Cry-Baby rehearsals are going really, really well.
We're done blocking the show, everything's choreographed, and Tuesday night, we ran the whole show for the first time. And it was really great! Sure, there were bumps along the way, mostly just brain farts, but it had great energy, a great sense of fun, and some wonderful surprises...
I have the continual privilege of working with some amazing character actors, but Dowdy is truly one of the best character actors I've ever worked with. That he has a gorgeous, killer voice is just a bonus...
And holy shit, speaking of great character actors... Terrie has given Lenora not just a complete and total break with reality, but she also gives her this strangely endearing strength and optimism that eventually Cry-Baby will be hers. You gotta admire her tenacity. I sometimes wonder if Lenora would seem as deeply deranged if she were in love with someone who actually loved her back. Yeah, she probably would. I've got poor Terrie literally running around the stage throughout the show, getting continually pushed and shoved and generally manhandled, passing out on stage, screaming (one time with an awesome Exorcist voice), and then of course she gets what may be the funniest song in the whole show, "Screw Loose," the outrageously bizarre power ballad lovingly ripped off from Patsy Cline's "Crazy," but taken to its logical, comically terrifying extreme.
I heard someone say in an interview one time that the heart of all great comedy is desperation. I never thought about it that much until I the other night when I watched the remake of Once Upon a Mattress, with Carol Burnett, Tracy Ullman, Tommy Smothers, Matthew Morrison, and Denis O'Hare. It's really good! And in one of the bonus features, someone mentioned that every major character in the show acts out of desperation. And I immediately thought about Cry-Baby and realized it's true there too...
These girls are essentially innocents (though maybe not sexually), looked down upon -- and arrested and jailed -- for no real reason other than irrational prejudice. So the more childish their behavior is, the easier it will be for the audience to recognize them as kids and see through the lie that they're "bad." There's a kind of social tragedy here, but also real strength of character, I think. On the one hand, they're damaged, defensive, walled-off, 11-year-old girls, who aren't letting anybody near them because they know that always ends in abuse and/or pain. On the other hand, these are strong women surviving in a less hospitable world than a more generous god would have allowed. As both defense and offense, the Drapes essentially perform a caricature of the Squares' perception of them. Their sexuality (and Mona's face) is their weapon to scare people away. But notice how quickly they accept Allison into their ranks. The Drapes aren't reflexively judgmental like the Squares are.
Ryan is really finding Cry-Baby's voice and his physical style, and though most of his songs are really funny -- my favorite song title in the show is "Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)" -- he's also finding that sincerity that's so important to his character. He's really starting to nail that tightrope walk between wacky and dead serious. It's that Bat Boy style that I can't seem to stop talking about -- "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression" -- and even though Ryan and several others in the cast have never explored that difficult style with us, they're totally finding their footing.
One thing Ryan and I have talked about a lot is this new male ideal that surfaced in America after World War II, which Cry-Baby represents, rejecting the "strong, silent type" like John Wayne and Gary Cooper for the more emotional, more openly sexual, more damaged, more socially subversive Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Montgomery Clift. World War II changed our country in subtle ways that most people didn't understand at the time. After the chaos of wartime, adults now wanted strict conformity. One of my favorite lines in the show: Mrs. Vernon-Williams says to Allison, "Now, darling, didn't I ask you
never to have problems?"
Taylor is also really finding Allison. I think it was hard for her, first of all, to be playing the "normal" one (essentially playing herself to a large degree) amidst all these other crazy characters (although the more we work on the show, the more I realize Cry-Baby is "normal" too), and at the same time to be stylistically inside that old-school musical comedy style. But I think one comment from John Waters really helped -- that Allison is a good girl possessed by a bad girl... I love that image. Taylor and I have talked about Allison a lot. What I loved so much about this character in Waters' movie is that she's so completely open to new experiences, so completely lacking in judgment of others, so in love with the adventure of life -- most of which was lost in the original Broadway production of the musical. Allison is the audience's way into this story; she's our surrogate. She learns about the Drapes as we do. And she also learns about 1950s social hysteria once she joins the Drapes and all the fear and bigotry are suddenly directed at her too!
The Blackboard Jungle, a really great drama with Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, Anne Francis, Richard Kiley, and a very young Jamie Farr. It's about a young teacher, back from World War II and having just gone to college on the legendary G.I. Bill, who gets a job in a really tough, urban school. Some of it is melodrama, and early on, it feels like the poor kids are automatically the "bad kids" -- exactly as it is in Cry-Baby -- but as the story progresses, it gets a lot more complex and a lot less predictable. Released just one year after Cry-Baby is set, there are some really interesting sociological insights in the movie both about the teacher's generation ("the Greatest Generation") and also the "juvenile delinquents" that are at the center of Cry-Baby.
But at the same time that the musical Cry-Baby is an insightful social document, it's also a fascinating statement about this moment in the evolution of the musical theatre. I saw the national tour of Rock of Ages last week and had an absolute blast! It's much smarter and funnier than I expected, and how can you beat those tunes? And it made me think about how much fun it is watching our art form move towards creating a new, specifically 21st century American musical theatre. These new rock musical comedies, Rock of Ages, Lysistrata Jones, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which we're producing this fall), Cry-Baby, and others are grappling with the old forms, experimenting with what to embrace, what to discard, what to deconstruct, and what to openly mock. Many elements of old-school, mid-century musical comedy are present in these shows, but in altered, often more self-aware forms, because much of what made those old shows tick no longer works in our current culture. But musical comedy is still an iconic piece of American pop culture, so that shared cultural reference forms the basis from some really funny tearing apart of the old forms. At one point in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Jackson says to the audience, "Uh-huh. Underscore, motherfuckers. That means it's our time. Time for the real people of this nation -- you and me -- time for us to take this fucker back!"
But what are we taking back? America? The American musical comedy...? And from whom? It's hard not to hear echoes of the Tea Party and current conservative politics in both BBAJ and Cry-Baby. And it's hard not to see in Cry-Baby's story of class oppression today's Republican members of Congress who declare that the people who are out of work in this recession are just lazy, and that getting unemployment insurance makes them lazier. Cry-Baby focuses social injustice down to the personal level, and we all feel it
There's so much depth and richness in Cry-Baby, though it's easy to miss it and get caught up in the surface wackiness. Now that we're done with the nuts-and-bolts part of the process, it's time to focus more fully on the artistic end, characters, relationships, motivations, the big emotional arcs, textual and musical themes, etc. Unlike most companies our size, we get eight or nine full run-throughs before an audience sees us. It's a wonderful luxury. And whereas a lot of directors like to polish each moment to a high gloss before putting the pieces together, we do the exact opposite. We put the whole show together fairly quickly, and then we polish it. I think it's easier and more effective to polish and shape the show as a whole than as separate pieces. It's easier to achieve real artistic unity and coherence, which makes the storytelling all that much stronger.
The hardest work is over for me, and the hardest work for the actors is just beginning. My job now is to keep us all on the road together while the actors play.
I love my job.
Long Live the Musical!