|Latimes.com | Entertainment News||Submit Events | Advertise | Print Edition | Archives | Help|
Broadway-bound 'Cry-Baby' debuts on La Jolla stage
John Waters' adaptation puts filmmaker's crossover appeal to the test.
By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times
NEW YORK — To an inventory of bare necessities a big song-and-dance musical requires for a rehearsal upright piano, sprung floor, athletic tape, bottled water the cast of the new musical "Cry-Baby" can add one essential provision: breath mints, and lots of them.
"I had some bad onions on my burger," confesses lead actress Elizabeth Stanley by way of explanation for a handful of Altoids, which her costar, James Snyder, will be grateful she's popped when they embark on their next, er, duet.
It's moist and it's pink
It's a muscle, I think
It's as smooth as the blanket I brung
But it lives all alone
With no friends of its own
Girl, can I kiss you with tongue?
"That's the lyric I wrote that made John Waters say, 'Hire that guy,' " said David Javerbaum, a writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" who teamed with Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger to write the songs for this new "Cry-Baby." Based on Waters' 1990 film starring a young, pre-Tim Burtonized Johnny Depp, "Cry-Baby" opens at the La Jolla Playhouse Nov. 21 and heads for Broadway next spring.
His own big shoes to fill
Is Broadway ready to give another of Waters' funky valentines a sloppy wet kiss? "Hairspray," based on Waters' 1988 hit movie, netted eight Tonys in 2003, is currently running in New York, London and South Africa, and this year spawned its own movie adaptation. Given that precedent, "Cry-Baby" is likely to face the kind of high expectations, and invidious comparisons, that have greeted Mel Brooks, who just followed up his phenom "The Producers" with a musical version of "Young Frankenstein."
"When I gave my speech to the investors, I stood up and said, 'I know what you're all thinking, and yes lightning can strike twice,' " said Waters, who held up a Daily News cover showing the Empire State Building hit by lightning. "I understand that, like it or not, it's going to be compared to 'Hairspray.' But this one is more John Waters-esque, in a way. It's ruder."
"Affectionately rude," is how Adam Epstein, one of the show's three producers, said he prefers to characterize the show, which also includes such song titles as "You Gotta Watch Your Ass," "I'm Infected" and "Screw Loose." True, "Cry-Baby" doesn't get much rougher than some French kissing, cigarette puffing and the occasional drawn switchblade and as Waters points out, "Hairspray" was PG, while "Cry-Baby" was PG-13.
"I joke that 'Hairspray' is the musical every high school will do, and 'Cry-Baby' is the one every high school will want to do but their principal won't let them," says Mark O'Donnell, who co-wrote the scripts for both stage adaptations with Thomas Meehan.
It's not just competition from another Waters-based show that makes "Cry-Baby" a gamble for Epstein and co-producers Allan S. Gordon and Elan V. McAllister, all of whom also worked on "Hairspray." There is also the unavoidable presence on Broadway of an- other leather-and-poodle-skirts romp through the '50s, "Grease."
What's more, unlike that show's bubble gum-pop score or, say, the show-tune-heavy "Bye Bye Birdie," the sound of "Cry-Baby" is straight-up rockabilly, boogie-woogie and white-bread doo-wop, courtesy of pop chameleon Schlesinger, a musical theater newcomer who has written songs to order for films such as "That Thing You Do!" and "Josie and the Pussycats."
Meehan and O'Donnell, whom Epstein felt "channeled John Waters' language perfectly" on "Hairspray," were brought back, but otherwise "Cry-Baby" has a new creative team, including songwriters Schlesinger and Javerbaum, choreographer Rob Ashford, director Mark Brokaw and designers Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lights).
"This team is so eclectic," says Christopher Ashley, artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse, which has been a producing partner since a workshop earlier this year. "The mix of people is very different from the 'Hairspray' mix."
"We've got some new and some old blood, and I think they all understand my sense of humor and want to keep it in there," said Waters, who, in contrast to Brooks, is more an executive producer of these stage adaptations than a hands-on creative collaborator.
The question, then, may not be so much whether this new gang can pull off another boffo hit, but whether Waters' brand of nicely nasty Americana, so well-worn in "Hairspray," can bowl over Broadway again.
Waters' experience with the original film might have given the adaptation's producers pause. After the success of "Hairspray," an independent release that broke out as a sleeper hit, this underground filmmaker who had spent the 1970s grossing out art-house audiences with such landmark provocations as "Pink Flamingos" and "Desperate Living" was courted for the first time by Hollywood studios.
He ended up getting a $12.5-million budget from Universal to make "Cry-Baby," a musical romance set among Baltimore's "squares" and "drapes" a Baltimore-specific term referring to greasers, juvenile delinquents and, more broadly, the town's lower classes. He even landed Depp, on his way out from the Fox series "21 Jump Street," his first million-dollar paycheck.
Waters also insisted on making "Cry-Baby" a bona fide musical of sorts. In addition to culling period source music, he hired L.A.-based roots rocker Dave Alvin to co-write original songs, a few of them with Brill Building guru Doc Pomus, who had written several hits for Elvis Presley. Depp and costar Amy Locane then lip-synced their numbers, movie-musical style.
The cast also included "Hairspray" lead Ricki Lake and Waters regular Mink Stole and, perhaps most memorably, a fictive family unit played by fallen heiress Patty Hearst, "Ozzie & Harriet's" David Nelson and former porn star Traci Lords.
The result was an extravagantly heartfelt movie-length gag a lovingly detailed Technicolor send-up of 1950s teen movies. It began with a mass polio vaccination and climaxed with a game of chicken.
Is it any wonder it didn't find an audience?
"Audiences smelled a rat, correctly: me," Waters said with a chortle. "We were parodying the teen movie, and Johnny Depp's teenage fans maybe didn't know what an Elvis movie was."
For a clue as to how a younger generation may have received the movie, consider the reaction of twentysomething James Snyder, who plays Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker in the new stage musical, and who rented the movie while auditioning for the part earlier this year.
"I was like, 'What is this?' " Snyder said. "It's so absolutely absurd. Johnny Depp is not good in the movie, and Amy Locane? Horrid. And yet they're brilliant at the same time. I've seen the movie probably eight or nine times by now, and every time I love it more and more."
Indeed, though Waters typically tells people that "Hairspray" is about race and "Cry-Baby" is about class, the latter film is essentially a brittle pop artifact a winking genre parody grafted onto a "Romeo & Juliet" template and larded with the relentless irony of its casting, its mock-earnest dialogue ("Give your heart time to think") and a heavy dose of pop-cultural hindsight.
And though it has its share of outright one-liners and pratfalls, most of the film's humor is conveyed via its not-quite-poker-faced tone. As with "Hairspray," Broadway's high stakes would demand that a stage version of "Cry-Baby" be both more serious and more funny.
In practice, the two extremes are not that far apart.
"In comedy, we figure the more serious it looks, the funnier it will be," says co-librettist O'Donnell, who with Meehan conceived a back story involving a terrible social injustice that has rendered Cry-Baby a brooding, James Dean-like outsider. How seriously this crime should be taken, though, may be indicated by the casting of the flawlessly droll Harriet Harris as a prim society matron implicated in the plot.
"The key with this material is that you don't comment on it," said Brokaw, a director known primarily for non-musicals ("This Is Our Youth," "How I Learned to Drive"). "John has created a very specific world that is full of extraordinary given circumstances that are crazy and wacky, but they're real for that piece of the world. The characters are not in on the joke."
"It doesn't work if you're constantly breaking through the story and being reminded that these are just actors," said Schlesinger. "The actors have to play it in an almost exaggeratedly straight way."
Lead actor Snyder has found that exaggerated tone an often maddening challenge.
"It's a heightened reality, so we can't play the comedy," he said. "It drives me a little nuts. I don't get shtick; I don't get to do bits. That's the beauty of someone like Mark Brokaw he's all about the truth. I'll come up with a bit, and he'll go, 'That's great, but let's go for the truth.' I can't wait to actually have an audience to see how the quote-unquote truth actually plays."
He's not the only one. After 3 1/2 years of development and a $300,000 workshop earlier this year, "Cry-Baby" is ripe for a public reckoning.
"The paying audience is your last major collaborator," said Meehan, a musical theater veteran who wrote the book for "Annie" and co-wrote the books for both of Mel Brooks' Broadway musicals. "Six hundred people in a theater in La Jolla can tell us so much we don't know yet." One thing above all: "If they laugh, it's funny. If they don't, it's not."
In the fun house mirror of John Waters' world, of course, what's funny can be an intensely subjective matter; despite smatterings of popular success, he still essentially defines "cult director." But O'Donnell feels that the mainstream has caught up with this fundamentally good-natured bad boy.
"It took a while for people to recognize it, but John is a great font of Americana, in his own unique way," says O'Donnell. "And one of the things that the American musical theater has always celebrated is Americana."
"Musicals are a playground," said Epstein, who was also a producer on "The Wedding Singer" and "The Crucible." "It's the gospel of good times. A musical basically says that everything can be resolved with song and dance."
But a little bit of tongue doesn't hurt.
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives.
Article licensing and reprint options