Well, It’s a perfect day to scare a square
For no apparent reason:
By singing, dancing, standing there,
Maybe just by sneezin'.
Your fear of other people
never ceases to amaze.
You call that class?
The show's central joke -- which doubles as potent social commentary on our world in 2012 -- is that the bad kids are really the Good Guys, and the good kids are really the Bad Guys. As far as these Squares in 1954 Baltimore are concerned, rock and roll is "race music" and it's Bad, so anyone who sings or listens to rock and roll is, ipso facto, Bad. No other details are necessary. As we all know, in the real world those who claim to be morally superior frequently aren't. Today conservatives accuse liberals of "moral relativism," but this is the worst kind.
The Drapes can scare the Squares merely by showing up, but that gives them a certain kind of Power.
It puts me in mind of the infamous quote from Newt Gingrich to the Occupy Wall Street movement: "Go get a job. Right after you take a bath." His condescension, his wild generalizations, and his false assumptions would be breathtaking if we didn't already know what a crazy dumbass he is. But it's a view held by many people, both in 1954 and today, that The Others (blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims, Drapes, mixed race Presidents...) are both alien to "our way of life" and therefore also morally inferior. I can't help but think the pro-segregation protesters in this photo look an awful lot like the Tea Party. Gingrich has said about Obama, "This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president." He couldn't possibly have won fair and square because he is Other.
This show of ours seems to be about this exact moment we're living through today, even though it was written several years ago, before the national onset of Obama Derangement Syndrome. But the outsider Cry-Baby can now easily stand in for Obama, rejected by "upstanding" Protestants, not for what he says or does, but for who he is.
One of the creators of Bat Boy had read that societies tend to scapegoat three types of people -- the unusual, the vulnerable, and the gifted. So the Bat Boy team made Edgar the Bat Boy all three of those things. But in a way, Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker is all three, too. He's different because he was born poor, he lives in the wrong part of town, and his parents were executed as criminals. He's vulnerable because society sees him both as an orphan, with no place in the Squares' carefully balanced social structure, and as the "bad seed" of his "criminal" parents. He has no place in the world and no place in the social structure; he has no protection. And last, he's also gifted in that he's a talented musician and singer. Like the Bat Boy, Cry-Baby is an outcast not for anything he's done, but for who he is.
And to some extent, all three things are true about Obama too. He's certainly different and gifted. And he was arguably vulnerable as a biracial kid in the 1960s.
Or for that matter, as a black man in America in 2012.
Cry-Baby gets at a fundamental truth of the postwar era. Many of the so-called "juvenile delinquents" of the early 1950s were born during the Depression, then lost their fathers to World War II during their most formative childhood years, and then got really damaged fathers back after the war, many of those fathers now suffering under the weight of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Cry-Baby having lost both his parents stands in for that whole transition generation, the ones lost between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, falling into that crack between the generation of deprivation and the generation of abundance.
This is the peak of American Cold War hysteria and racial hysteria, of nationalized, legitimized paranoia, of air raid drills and of seeing other Americans as “enemies” for no good reason other than the need for a boogeyman. Sound like any cable news network you know? Notice in this picture that these are kids protesting having to go to school with black kids. Fuck! And significantly, these are all things we're still doing – just replace Commies with Muslims and replace black folks with... um, well, black folks -- and it's like looking in a mirror. Well, a funhouse mirror.
What makes Cry-Baby so relevant to today's audiences is that it shows us a world of two mutually exclusive realities, exactly like our America in 2012, where we can't agree even on fundamental questions of fact and morality, where it feels like we don't all even live in the same world anymore. Cry-Baby lives in the 1950s that many of today's conservatives want to return to, a paradise for white, upper- and middle-class males, but purgatory and worse for everyone else.
One of the reasons we can laugh at all this darkness in Cry-Baby is that the writers have created an exaggerated reverse morality in this world, one exactly opposite to what most people in the audience believe in, a world in which the audience is automatically on the side of the oppressed. That didn't happen much in musicals before the 1960s, with only a few exceptions, like The Cradle Will Rock. Most old-school musicals did their best to reinforce their audiences' worldview, not challenge it.
But the rock musical changed that, with shows like Hair, Grease, Dreamgirls, Rent, Hedwig, Spring Awakening, Hairspray, bare, Love Kills, Passing Strange, American Idiot, and lots of others. Rock and roll was never meant to be for the mainstream culture; it was a rebel music form. Adults already had their own slick, bland, aggressively inoffensive music in 1954, from Doris Day, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Eddie Fisher, et al. Rock and roll was for teenagers. It was for outcasts. Jazz was made for the brain; it was about detachment. But rock and roll came straight from the heart and the groin. It was about primal feelings and desires. Rock and roll was animal, outlaw. It was sweaty. It didn't float like jazz. It exploded. It pounded. Rock and roll was actually banned in major cities across America. It terrified white adult America. Listening to rock became the ultimate rebellion, especially for white kids. Their parents saw it as the biggest danger to all that’s decent. Early rock and roll was the punk rock of its time.
And Elvis was the Sid Vicious of his day. Imagine if Sid Vicious wanted to take your daughter to Turkey Point. No wonder adults were so afraid...
To some extent, Cry-Baby works like Huckleberry Finn, in that what the characters find “wrong” or “anti-social” we the audience find innocent and innocuous, even praiseworthy. Rock and roll doesn't scare us today. The cultural backdrop of the show is about how much our perspective, values, norms have changed, and how not fabulous the 1950s really were for many people…
And also how much we haven't changed...
And by extension, Cry-Baby also says something about old-school musicals. What we ask from a musical comedy today has really changed since 1954. Cry-Baby argues subliminally that "Golden Age" musical theatre (1943-1964) may be a jumping off place for new works of art, but in their original form most of those musicals no longer speak to us. The shows and the form itself have to be retrofitted in order to work in the 21st century. But when the retrofitters really know what they're doing, the new work can be really interesting and really exciting.
Our Cry-Baby adventure continues...
Long Live the Musical!