Don't Mean to Be Rude

One of the coolest thing about my job and the kind of work we do is that I frequently get to talk to the writers of the shows we produce -- Jason Robert Brown, Bill Finn, Andrew Lippa, Adam Guettel, Steve Sondheim, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, Kyle Jarrow, and others. It's so helpful to hear them talk about what elements are really important to them, what their original intentions were, what they thought of their shows' original productions, etc. But now I've had what may be my coolest writer conversation yet...

I had the intense honor yesterday of talking on the phone with John Waters!

First of all, he's every bit as charming and funny as he seems in interviews. And really smart and incredibly literate. He talked about the story, the period (and films of the period), the style, the tone, the cultural context (apparently he did a shitload of research when he wrote the film), and he also gave me a lot of great Drapes vs. Squares background detail. And lest I forget, our guitar player Mike Bauer told me to ask Waters who would win in a fight -- Kathleen Turner or Ricki Lake. You'll have to ask me next time you see me what his answer was...

As much as I've already researched this show, I learned so much from listening to Waters talk about the story, the time period, the social context, etc. Here are some things I learned more about...

After World War II, America saw incredible prosperity but the price for that prosperity was conformity. More than perhaps any other time in American history, conformity was the dominant moral concern. And Cry-Baby (like almost all of Waters' films) is about that culture war between the conformists and the nonconformists. As terrified as American adults were by rock and roll later in the decade (in what I call the Grease era), they were even more terrified in 1954 when Cry-Baby is set, because no one (well, no white people) had ever heard music like this. Not only was it loud and rude and implicitly (sometimes explicitly) sexual, but it was "race music," a polite 50s way of saying black music.

Waters told me that he thinks Mrs. Vernon-Williams would be completely happy to consent to Cry-Baby and Allison's marriage if only Cry-Baby would dress like Baldwin, in other words, that the Drape designation was almost entirely about clothing. The Squares had money and so they could wear the "right" clothes. The Drapes (so named for the drape of the collar on their zoot suits, in the era before this one) didn't have money, the "right" clothing stores weren't in their part of town, and so they wore used clothes, cheap clothes, durable, work clothes. The Drapes were working class; the Squares were upper or upper-middle class. Waters said that in real life, the Drapes were all rednecks, hillbillies, and racists, though he softened them a bit (at least their racism) for the film. And in the musical, one of Cry-Baby's gang is black.

Waters said good models for Cry-Baby and the Drapes are Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo...

He said a good Drape girl model is Debra Paget (who was in Love Me Tender with Elvis). He said the role of Allison is an unusual one for him because it's the only heroine he ever wrote who was totally normal (when he said that, I scrolled through all his movies in my head and realized he was right!). He said the secret to Allison is that she's a good girl possessed by a bad girl.

We talked about our approach to the show and he confirmed for me that we're on the right track stylistically, thematically, comedically. He also confirmed for me that the Drapes are not at all bad people (after all, they're the heroes of the story), and that they perform the false image the Square world has of them, exaggerating it, as both protection and as a mocking of their Square oppressors. The Drapes were entertained, even vindicated in a weird way, by the considerable power of fear they held over the Squares -- much as it was with the Greasers in the late 50s and the hippies in the 60s. But Waters also made the point that the Squares aren't all losers and nerds -- they're just Square. He said the Squares would grow up to be hippies in the 60s (and, no doubt, investment bankers in the 80s); but the Drapes would always be Drapes (much like the Greasers in Grease), I guess because they're inexorably trapped in their socio-economic status.

He said he thinks the main reason Cry-Baby failed on Broadway -- not long after Hairspray had been such a massive hit -- is that Cry-Baby is truer to his movie. It's rude, gross, aggressive, disrespectful, and very sexual. The Drapes are conscious cultural terrorists (a term I think Waters coined, maybe for his hilarious Cecil B. Demented). Waters was very clear that the Drapes are not criminals (some petty shoplifting notwithstanding), they're not destructive, they're not mean. They're not actually "bad," but their response to the weight of their social oppression is to culturally terrorize the mainstream Square culture that oppresses them. They fight back with the only weapon they have -- their Otherness. In the musical, they not only assault the Squares with rock and roll, but also with crudity and cultural disrespect, using words like ass and singing about kissing with tongue...! Not your usual Broadway musical fare. But tailor-made for New Line. As Waters put it, it was the dirtiest family-friendly musical on Broadway. You can see the commercial problem. Hairspray really is Fun for the Whole Family. Cry-Baby is not. Cry-Baby itself is a bit of a cultural terrorist within the musical comedy form.

When we were done talking, he told me to call him or email him if I had any other questions. I had such a blast talking to him -- partly because I got such good information and insight into Cry-Baby but also because he's really one of my all-time top cultural heroes. I love his movies. I love his wacky, subversive, dark-as-pitch sense of humor. I love that he opened artistic doors for so many of us with his ballsy, brilliant films. I'm reading his memoir Shock Value and the way he talks about his circle of friends who made movies with him -- the Dreamland family -- is so much like the way we talk about the New Liners. I guess in a way, the New Liners are minor cultural terrorists...  At least for musical theatre geeks...

So much to think about! Thanks, John!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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