Right out of college Jen Sese had a principal role in the Chicago-based tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and then she was in the Las Vegas company of Mamma Mia! But both those shows had already been running on Broadway. When she made her Broadway debut in 2010, it was as a replacement in the Tony-winning revival of Hair.
Thus, the thing Sese (pronounced sessy) has been itching to do professionally is a new show, where she’s in the original cast. “I’ve never had a chance to start a show from the ground up, and that’s what I was really seeking…the experience of having previews, and having a tech process, where we’re all exploring together,” she remarks.
This year Sese has gotten her wish. “I was excited to get to work on a new piece with people who were so passionate about creating something,” she says of her current project, MCC Theater’s Carrie, which opened off-Broadway on March 1.
Except, of course, Carrie really isn’t a new musical. It ran—for five ignominious performances—in 1988, Broadway’s most expensive flop ever. It has been reenvisioned, downscaled, overhauled for the MCC production, with so many changes to the book, score and production design that it feels like a new piece. The revisions were done by the musical’s original creators, composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen, along with director Stafford Arima, who’d seen Carrie on Broadway as a teenager and always believed it deserved a better fate.
“The passion of Stafford and the writers and MCC was so evident and pervasive,” Sese says of working on the show. “Stafford has this amazing energy where I just knew it was going to be a really exciting process as an artist. He’s such an open person, and listens and takes time. He’s an actor’s director, which is great. It’s been amazing to try something one way and the next day try it another. The writers have been so collaborative with us, especially our book writer, Larry.”
The revisal of Carrie has been only a partial success. While it curtailed the camp and bombast that doomed the Broadway production and did get some decent reviews, critical reception overall was not positive and MCC has moved up the closing date two weeks to April 8.
“Whatever people’s opinion is,” says Sese, “while it’s happening they’re engaged and captive. Every night when we’re on stage, we can tell people are with us. And that’s something special in and of itself. People may walk away and think one thing or the other—I’ve heard both extremes, and I believe both extremes—but while they were sitting in that theater, they felt something, and there are some amazing things happening on that stage.”
Carrie has been luring not just the musical theater geeks who know all about the original production but also fans of the Stephen King novel on which it’s based and of the 1976 Oscar-nominated film version. “I’ve never been in a show where everyone’s walking in with an idea of what it should be,” Sese says, adding: “It’s exciting—I like that dialogue. But I think what Stafford and the whole team was trying to create is something different from what the reviewers wanted. I think they wanted something that was a little more horrific, more sensational. And we wanted it to be very human and relatable. That was our choice, it was a very specific choice.”
In Carrie, Sese plays bespectacled Frieda, one of the title character’s classmates who attends that fateful prom where the bullied Carrie uses her telekinetic powers for revenge. But Sese couldn’t simply draw on her own high school experience for the portrayal, and not just because her prom didn’t turn into a bloodbath. “Usually, if I’m going to play someone in high school, I’m going to play someone that’s kind of awkward—because I was,” she states. “I was certainly not cool in high school. Since Carrie is an outsider, we are all the kids who are ‘in,’ so I had to remind myself that in my choices: ‘You’re a cool kid, you’re a popular kid.’”