More Complex Emotions to Reveal

Why bring back a show we've already produced? That's a good question.

We haven't repeated a show since 2012, when we produced High Fidelity for the second time. And we've only repeated a very few shows over our 28-year history: Hair (2000, 2001, 2008), Assassins (1994, 1998, 2008), Bat Boy (2003, 2006), and High Fidelity (2008, 2012). This season we'll add two more: Cry-Baby (2012, 2019) and Urinetown (2007, 2020).

And there are a handful of others I'd still like to return to: Hands on a Hardbody, A New Brain, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Next to Normal...

The first couple times we brought back a show we'd already done, people asked why. That puzzled me. I mean, these are all amazing shows, so why not? Surely we couldn't be so arrogant to think we'd found everything worth finding the first time out, or that our first production was utterly perfect. All these shows are very complex, in terms of content and in terms of style. We came back to them because there was more to explore, and to share them with even more people.

And really, Cry-Baby and its themes of class and injustice, is even more relevant now than it was when John Waters' original film was released in 1990 or when the musical debuted in 2007. Today in 2019, issues of class and injustice are more in the news and on our minds than they have been in a long time. Sometimes it even feels like we're moving backwards on those issues...

Which is a national tragedy. A tragedy worth exploring.

One of the best reasons to repeat a show is that there's more to discover, for me, for our actors, for our audiences. That's why we've produced Hair and Assassins each three times -- there's just so much there! And likewise, despite the smartass, wacky surface of Cry-Baby, underneath there is incredible craft, deceptively subtle social comedy, and endless little surprises.

A few examples...

In "Squeaky Clean," Allison sings, "I know one kiss from him would be enough!" On the surface, it means one kiss would be enough to know she's in love. What it really means (and is only hinting at) is that after one kiss, she wouldn't want any more. One kiss would be enough. In that same song, Baldwin sings, "If she'd only say she'd have me... what a catch!" On the surface, he's saying she's perfect for him, that she's "a real catch." But the ironic meaning underneath tells us that she won't say she'll have him, and since he needs her assent, that's a big complication, or "catch." (In the original production, Allison also tossed a baton in the air, so the "catch" also referred to her actual catching of the baton. I think that kills the joke with too much effort, and it gets in the way of the more interesting double-joke.)

The title phrase of "It's All in My Head" has that same kind of double meaning. To the characters, it means they can imagine all of it. It's all in their heads. To the audience, it means all of this romance actually exists only in their minds. It's all in their heads.

This kind of craft is all over the script and score.

But even beyond that, Cry-Baby is also worth bringing back because this show seems more relevant than ever artistically, as we sit here, now well into this new Golden Age of musical theatre, and as our society stumbles awkwardly into the Information Age.

First of all, Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy, a show that uses the devices and conventions of old-school, mid-century musical comedy, but for more ironic, more political, more complex aims. One of the fatal flaws of the original Broadway production was that the director didn't know that Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy. He thought it was a standard old-style musical comedy, and that's how he directed it. He didn't understand the material at all. And he killed it. It closed after 68 performances.

And then New Line rescued it. Literally. The writers thought the show was dead and we brought it back from the dead. We understood it and we brought the show back to vivid, subversive, hilarious life, to rave reviews and a sold-out run. And now other companies are licensing the show too. (We did the same thing with High Fidelity.)

What we understand is both how John Waters movies operate (the "good" characters are the bad guys and the "bad" characters are the good guys), and how this sui generis musical itself works. Under the surface of the narrative, this show charts a battle between Show Tunes vs. Rock and Roll. The Drapes sing rock and roll, and the Squares sing show tunes. And by the end, after an evening-long and surprisingly subtle sing-off, rock and roll wins.

Even the Squares think so.

This is interesting artistically because the musical theatre as an art form is having that same battle. This battle has been going on since the mid-1990s. And rock and roll is winning. Rock is becoming the default language of the American musical theatre. And now (at least, most of the time), the use of old-school show tunes is ironic, a device that tells us something about the character or their mindset.

I've realized that every second of Cry-Baby is ironic. Even the music is ironic. The choreography is ironic. Literally everything about the show is ironic. There are no straight-forward emotions or songs; everything, even the love songs, are dripping with irony. That's pretty unusual for a musical because musicals are best at conveying emotion, but in Cry-Baby, there's not a non-ironic emotion to be found anywhere.

Think about it. The show opens with what seems on the surface to be a traditional "Happy Villagers" song, where the community introduces itself and sets up the environment for the story. (That kind of song is going extinct, though, since so few musicals today have a big chorus representing the community.) But here in the world of Cry-Baby, the Happy Villagers are suburban elitist snobs celebrating conformity.

In older musicals, the story often balanced on a question of whether the hero can be assimilated into the mainstream community or be banished from it. Think about The Music Man and Brigadoon on the one hand, versus Carousel and Camelot on the other hand. Oklahoma! uses both outcomes, assimilating Curly and "banishing" Jud (by death). But in the case of Cry-Baby this community isn't one you want to join. We're rooting for Allison to abandon the mainstream community to assimilate into the non-mainstream community.

And then before the first song can end, it's interrupted by a rock and roll reply, a parallel statement from the non-mainstream community. And without the audience consciously realizing it yet, the show has changed the normal rules. Instead of a story about whether or not the hero assimilates or is banished, this is going to be a story about which community our hero assimilates into. And going even further, it also tells us that despite the title, Cry-Baby is not the hero; the good girl Allison is. Cry-Baby doesn't make a choice in this first scene; Allison does. And she chooses the non-mainstream community. And that conflict is the heart of the show.

Just a few pages later, the show's first love duet, equates love to invading sickness(a common theme in 50s rock and roll). Again, it sort of feels like a regular love song, but only if you don't listen too closely...

In Fred Astaire movies you always knew when the lovers were finally in love, because they not only moved well together, they touched when they danced. In Cry-Baby, we know our two lovers are meant for each other when Allison learns to sing rock and roll with Cry-Baby. But even at this pivotal, emotional moment in our story, the song is deeply ironic, mocking early rock and roll, mocking musical theatre love duets, mocking us for wanting those musical theatre love duets...

In Act II we get the traditional Second Couple Love Duet, sort of modeled on "All 'er Nothin'" in Oklahoma!But here in Cry-Baby, that slot is filled with a duet between Baldwin and Lenora, who hate each other. Weirdly, they do function as the Second Comic Couple, and this is the oddest and one of the funniest examples of this kind of song you're ever likely to see. None of the usual rules or conventions apply here.

In the original script, Baldwin and Lenora start the song, but Allison and Cry-Baby are two wedding mannequins in a store window, and they come down and join the song as fantasy lovers. In our production, it's just Lenora and Baldwin, and I think it's much funnier and much cringier this way, largely because of audience expectations for a song like this... and it almost feels right...

In the Act II opener, "Misery," the end of every verse returns to a list of synonyms for "misery." And when we get to the Big Finish, the lyric refers to this:
But for now, nothing’s left
But to join in this chorus,
Ripped from the world's
Most depressing thesaurus...

This is a surprisingly literal -- and surprisingly funny -- meta-moment, referring to the act of singing ("this chorus"), and to the craft of lyric-writing. There's also the fleeting but very funny image of a "depressing thesaurus," whatever that might be...

There are also rhyme jokes throughout the show that create odd, funny, meta moments, taking the audience out of the story and forcing them to think about the writing. It's very Brechtian.

In "Squeaky Clean," the Whiffles sing:
When vulgar people curse,
When heathens grunt and stammer,
We don't know which is worse –
Their language or their grammar.
They neither show refinement
Nor an ounce of self-restraint.
They may think it's proper English,
But ... It's not!

They ruin the rhyme by using correct grammar. That's so subversive. And so square! In the prison break number, "A Little Upset," Cry-Baby sings:
You say I’ll get out early if
I show you some repentance,
But I ain't never been too good
At finishing a –
(long, suspenseful pause)

Not only does the lyric subvert our rhyme expectations -- we're expecting the word sentence -- but we don't get there because Cry-Baby isn't good at finishing a sentence, and the one he doesn't finish, ends with that word. I think I'd call that double-meta. But there's also the double-joke of Cry-Baby not being good at finishing his jail sentence, because he's thinking about breaking out.

Baldwin and the Whiffles will go so far to avoid the word ain't that they ruin their own rhyme; but to Cry-Baby, that's just a common, ordinary word.

The whole show is full of that kind of rich, deceptively meaningful comedy. On one level, this story is about seeing beyond the surface of people and things, but unfortunately, Broadway wasn't able to see past the surface of this script and score.

We are.

It's been such fun returning to this incredibly funny, incredibly rich material. I can't wait to share it with our audiences again.

Ticket sales are great, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. If you're interested, here are my Cry-Baby blog posts from 2012:

My overview of the show -- click here
The politics of Cry-Baby -- click here
The social context of Cry-Baby -- click here
New Line's rehearsal process with Cry-Baby -- click here
Cry-Baby and the neo musical comedy -- click here
My phone call with John Waters about Cry-Baby -- click here
Digging into the characters of Cry-Baby -- click here
Taking the comedy of Cry-Baby seriously -- click here
Cry-Baby's Allison and Grease's Sandy -- click here
The critical reception to New Line's Cry-Baby -- click here

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