See, I've Got a Vision

There's a fine, fine line, as Kate Monster would tell us.

We walk a potentially treacherous tightrope with a lot of our shows, quite a few of which have wacky, outrageous surfaces and serious, intense, sometimes even depressing subtext. But the Cry-Baby tightrope may be the hardest to balance on. After all, it's concept musical in which the style of old-school musical comedy wars with the style of the modern rock musical, and this stylistic battle serves as a big, blazing metaphor for the central conflict of the story.

But that's not all there is to it... The story is also originally a John Waters movie, which I'd like to think of as its own film subgenre, which has an outlaw, even antagonistic sensibility, even though Waters' Cry-Baby was more mainstream than his earlier films. How does that translate into such a joyful, old-fashioned form like musical comedy? Well it's an altered form of musical comedy, more postmodern I think than even the Sondheim shows, more a neo musical comedy like Bat Boy and Urinetown.

Waters' movies generally want to tell you to fuck off (though they're really only kidding) and musical comedy wants to wrap you in its warm and happy arms. It sounds like a mash-up that couldn't work. But it really does. And I think it's that very tension that makes the show interesting and complex and political enough to hold an audience who wants a little meat in their theatre. Metaphorically speaking.

Because our production of Cry-Baby will be much smaller than the original, we're constantly having to make decisions about how to handle various elements of the show with a cast of little more than half the size of the original. Add to that the fact that the original Broadway production got the show pretty drastically wrong, so most of their choices are of no use to us at all. And with each decision and each choice comes a question of style and tone. What are the rules in this hybrid universe? What can we do and what can't we do?

Because of this Battle of the Styles, half our characters live by one set of rules, and the other half live by another set. The Squares live in a rosy 1950s musical comedy, in which "Squeaky Clean" is one of those Clever Charm Songs. The Drapes live in a gritty, off Broadway rock musical world, in which sexuality and The Beat (which, as we all know, You Can't Stop) rule the day, and the driving "You Can't Beat the System" at the end of Act I serves as a powerful indictment of our unequal society and an American justice system which rigs the game in favor of the rich and the mainstream.

If you've ever seen footage of the original productions of Grease and Hair -- or the more recent shows, Love Kills and American Idiot -- you'll know what I'm talking about. These rock shows are raw, ragged, intense, aggressive, violent, spontaneous, sexual. These shows (when they're done right) are the punk rock of musical theatre.

Add to all of this conceptual complexity the fact that half our cast plays both Squares and Drapes at various times during the show. So many of our actors have to live in both worlds at one time or another.

It's been fun watching Robin choreograph wildly different numbers in the two styles. She staged this hilariously goofy, posy confection for "Squeaky Clean," and on the flipside, last night she finished "A Little Upset," this heavy, masculine, angry number with a short football game in the middle of a prison breakout. On my end, I get to have fun because in rehearsal because I get to play all these awesome old-school songs and also these pounding rock songs. Our scenic designer Scott Schoonover has had to find a way to accommodate both worlds at once but also separately. Our costumer Amy Kelly has to give the Squares slightly more styled, less naturalistic clothes than the Drapes will wear. Like I said, it's a tightrope. A very high-concept tightrope.

And let's be clear -- it's not important that the audience understands all this stuff consciously. Like much in our art form, all this will work subliminally.

Now that I think (and write) about it, I realize that Cry-Baby fully embodies the revolution that I've been talking about for the last year or more, the fact that we're at the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era and that the rock musical is now becoming the primary form of the American musical theatre. Just as Show Boat in 1927 marked the end of the first era of musical comedy and the beginning of the serious musical drama by combining the two forms in one show, just as Follies in 1971 marked the end of the mid-century musical comedy and the ascendance of the Prince-Sondheim concept musicals, so too Cry-Baby marks an epochal change in the art form today. Its New York production was too big a clueless mess for the critics to see the intelligence and complexity at the heart of this clever, rich, political piece of theatre, but all that is there. This is one of those shows like Rocky Horror and Grease that have so much more going on under the surface than some critics are able to see.

When you think about how much people dismiss Grease now, partly because of the fun but tamed-down movie version and partly because of the awful, empty-headed revivals that keep coming back over and over like something out of a George Romero movie, it's important to remember that some people really understood how smart and authentic Grease was when it first opened. Critic Michael Feingold wrote about the show for the first publication of the script the same year it opened on Broadway, and what he wrote is just as descriptive of the Drapes in Cry-Baby as it was of the Greasers. After all, Cry-Baby takes place only four years earlier than Grease, so Rizzo could easily be Wanda's older sister... Feingold wrote:
The people of Grease are a special class of aliens, self-appointed cynics in a work-oriented, upwardly mobile world. We know from the prologue that history has played its dirty trick on them before they even appear. They are not at the reunion; they will not be found among the prosperous Mrs. Honeywells and the go-getting vice presidents of Straight-Shooters, Unlimited. Nor, on the other hand, did they actively drop out; that was left to their younger siblings and cousins. (Memory of a line too explicit, and cut from the script early on: "Course I like life. Whaddaya think I am, a beatnik?") They were the group who thought they had, or chose to have, nowhere to go. They stayed in the monotonous work routine of the lower middle class, acquiring, if they were lucky, enough status to move to one of the more nondescript suburbs, and losing their strongest virtue – the group solidarity that had made them, in high school, a force to be reckoned with. It is appropriate that the finale of Grease celebrates that solidarity, with the saving of its heroine, and the reclamation of its hero from the clutches of respectability – a good lusty razz at the sanctimonious endings of those Sal Mineo j.d. [juvenile delinquent] movies (Somebody Up There Likes Me, remember?) wherein the tough punk is saved for society at the end. Everybody knew you didn’t go to those films to see that part...

I hadn't realized until now that the kids of Cry-Baby's Baltimore and Grease's Chicago are essentially of the same generation. Rock & roll had matured more by the late 50s of Grease, starting to find its authentic voice, but it was just being born in 1954 when Cry-Baby is set. And in both shows, the 1950s easily stand in for our own tumultuous times of cultural and political upheaval. There is so much under the surface of both shows, there for those who want to see it, subtle enough for those who choose to ignore it. Feingold also wrote in that introduction:
Grease does not discourse about our presence in Saigon. Nor does it contain in-depth study of such other 50s developments as the growth of mega-corporations and conglomerates, the suburban building boom that broke the backs of our cities, the separation of labor’s political power from the workers by union leaders and organization men. Although set in and around an urban high school, it does not even discuss one of the decade’s dominant news stories, the massive expansion of the university system, and the directing of a whole generation of war babies toward the pursuit of college degrees. Grease is an escape, a musical designed to entertain, not to concern itself with serious political and social matters. But because it is truthful, because it spares neither the details nor the larger shapes of the narrow experience on which it focuses so tightly, Grease implies the topics I have raised, and many others. So I think it is a work of art, a firm image that projects, by means of what it does contain, everything it has chosen to leave out. And between the throbs of its ebullience, charm, and comedy, it conveys a feeling, about where we have been and how we got to where we are…

The same is true of Cry-Baby. It's pure, rowdy fun. Goddamn is it fun! But it's also a sardonic and clear-eyed look at our fucked-up culture, still not progressed far enough beyond the petty bigotries of the 1950s. And it's also a look at our art form. The old forms can only act as jumping off places now; they can no longer stand on their own. But we're in luck, because amazing, exciting, daring new musicals are being written every day. And we New Liners are lucky enough that we get to work on a lot of them.

It is such an honor that the Cry-Baby writers have trusted us with their creation, and also that we get to work on a show this interesting, this fun, this fearless. I am so often humbled before the amazing, beautiful theatre pieces we continually have the privilege of working on. And there are more to come – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal, and other really cool shows...

I love my job.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

0 comments: