It's an interesting position I'm in with Cry-Baby.
With most shows we produce, we can assume that the original production is at least close to what the writers intended, or even their ideal, so I know I can learn things from those original choices even if I don't use them. But I've found over the years that I can't always make that assumption. I've discovered that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were not happy with the original Broadway productions of Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita; in both cases, the shows became much bigger than they intended and the rock and roll got lost along the way. (New Line took them both in completely different directions and got rave reviews.) I also know Sondheim wasn't all that happy with the concept for the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, which he wanted to be a small, scary, chamber musical. (Which is what New Line did with it.)
In some cases, the original production of a show just flat out sucks, and sadly, it can effectively mask really wonderful material, making it appear mediocre and amateurish. It can kill a great show. That happened to High Fidelity, bare, and Cry-Baby.
All of that to say that we have a model for what our show isn't supposed to be, but only hints at what it should be. It's essentially like working on a show that's never been produced, except that they got a chance to polish the material. As I said in my last post, I think the fundamental misstep for the original director and designers were misunderstanding what kind of show this is. It's neither old-school musical comedy or the new trendy, self-referential meta-musical (which I hate).
It's a neo musical comedy -- lots of laughs and lots to say. I like to think of it as "poetry, politics, and popcorn;" in other words, great storytelling, genuine substance, and lots of fun. It's the New Line formula in a nutshell. If you sprinkle a few fucks over the top...
What that means is that even an outrageous comedy like Cry-Baby is to be taken seriously. The more truthful and the more committed our performances are, the funnier it will be. And the more authentic it is, the more emotional it will be. We know how this works; we do it all the time. In the climactic scene of Bat Boy, we had audiences laughing, then crying, and then laughing again. We did it again at the end of Return to the Forbidden Planet. We do it a lot. We're diabolical that way.
I think the key to Cry-Baby is the Drapes, the "bad" kids. They know everybody looks down on them, so they perpetually strike preemptively by being intentionally, childishly nasty to everyone, by performing their bad kid status as a layer of protection. Kinda like the fat kid who makes his own fat jokes before anyone else can, or the gay kid who knows he can't hide his gayness so he brandishes it like a weapon. And the childishness of their insults is like an extra, added fuck you to the intended victim, as if they're not worth more. But the Drapes' nastiness is not who they really are -- they're not bad people -- it is their armor. As they say in politics, they're attacking from a defensive position. So the actors have to be careful not to play these extreme characters as cartoons. They're not cartoons. These are real people acting in extreme ways. For a reason.
And the key to the Squares is fear. I saw a quote getting passed around Facebook not too long ago from a rabbi, telling us to listen to everything that's said and done in the world, always with one question at the back of our minds: does this bring fear or hope into the world?
It's a great question in politics (and I think it's what separates the parties), but I'm realizing that it applies to everyday life as well. The Drapes offer Allison a kind of hope -- the lure of sexual and emotional freedom and the relentless self-expression of rock and roll. But Baldwin and the Squares offer her only fear. If you don't count global thermonuclear war, the Squares are most afraid of difference. They're afraid of The Other, a basic, primal, human instinct that probably served us well back in the cave man days, but not so much today...
Late in 2010, researchers in London announced a pretty stunning discovery about brain structure. According to this study, the brains of conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala than liberals. This is the most primal part of the brain at its very center, and it controls reflexive impulses, like anxiety and fear. Conservatives also tend to have a smaller anterior cingulate in the front of the brain, which controls higher functions like optimism, curiosity, and the reconciling of conflicting information -- in other words, nuance. Another study that year found that liberals tend more to have a dopamine receptor gene called DRD4 which causes them to seek out novelty, and to be curious about the people and world around them, and this tends to make them more accepting of difference. The researchers found that if someone with this receptor gene also has an active social life in adolescence and meets lots of different people, those two factors together will likely make that person a liberal.
Now, if you know the story of Cry-Baby, if you've seen the movie, re-read that last paragraph with the Squares and the Drapes in mind. The Squares know the Drapes are Bad. No nuance there, no hope for redemption, case closed. You can't beat the system. Poor Baldwin and his puny amygdala.
When I watched the presidential debates this weekend, I couldn't help but think about all this. I listen to Romney, Santorum, and the others go on and on about who we should afraid of, and how dark our future looks, and all I can think about (other than Back to the Future II) is how their brains must be structured differently from mine. Lucky for me, I don't fear much. I suppose if I did have an enlarged fear center, either New Line wouldn't exist at all, or we'd be producing Joseph and Nunsense.
Shoot me now.
But I also thought to myself, Baldwin will grow up to be Mitt Romney! It's an interesting way to look at the Cry-Baby story -- who's afraid and who's not? And what does that mean about how they perceive the world and people around them? Maybe Allison is the only truly fearless character, at least at the beginning of the story.
Lots to think about... Rehearsal continues apace...
Long Live the Musical!