It's So Hard to Be Sixteen and Schizo

I think one of the biggest things that will make New Line's Cry-Baby distinct from its Broadway production (in the picture) will be the acting. I don't mean to be snarky about it, but as it is with too many big-budget Broadway musicals, the focus in the original production was not on character development or relationships or story. Just laughs and gags. Our production will be really funny, but it won't be only that. There's so much more to this show.

I'm so proud of how much our actors are bringing their characters to rich, full life, because it proves what a good show this is, what a strong, smart, subversive script and a pitch-perfect, ironically period score.

The material was not the problem in New York.

Someone taught me years ago that the key to playing drunkenness is not to play the effects of the alcohol but instead to play the struggle to overcome the impaired motor skills and verbal skills, to play the attempt not to look drunk, to play the altered reality that someone who's really drunk perceives. In other words, don't play the stumble, play the attempt not to stumble. I didn't realize it until very recently, but what that person was really telling me was just to play the truth, to play the inner reality of the moment, not the appearance of the reality.

Likewise, the key to playing the batshit crazy Lenora in Cry-Baby is not to play the crazy, but instead to play the character from inside her fractured reality. Lenora doesn't think she's crazy, so if the actor plays her crazy, the actor will be in conflict with the character. Everything Lenora says and does makes sense to her, so the actor has to come from that warped perception of normalcy. Lenora's reality is so at odds with ours that she actually thinks "Screw Loose" is a serious love song, complete with a stalker-ish invitation for sex at the end, and the hilarious implication in the last two words that she might just be the town pump. She doesn't think the song is funny, and so neither can the actor when she's onstage. And yet the more serious Lenora is, the funnier it gets. Our Lenora (Terrie, in the picture), has really found this balance, to the point where you actually feel a little sorry for her a couple times, in between her bouts of shouting, fainting, and talking to people who aren't there.

Ryan and Taylor are just as assuredly finding Cry-Baby and Allison from the inside out. Instead of just playing the leather-jacketed "bad kid" (as James Snyder did on Broadway), Ryan is playing Cry-Baby from the inside, his decency, his sensitivity, his emotional wounds, his intelligence. After all, as David R. Shumway writes in The Other Fifties, "Elvis does not come across as cruel in spite of the aggression of his performance, and he certainly does not seem the sophisticated and insinuating adult. Innocence, rather, is the dominant characteristic of the Elvis of the Fifties. . . The official Elvis is marked by modesty, deferential charm, and the soft-spoken assumption of commonsense virtues. . . The lyrics of his major early hits almost invariably present a wounded or vulnerable lover." At the same time, Shumway writes, "His motions suggested intercourse and his performance was read as a public display of sex. Elvis thus put the sex that the name rock 'n' roll described explicitly into his performance. But in presenting himself as an object of sexual incitement or excitation, he violated not just Victorian morality, but more importantly the taboo against male sexual display." Cry-Baby is both innocent and corrupter at the same time. And Ryan has found that delicate balance.

And instead of just playing a cardboard "good girl," Taylor is playing Allison the individual, not conforming to any stereotypes and far less "good" (i.e., conforming) than the "good girl" label implies. Allison is smart, adventurous, open-minded and open-hearted. Instead of playing her in opposition to the Drapes (as they did in the original show), Taylor is playing Allison as the real misfit of the story, trapped in the squeaky clean world of waspy upper-class when she really belongs in the rock and roll world of the Drapes. She discovers that the Drapes aren't the misfits – they're comfortable in their world. And really, the same is true of the Squares. But Allison is a Drape at heart, even if she lives in the Square world when we meet her. Or as John Waters put it to me, "She's a good girl possessed by a bad girl."

In creating Cry-Baby on film (and most of his other films, now that I think about it), John Waters was essentially celebrating and satirizing exploitation films, movies that dealt with "forbidden" subjects that mainstream film studios wouldn't touch, particularly back in the days of the Motion Picture Code – sex, nudity, drugs, gender, gangs, rock and roll. And so Cry-Baby onstage becomes an exploitation musical. (The only other example I can think of in that category would be Reefer Madness, which is really more sketch comedy with songs, than satire or exploitation.)

You'll notice that Cry-Baby has all the standard exploitation character types: The Innocent (Allison), The Corrupter (Cry-Baby), The Parents (Mrs. Vernon-Williams), The Crusader (Baldwin), and the Charlatan (also Baldwin?). But because John Waters is the musical's source material, there's a lot more than shock and exploitation here. Though in classic exploitation films, the characters are built more on moral positions than on human psychology, Waters and his stage adapters retain the exploitation models but bring them into the richness and complexity of modern storytelling.

Allison, after all, is the real protagonist here, not Cry-Baby. She's the one who goes on the journey of discovery, just as in other Hero Myths like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Johnny Appleweed. She's the one who changes, who learns about herself. Cry-Baby is her "wise wizard," her Obi Wan Kenobi. He shows her the path, but she has to choose to take it. In the book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, Eric Schaefer writes, "Each character [in an exploitation movie] functions to either receive, promote, stifle, or create the need for education about sex." Allison is in a completely different place at the end of the story from where she starts out. The central conflict of the show is her desire to explore and learn, while Mrs. Vernon-Williams (at first) tries to stop that from happening. It's the universal conflict between the child leaving the nest and the parent trying to hold them back to protect them. But thanks to John Waters' unique view of the world, Mrs. V-W gains self-knowledge herself and ultimately understands that she must let Allison grow up.

It's such fun in rehearsal now to watch Taylor/Allison as she discovers the Drapes and their music, ventures into their world, does her best to learn the Drape ways, falls in love, and then ultimately finds her place with the Drapes – not just because she's in love with Cry-Baby, but because this is where she belongs. As Allon White writes in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, "What is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central."

As an example of why it's important to come at a role from the inside instead of from the outside (you'd think this would be obvious to actors, but it often isn't), in my latest book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, one section of my Grease chapter applies to Cry-Baby as well. After all, Johnny Depp said in an interview that Cry-Baby is "Grease on acid"...
Many people are uncomfortable with Grease's ending because they miss the fact that Sandy doesn’t actually become a slut in the finale; she just learns how to dress like one, finally letting go herself of the tendency of too many Americans to stigmatize sexuality as dirty and shameful. She gives up the desexualizing poodle skirt that hid away her female form and replaces it with clothing that reveals and celebrates – and takes ownership of – her body and its adult curves. This is not a descent into decadence for Sandy; it is a throwing open of the doors of her moral prison. The authors’ intentions are clear in a stage direction in the final scene. After describing Sandy’s new hypersexual look – the tight pants, leather jacket, earrings, wild new hair – the script says, “Yet she actually looks prettier and more alive than she ever has.” 
The end of Grease suggests that a lasting, healthy relationship is only possible when both partners are openly and completely themselves, without regard for other people’s opinions, social conventions, or personal insecurities – and also when neither of them are afraid of their own human sexuality. This was not the message of the conforming adult world; this was a uniquely teen perspective. Both Sandy and Danny have to learn to be themselves, to shake off the masks of “cool” and “respectable.” If there is any question about who the protagonist of the show is, Sandy is primary; she’s the one who has changed, who has learned something significant. The same may be true of Danny, but to a much lesser extent. 
But the ending of Grease isn’t a “moral” and shouldn’t be read that way. It doesn’t declare what we should or shouldn't do; it's an objective and accurate description of America in the 1950s. Sandy is America in its progression from puritanical repression in the 50s to sexual freedom in the Sexual Revolution of the 60s. And yet, as she tells Danny in “All Choked Up,” she isn’t ready to give up her virginity quite yet. Too many people believe that the message of Grease is that to win the man you love, you have to be a slut. But there's not a single line or lyric anywhere in the show to suggest Sandy has changed anything but her looks. Like Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, Sandy learns the secret that anyone can fit in just by talking and looking the right way (and don’t we all do that to some extent?). Her overnight transformation proves that it’s all just play-acting – and that they all know it! She has learned what Rizzo and the girls have known all along. Sandy has become one of them just by changing her clothes! She allows herself the freedom of the coming 1960s, a refusal to fear her own sexuality or to see sex as dirty, the freedom to be able to talk and laugh openly about sex. 
But behind all the rest, there’s a simpler, more subversive message. Sandy isn’t just saved by how she dresses; she’s saved by singing rock and roll. It isn’t until she can achieve the authenticity and sexual frankness of rock and roll by singing “All Choked Up” that she can be healed. Grease doesn’t moralize; it just reports. Sandy’s triumphant line late in the show, “Goodbye to Sandra Dee,” puts away not only Sandy’s false good-girl persona, but also the 1950s as a whole, a world in which the goody-goody Sandra Dee can be a role model, in which facades were cracking. We were moving on…

For both Sandy and Allison, the journey isn't from one group to another, from one culture to another; it's a journey from living a lie to living truthfully, from being oppressed to being free. Authenticity is the holy grail Allison seeks, and she's lucky enough to be living right at the birth of rock and roll, an art form built entirely, specifically, on emotional authenticity. It's why Cry-Baby's nickname (and the show's title) is explicitly defined by emotion – Cry-Baby is literally emotion incarnate – to capture that massive cultural shift from John Wayne to Marlon Barndo, from swing to rock and roll.

Like Sandy in Grease, Allison finds herself when she discovers rock and roll. And all of this is why these characters have to be played truthfully, from the inside-out. You can't be phony and superficial when you're telling a story about the quest for authenticity. The biggest laughs in the show come not from punchlines, but from the moments that reveal either the freakish inauthenticity of the Squares or the uncomfortable, even sometimes ugly authenticity of the Drapes.

As I've said before on this blog, Grease takes place just five years after Cry-Baby, so the cultural zeitgeist is nearly the same and it's such an incredibly interesting – and transformational – moment in American cultural history. No wonder we love the 50s. It was the beginning of so much. Despite all its considerable wackiness, Cry-Baby has some really smart, really insightful things to say about our culture, both then and now, and the more we work on the show, the more impressed I am with it. I can't wait to share it with our audiences. Tickets sales are going really well, so get your tix early!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. For more in this topic, see "Swichblades Laughin' at a Butter Knife."

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