"Tasteless, Not Offensive": Cry-Baby Readies to Rock Broadway

News   "Tasteless, Not Offensive": Cry-Baby Readies to Rock Broadway The latest John Waters film to make the leap from the silver screen to the Broadway stage, Cry Baby, prepares to rock Broadway audiences at the Marquis Theatre beginning March 15.
John Waters
John Waters Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The new musical — featuring a score by David Javerbaum ("The Daily Show") and Adam Schlesinger ("That Thing You Do") and a book by the Tony-Award winning Hairspray team of Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell — takes place in 1950's Baltimore where the good girl (from the clean-cut Squares) falls for the bad boy (leader of the misfit Drapes), and juvenile delinquents, sexual repression and an assortment of John Waters' characters come to life set to a Rockabilly score.

Following an acclaimed out-of-town engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse this past fall, Cry-Baby is currently back in rehearsals, gearing up for its April 24 Broadway premiere. Playbill caught up with the cast and creative team, who showcased four songs from the musical at a recent press preview.

John Waters – the man behind the cult favorites "Pink Flamingos," "Female Trouble," "Serial Mom," "Hairspray" and "Cry Baby" – is working alongside the creators of the new musical as Cry Baby's creative consultant.

Waters discussed following his 2003 smash-hit Hairspray with another musical adaptation of his films: "I think the one thing that we were a little worried about when we were in La Jolla, I guess, was [that] everybody was going to compare it to Hairspray -- no one did. It is different, it's sexy. I don't think that was the first word anybody ever called Hairspray. But it's sexy, it's irreverent, and it's ruder in a way. And I think that works for it. I think that's what it should be. And the movie was ruder than 'Hairspray.'"

It was Hairspray producer Adam Epstein who first approached his Tony-winning book writing team of Meehan and O'Donnell to jump on board for the latest venture. "We had such a good time working on Hairspray. It turned out to be a success, which is nice. And we like John very much; he's a great guy to work with," explained Meehan. "Adam Epstein had the idea to do another John Waters [musical] and suggested 'Cry-Baby' – we knew the movie and thought it was interesting. And John Waters' take or his version on West Side Story as it were, or Romeo and Juliet – the lovers struggle from two sides of the tracks, getting in conflict and with the gangs - seemed like it would be fun to do. It's about class really."

"They just get it — you know that's the whole thing," Waters said of Meehan and O'Donnell. "And they don't try to change it. What Hollywood always does after test screenings is [try to] make everyone like it, then no one likes it. And Broadway's very different. I think what's the strong point [of the work] and what people like, they try to honor – which they have with me. Maybe I'm lucky, I know they don't always do that."

Thomas Meehan offered, "John is considered so out there and eccentric, but there is a real integrity and sweetness in his films that can be translated to the musical stage. That's why it can sing because it has some soul to it — that's why I enjoy working with him."

"I think all comedians have a kind of blood-brotherhood that you've got to view the world with a kind of skepticism and joy," explained O'Donnell. "You've got to hate it and love it at the same time. To that extent John Waters, Tom and I are blood brothers. But it is great to try and synchronize our sensibilities.

"And, as with Hairspray, there's great music and a social theme," he continued. "Here we've got rockabilly, which to my knowledge has not been the dominant theme to a Broadway musical. We've got class-structure issues, which makes it worthy and fun. Fun with a purpose… The phrase I love to use is that 'we're trying to be tasteless, not offensive!'"

Cry-Baby gets to wail thanks to the songwriting team of Javerbaum and Schlesinger, who are making their Broadway songwriting debuts with the new musical. The duo described the challenges of bringing Waters' irreverent sensibilities to life within their rockabilly-flaired score.

"I think that actually with some of the secondary characters it was less difficult. I think maybe getting the tone right for Cry-Baby was the biggest challenge. We've actually gone through a few different songs for him because he has to be funny and he has to be a classic archetype – but you also don't want to undermine the whole heart of the show," explained Schlesinger.

Javerbaum added, "Adam and I worked together very closely to create songs which match our comic sensibilities – which are exactly on the same page – and would work on the stage and would also be funny. Some worked instantly, and some didn't. We went through the usual refining process after three or four years, and we feel we're in a pretty good place. We wanted to be very true to the characters and not to make fun of the characters and have the humor be at their expense. I hope we've succeeded in doing that."

Harriet Harris, who earned a Tony Award for portraying the devious Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, returns to Broadway as the socially aware Mrs. Vernon-Williams in Cry Baby. "Like in Millie, my character is isolated, and she's got some kind of a secret — only this one she decides to expose what her secret is and become a better person because of it," Harris explains.

Harriet Harris
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"I love the song I get to sing in it, called 'I Did Something Wrong Once,' and I think that's just a great song for a socially-conscious woman. I think she does things for the hospitals, and I really think she does help keep Baltimore afloat. She's always trying to make it better, and there are things that she just doesn't want to know about and things that are on the way, way back burner – that's in deep storage somewhere. Because she has to be in contact with these other people, she does start to see their point of view. I think that's a great thing. I think she represents America in that way – we are privileged, we are lucky – but there are things that we've overlooked. I think that the play causes her to examine these things, and she does have an epiphany and that's fun to play." Harris also praises working with Waters, saying, "He's such a gentleman and has so many different sides. He's incredibly gracious, and he's very, very sweet and amazingly well mannered – he truly is a gentleman. He has many facets, and he brings that to his work, and I think that Cry-Baby is a great example of that. That he was able to cross into the Drape and Square worlds – because he is familiar and fascinated by both worlds. I think that is in the piece, it really is.

"I think that Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell have really been able to do that, too," Harris adds. "They have the concerns of the fifties of being bright and optimistic and always in absolute fear of the next thing that is gonna happen. And these Drapes that are just dying for the next thing to happen because their life is so limited."

The Drapes do discover the "next thing to happen" with Rob Ashford's inventive choreography. The press preview highlighted Ashford's athletic work on Cry-Baby with performances of "The Anti-Polio Picnic," "A Little Upset" and "Can I Kiss You With Tongue?"

"When I first got the job, the thought of trying to find my inner John Waters was thrilling to me," Ashford remarked. "Trying to find that twisted off-center part of me — 'cause basically I'm a good southern boy who grew up in West Virginia and I kind of walk on two feet. So it was really nice to try and force myself to walk on one foot. And I loved it – I love trying to create that.

"The first number I worked on was 'Girl Can I Kiss You With Tongue?' because just the nature of that number to me is so classic Waters, and DJ did such a gorgeous job with those lyrics, and I said, 'Let's start with that and then use that to establish our vocabulary.' That seemed like the jumping off place to create these moves, that I have to say seems like two warring worlds – the Drapes and the Squares – what a great opportunity to try to define them with some movement as well as what they wear."

Carly Jibson, another member of the Hairspray family – who played Tracy Turnblad in the first national tour and Broadway productions – speaks highly of working with Ashford and performing his choreography for her latest Waters musical venture.

"It's inventive and innovative, and it feels good. It has that feeling that you want to go do it – it doesn't feel like 'oh I have to go kick my leg out there' – it makes you want to go out there and tear down the house. And [Ashford] thinks things through — the way he sees it and makes it all come together. He also really makes it fit your character, too, so it's not about standing on a number and looking good – it helps tell the story – it's really amazing."

Jibson portrays Cry-Baby's 16-year-old cousin Pepper, who just happens to find herself in a motherly way. "I like Pepper because she's pregnant and she's 16 years old and got knocked up. She's Cry-Baby's cousin, and she can identify with him and try to be a support in his life. He's kind of a loner, but he's the leader of the gang, and we're all flawed in our own ways but in this great way that unifies us and sets us apart from the Squares."

The actress dispels comparisons of Cry-Baby and Hairspray stating, "These are two completely different animals. Yes, they're John Waters films and yes, they have that twisted, tweaked bit of reality – but the great thing about doing Tracy is that she was sweet and she had such naiveté. But with Pepper, its fun to step outside the box and do something that people may not identify me with. Or maybe people do think I'm raunchy and vulgar!"

Christopher J. Hanke, who has been with Cry-Baby since its initial workshops, portrays the straight-laced Square Baldwin, who he describes as "a very twisted, selfish arrogant nasty lying human that is hidden inside this veneer of Eisenhower Republican, country club, perfect valedictorian, class president virgin that everyone knows him to be."

Following so many years in readings and rehearsals, the La Jolla engagement truly kicked things in gear for Hanke. "When you get in front of an audience, you start to feel your pace and you start to realize where you can tweak your character, where the laughs are and where the moments where you need to raise the stakes are."

Tony winner Harris also cherished the La Jolla experience, explaining, "In the rehearsal room it's such a different thing. And I think part of it is because everybody in the cast is so young that people only see a certain side of the show, and when you have an audience, you have such a mixed bag — other things weigh in and you get the communal aspect of not only of just being in the theatre together, but that there are always different points of view within an audience and they're understanding certain references that Tom and Mark put in and certain points of view of John's world. Some of the younger people only really get the younger story, and that's fun too, because if you don't have that it's kind of empty. I think it's a show that will have a broad appeal, and in La Jolla that was proven to be the case."

James Snyder
photo by Aubrey Reuben

* Mark Brokaw stages the work starring James Snyder in the title role with Harris as Mrs. Vernon-Williams. Also featured are Elizabeth Stanley (Company) as Allison, Carly Jibson (Hairspray) as Pepper, Chester Gregory II (Tarzan) as Dupree, Christopher J. Hanke (In My Life) as Baldwin, Alli Mauzey (Wicked) as Lenora and Richard Poe (Journey's End) as Judge Stone.

Rounding out the cast are Cameron Adams, Ashley Amber, Courtney Balan, Nick Blaemire, Michael Buchanan, Andrew C. Call, Eric Christian, Colin Cunliffe, Lisa Gajda, Michael D. Jablonski, Laura Jordan, Brendan King, Lacey Kohl, Marty Lawson, Courtney Laine Mazza, Spencer Liff, Mayumi Miguel, Tory Ross, Eric Sciotto, Peter Matthew Smith, Allison Spratt, Charlie Sutton, and Stacey Todd Holt.

The creative team features Lynne Shankel (music direction, incidental music and additional arrangements), Christopher Jahnke (orchestrations) and David Chase (dance arranger). The design team includes Scott Pask (scenic), Catherine Zuber (costume), Howell Binkley (lighting), Peter Hylenski (sound), Tom Watson (hair and wig) and Randy Houston Mercer (makeup). Rick Sordelet serves as fight director. Rolt Smith is stage manager. Cry Baby is produced by Adam Epstein, Allan S. Gordon, and Elan V. McAllister.

All preview performances will be priced at $54 to coincide with the year in which the musical is set (rear mezzanine seats will be $35). Tickets ($35-$120) for Cry Baby at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, are available by visiting CryBabyOnBroadway.com.

The cast of <i>Cry-Baby</i>
The cast of Cry-Baby Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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