, small-minded religiosity. The musical, by contrast, refuses to treat Margaret’s faith as a joke, and even suggests it allows her to be more accepting of her daughter. While Carrie dreams of normalcy, Margaret White encourages her: “Being different is the Lord’s blessing.”

When Margaret describes being raped by her husband in the movie, she confesses to liking it. Here, not only is that embarrassing detail eliminated, but Mazzie makes you feel her hurt. Through songs that communicate a wrenching, desperate stoicism, Margaret convinces us she’s a parent who really does love her child. She knows Carrie’s violent tendencies better than anyone, but she tries to protect her daughter. When Carrie tells her that she wants to go to the prom, Margaret doesn’t immediately attack her or fly into a rage. Mulling it over, her mind wanders to her own past with men, and her fears grow. Her rigid denunciations are not excused here, but they are explained with more compassion.

Of course, it’s worth considering whether the world needs a more realistic, balanced Carrie, or if the source material, a baroque American gothic, can even support it. The movie had a delirious, pop-operatic style that will never be topped. And any new version of Carrie has to compete with Brian De Palma’s memorable suspense sequences, which are as brilliant as any ever filmed. On this count, the television remake and the sequel fail miserably. Even the original book, Stephen King’s first, doesn’t hold up nearly as well. But what this musical grasps is that the only thing that can possibly manipulate your emotions as well as Hitchcockian camerawork is the swelling crescendo of a heartfelt song. No bucket of blood or special effect carries the punch of “When There’s No One,” a ferocious Act II ballad that Mazzie injects with a stirring intensity.

The song must communicate the unthinkable: a woman settling on the decision to kill her only child. The lyrics (by Dean Pitchford) are economical, even slightly elusive. Margaret is caught in fervor but displays flashes of doubt. Margaret’s tragic flaw here is not fundamentalism, but narcissism. Contemplating her daughter’s demise, she can only see her own plight: “Who will hold me/ When there’s no one?/ When the smiles I used to see/ Are not for me/ What will I do?/ Nobody’s told me/ Who will hold me.”

This plaintive cry makes Margaret the lonely oddball, the ostracized victim, the one desperately in need of love. And for a moment, even though everyone knows she will soon stab her humiliated daughter drenched in pig’s blood, this moving song puts you on her side. That’s disturbing, but her lament is deeply human, and familiar. How many parents despair over children leaving the nest? Certainly more than those who think about murdering them.

Correction, March 12, 2012: Because of a production error, the photo caption originally accompanying this article referred to Carrie as a Broadway show.