Catching up with 'Carrie': An Interview with Molly Ranson

Last month I attended a preview performance of Carrie: The Musical with a small group of theatre fans. Before the show we struck up a conversation with a friendly woman who had seen the revival the previous night. Being a huge fan of the original production (through continuous bootleg tape play), I was anxious to find out what she thought. It turned out that her daughter, actress Elly Noble, was in the cast. Noble plays Helen, one of the high school kids who torment Carrie. It was Noble's first big show and her mom was beaming like a proud parent. Of course she loved her daughter's performance, but  was also enthusiastic about the entire production. She mentioned that they were still making changes and that Noble and cast were working non-stop to make it perfect.

It was a nice primer to the reboot and a lovely irony given the dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship we were about to witness on stage. After the show, which received a boisterous standing ovation, we took some photos with Noble and her mom and thanked them both for such a memorable experience. Still reeling from the excitement, we sought out the rest of the cast to congratulate them on their well-earned success. The last performer to leave the stage door was Carrie herself, Molly Ranson. Freshly scrubbed (sans blood) and in a knit cap and scarf, the lovely young woman appeared the complete antithesis of the tragic figure she portrayed on stage. Her warm smile belied the fact that mere minutes before she had just raised some telekinetic hell upon her co-stars. She was eager to answer any questions we had about the production and seemed genuinely pleased by our enthusiastic response. To paraphrase one of the many memorable songs, it was most definitely a "night we'd never forget." 

I caught up Ranson about a month later, just a few days after MCC Theater announced that they had extended the run of "Carrie" for another month. I was anxious to speak with the actress again, who has been associated with the "reimagining" since 2009 when she was part of the table read with Sutton Foster (who played Miss Gardner). Ranson and company had a full month of previews before opening night, but there had already been considerable changes made since that first table read. "I've never been able to do anything like this before," the actress admitted. "I've been working on it for two years and it's come such a long way. We had a really long preview process, longer than any preview that I've ever been a part of."

On the night I attended the show many of the cast members, including Noble and Blair Goldberg (who plays Nora), mentioned that they were making changes on a daily basis. A fun, fairly intricate introduction to "A Night We'll Never Forget" had been added that very day. It was a testament to the talent on stage that it went off flawlessly. "It was really important to see how the audience was responding to it," Ranson continued. "And that played a big role in whatever changes we made. If there were laughs that were unwanted (we) would kind of shift things… so that we were just getting to the heart of the story."

Ranson is grateful for the opportunity to work on a show from the ground up. She had nothing but positive words for the original creative team of Dean Pitchford, Michael Gore and Lawrence D. Cohen. "The writers have been so collaborative with all of us and have really given all the actors a chance to add our input. It's so brave to go back to a piece that is considered one of the biggest flops of all time, you know? So it's been really exciting for them to kind of realize their dream of ("Carrie") becoming what they wanted it to be all those years back."

The hard work throughout the long creative process seems to have already paid off for Ranson and company. "Carrie" opened to positive reviews, a glowing audience reception and, where it counts most of all, brisk ticket sales. The 22-year-old actress, who got her start as a ballet dancer, is no stranger to hard work. She attended the prestigious LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts where she majored in drama. Her experience at the famous institution (also known as the "Fame" school) inspired her to pursue a career in the theater. Her strong dedication to her craft quickly opened doors, including an audition with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. "I was six weeks into my freshman year in the musical theater program at NYU," Ranson said, "and I got offered an understudy role in "August: Osage County," which was the first play I ever did. I learned so much from everyone - and the Steppenwolf Company is just so incredible to work with."

Eventually Ranson found herself auditioning for a revival of a musical that had come and gone well before she was even born. The actress was familiar with the '76 movie version of "Carrie," but not the infamous Broadway production from ‘88, which closed after only 8 performances. "I didn't really know much about it, then I only had one audition for it. I found out I got the part and it was pretty surreal ‘cause I hadn't done a musical in a long time. I'd been doing "August: Osage County" for a while and hadn't really been singing. I thought, ‘Oh God, I've got to get my voice together now.'"

The brave actress had no trepidation signing up for the blood-soaked saga - even with its a storied past. "When I got the part I obviously researched the musical and I saw some of the footage from the original production. But I knew that what they wanted to do was a completely new reimagined version. The director, Stafford (Arima), wanted to tell a very human story… the story of an outsider, which is something anyone can relate to. It was exciting to approach it from a more human standpoint rather than the campiness that it kind of became infamous for."

The more human approach to the material is most clearly evident with the performance of Marin Mazzie as Carrie's fanatical mother Margaret White. The Tony-nominated actress brings a much more grounded character to life in the revival. Ranson, whose heartbreaking turn as her daughter is just as genuine, had nothing but kind words to say about her co-star. "I was really thrilled, obviously, to find out that Marin Mazzie was playing the mother – she's incredible." The two have been sharing a very tiny dressing room for the past several months, not to mention playing out some rather violent and emotionally draining scenes. But the horrific drama they live out night after night is far removed from their personal relationship. "She's one of the sweetest most generous people you could ever meet," Ranson said. "I've learned so much from her. She's been so supportive throughout all of it and is such an amazing actress. We do kind of have a mother/daughter relationship offstage as well. She's very motherly and warm and loving and just an amazing person." 

Since the production began, Ranson and cast have seen some familiar faces in the crowd, including Betty Buckley (who played Miss Gardner in the DePalma film and Margaret White in the '88 stage version). "That was really cool that she came!" gushed Ranson. "It must have been weird for her seeing it after all these years. But she seemed to really love it. We also had Piper Laurie (who played Margaret in the film version) come to our very first preview, so that was pretty cool."

The actress feels very strongly that this version of the play is both timely and dramatically sound. " Everybody who I've spoken to at the stage door has been saying that they were brought to tears by the story. Some high school kids said that they could really relate to the characters. It's been really great in that way… exactly how we were hoping people would respond." I asked her what she'd like a potential audience to know before entering the theatre. "Just expect to be moved. Which I think is something kind of unexpected when you think of Carrie: the Musical."

You can still catch Carrie during its extended run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan through April 8th.