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background and analysis by Scott Miller
All my movies are very moral. The underdog always wins. The bitter people are punished, and people who are happy with themselves win. They’re all about wars between two groups of people, usually involving fashion, which signifies morals. It’s part of a lifetime campaign against people telling you what to do with your own business." – John Waters
Many of the critics in New York condemned Cry-Baby, the stage musical adaptation of the John Waters film, for being without substance, but they missed so much. While John Waters’ Hairspray was about bigotry and exclusion based on race, Cry-Baby is about bigotry and exclusion based on class, and the musical stage adaptation by David Javerbaum, Adam Schlesinger, Mark O’Donnell, and Thomas Meehan takes the story one step further, exploring the intersection among class, politics, and justice in mid-century America.
One New York critic complained that the character of Cry-Baby onstage has too sophisticated a vocabulary for a kid like him, talking about his lachrymal glands and about having a tête-a-tête, among other things. If Cry-Baby were a one-dimensional "type," if he were Fonzie, that critic might have been correct. But that’s not who Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker is. He’s a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting than that – an orphaned pacifist Elvis Presley from the wrong side of the class divide in red-scare America – and so is his show. (In earlier drafts of the stage script, Cry-Baby had read a lot of law books hoping to figure out how to clear his dead parents’ names.) These critics saw only the surface, then complained it was too superficial. As is too often the case, many critics turned their brains off when they reviewed Cry-Baby because after all, it’s only a musical. But if they had just paid attention, they could have seen how much there is going on in this remarkably funny, remarkably pointed, and remarkably well-crafted musical. To be fair, Cry-Baby’s very shallow original production on Broadway didn’t help.
In its structure and form, Cry-Baby is at least partly about this moment today in the American musical theatre, a moment when rock and roll is finally pushing out old-school "show tunes" once and for all. In its content, Cry-Baby has some intense and insightful things to say about the power structure of pre-1960s America and about America’s penchant for scapegoating groups that are Other. Real people like Cry-Baby’s pacifist parents were routinely convicted on flimsy evidence, leaving their children to a life of social stigma and often poverty, both of which led to social exclusion. In the show’s big courtroom scene, we discover that Cry-Baby is a "perpetual foster home runaway," and in that moment we get a glimpse into the life this young man has led up to this point. The "juvenile delinquents" that so terrified adult America in the fifties were the product of that same oppressive culture that they endangered. John Waters was writing about real cultural and political history behind his subversive Romeo and Juliet story. The show is a caricature, but it's a revealing caricature of a very dark time in American culture, and it has enormous resonance now in these times of Tea Parties and Occupy Wall Street, even more so than a few years ago when it was written. As Allon White writes in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, "What is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central."
On top of everything else, Cry-Baby is incredibly smart and relentlessly funny.
However, Cry-Baby is not an old-school musical comedy, and director Mark Brokaw (who had virtually no experience with musicals and very little with comedy) and his Broadway creative team apparently thought it was. That it’s not an old-school musical comedy is also one of the show’s central, though perhaps subliminal, points and they missed it. Cry-Baby starts off as a full-throttle 1950s musical comedy – fittingly, the populist art form of its period – but the opening number is not even allowed to end before the Drapes (the "bad" kids) invade not just the picnic, but the show itself. They assault this 1950s musical comedy world with rock and roll, and transform the musical comedy into a rock musical. For the rest of the evening the two forms war with each other, standing in comically but powerfully for the social classes that separate our two lovers; with Baldwin and his Whiffles living and singing musical comedy, but slowly losing their turf to the rock musical of the Drapes. As St. Louis critic Chris Gibson put it, "At times, it's like watching a throwdown between Little Richard and Pat Boone over who really sings ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ the best and most authentic." In the last scene, there’s even a literal sing-off between Baldwin and Cry-Baby. And by the end of the show, everybody is singing rock and roll. Just as it did in the real world, rock and roll supplants the old-school show tune.
What's wonderful about the score is that songwriters absolutely nail both musical styles. The show's opening number, "The Anti-Polio Picnic," sounds like it came right out of the score for Kiss Me, Kate or The Pajama Game. But when the Drapes interrupt that song to turn to rockabilly with the rowdy and very aggressive "Watch Your Ass," the sound is just as authentic. The rock and roll half of the score functions not just as meta-satire, but also as authentic period catalog, revisiting all the standard rock and roll song types: the I’m So in Love I’m Sick song; the Nobody Understands Me song; the Will You Have Sex with Me? song; the World is Unfair song – accessing the emotional life of teenagers like no art form had ever done before. But the musical vocabulary of Cry-Baby isn’t the rock and roll of Grease; this is half a decade earlier when blues and rockabilly were the languages of rebellion.
Unlike most stage musical adaptations of movies, the Cry-Baby writers understood that you can’t just put a screenplay onstage and add songs (though many have tried, with varying degrees of disaster and humiliation). You have to make the film story into a piece of theatre by changing its fundamental nature, its storytelling rules, its long arc, its energy, its subplots, pretty much everything but the basic outline of the story and the characters. And even those can change slightly, as they do in Cry-Baby. The bookwriters found musical theatre equivalents for the film devices. They turned film characters into musical comedy characters without losing their core personalities. They streamlined the plot substantially; since songs take more stage time than dialogue, the script of a musical has to be a model of economy in order to get all the storytelling done in a fairly small space. Like Bat Boy, Cry-Baby has an incredibly lean script, with virtually no extraneous moments. Sometimes there’s less than half a page of dialogue between songs. Though the jokes comes fast and furiously, the vast majority of the laughs develop character, move the plot forward, or set up information for a later payoff. And sprinkled throughout the entire script are repeated references to class, crime, communism, and fear – all themes that will weave throughout the story and come together in the last scene, in a moment that resolves all the conflicts at once, a comic moment worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan in both its wackiness and its internal logic.
Cry-Baby has a score by David Javerbaum (The Daily Show) and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who also co-wrote the stage adaptation of Hairspray. The show first premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in November 2007 and opened on Broadway in April 2008. It was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Choreography, but won none. It was also nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards.
But the critics weren’t kind to this misguided production. Ben Brantley in The New York Times, wrote, "There’s no delicate way of putting this. Cry-Baby, the latest Broadway musical based on a John Waters movie, is tasteless. . . When I said ‘tasteless,’ I meant without flavor: sweet, sour, salty, putrid or otherwise. This show in search of an identity has all the saliva-stirring properties of week-old pre-chewed gum." He went on to say, "Nobody, alas, seems genuinely eccentric in Cry-Baby: The Musical. . . Nobody seems genuinely sexy either. Though the musical borrows assorted raunchy characters from the film, the performers all seem like good kids impersonating bad kids for kicks. Make that good grown-ups impersonating bad kids, since even the young cast members somehow lack the hormonal glow of rampaging youth. I sometimes felt I was watching a junior chamber of commerce revue, devoted to those silly ’50s."
Variety said, "It's perhaps not surprising that watered-down Waters has yielded a flavorless Broadway musical that revels in its down-and-dirtiness yet remains stubbornly synthetic. There's a lot of talent, sass and sweat onstage, particularly in the dance department, plus a sprinkling of wit in the show's good-natured vulgarity. But somehow, it never quite ignites. . . Whatever its inspirations, this vanilla show lacks a fresh identity of its own." The Daily News said, "Like Allison, Broadway’s Baby wants to be bold and different, but as staged by Mark Brokaw and designed by Scott Pask (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes), it looks like a lot of other colorful Broadway confections."
On the positive side, Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal saw through the production’s flaws. "You want funny? I'll give you funny, or at least tell you where to find it: Cry-Baby, the new John Waters musical, is campy, cynical, totally insincere and fabulously well crafted. And funny. Madly, outrageously funny. It is, in fact, the funniest new musical since Avenue Q. If laughter is the best medicine, then Cry-Baby is the whole damn drugstore." Newsday called the show "pleasantly demented and – deep in the sweet darkness of its loopy heart – more true to the cheerful subversion of a John Waters movie than its sentimental big sister Hairspray." The New Jersey Star-Ledger called it "candy for adults who like their musicals nutty – and not so nice."
Some critics complained about the Cold War themes woven throughout the show, arguing that Cry-Baby was too slight to carry that socio-political weight. But the Cold War and the implicit allusion to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg late in the show are the perfect metaphors for this story about exclusion, scapegoating, and irrational fear of The Other. The events of this story stand as a perfect satirical microcosm of the paranoia running rampant through America at this pivotal moment in history. After all, it was in 1950, only four years before this story takes place, that Senator Joseph McCarthy rocketed to national fame as the greatest "Red Baiter" of them all, casually ruining lives just as Baldwin and his parents have done. The connection of Cry-Baby’s tragic past to the events of World War II makes the important point that the emotional and social fallout from the war still hovered over American culture even a decade later. And it was in December 1954 that the Senate voted to censure McCarthy, making him one of the few senators ever to be disciplined in this fashion and bringing his reign of terror to an end, just as it happens on a smaller (and funnier) scale to Baldwin. Notice at the end of the show, when Baldwin is cornered, he even accuses Mrs. Vernon-Williams of being a "commie." And really, Mrs. Vernon-Williams would be hauled off to jail in the real world for what she’s done; that her transgressions are tossed aside so casually makes the further satiric point that the One Percent didn’t often face consequences for their actions. As she says in her climactic Act II confession, "It was wartime and I felt I had to stand shoulder to shoulder with my peers and class against the threat of anarchy and revolution." To her, the Drapes represent that anarchy and revolution she has been taught to fear. Despite the critics’ inability to look below the surface, Cry-Baby insightfully and often subtly portrays the disturbing mindset that briefly held all of America captive.
Back to the Future
The show's creators also used another old-school musical theatre device but with a postmodern twist. In most classic musicals of the so-called Golden Age, the central conflict boils down to whether or not the hero will assimilate into this established community or be removed from it. In Carousel, Pal Joey, and West Side Story, the outsider is removed because he or she can’t (or won’t) fit into the community. In The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Annie Get Your Gun, Hello, Dolly!, and Brigadoon, the protagonist successfully becomes part of the community. South Pacific managed to do both because it had two heroes: Nellie is assimilated into this exotic island community, but Lt. Cable can't overcome his prejudices and he is removed through death. The same is true of The King and I, in which the King is removed but Anna is assimilated. We also get both outcomes in Show Boat and Fiddler on the Roof.
That assimilate-or-die device fell out of favor in the 1960s and 70s because America became a fundamentally different country, now far more urban and suburban than rural, much less dependent on community in a more technological but disconnected world. (Today, we've come full circle and our technology has returned us to the idea of community, as we each construct our own small town on Facebook and Twitter.) With the 1960s counter-culture came a new focus on the inner life of the individual, and we saw that illustrated in shows like Man of La Mancha, Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Nine, Sunday in the Park, and others. There were still a few shows that explored community, like Hair and Grease, but the choice between assimilation or removal became a much more complicated, more socially meaningful act. The comic genius of Cry-Baby is that it seems to return to this out-dated device, but this time it’s dripping with irony and social comment (what else could we expect from Javerbaum, alum of both The Onion and The Daily Show?), and a comic deconstruction of our expectations.
The American musical theatre swam in the waters of comic irony for the first few decades of its existence but that irony mostly disappeared during the irony-blindness of the 1940s and 50s, probably because of The War Effort, during (and for a while after) World War II. But the art form returned to its aggressive irony in the 1960s. Cry-Baby operates in near constant irony even though it’s set in the most un-ironic period of the 20th century.
Which is ironic.
In Cry-Baby, we start the show thinking that it's the Squares who are the established community into which the Drapes must assimilate, but ultimately the opposite is true – the Squares ultimately have to find a place in this new world of rock and roll. Likewise, at the beginning of the show, we think it's Allison's grandmother, Mrs. Vernon-Williams, who is the antagonist, the one who will keep the star-crossed lovers Allison and Cry-Baby apart. But we learn during Act I that Mrs. Vernon-Williams is not the real antagonist; Allison's freaky boyfriend Baldwin is. By Act II, the writers have set up the old-school device of the second comic couple who mirror the central romantic couple, but here that second couple is the mentally ill, self-mutilating Lenora and the selfish, thoroughly amoral Baldwin. The show repeatedly sets up expectations and then shatters them, and always in very funny ways that also say something interesting about the social and political context. Stephen Sondheim always preaches that content dictates form, and here in Cry-Baby, a story about breaking and redefining the rules is told by breaking and redefining the rules of its storytelling form.
The Culture War
Since 1968, America has been in a 44-year cultural war between conservatives who want to return to the black-and-white safety (i.e., oppression, conformity, strict morality) of the 1950s, and liberals who want to finish the work of the 1960s (inclusiveness, compassion, sexual and intellectual freedom). Never was that more obvious than in the 2008 election. You just had to look at McCain and Obama to see it. Conservatives don't like open sexuality, dirty words, drugs, challenges to authority – all the things we finally (sort of) embraced or at least accepted in the 1960s. Cry-Baby is about that ongoing American cultural chaos.
And there was chaos aplenty. Cars had been changing sex since the 1920s, but by the 50s, more teenagers had more access to cars than ever before, giving them the privacy they craved on a regular basis. Drive-in movies had been created as family entertainment, and between 1943 and 1953, more than 2,900 drive-in theatres opened in America, the total reaching nearly 5,000 by 1958. But once television stole the family audience, drive-in owners targeted their marketing exclusively at teens, while small, low-budget studios started cranking out material specifically for this new niche market, creating "teen exploitation" films that drastically changed and radicalized teenagers’ perception of themselves and each other. Drive-ins became a place to cruise for girls, hang with the "wrong crowd," get drunk and get laid, awkwardly, in the back seat. These films opened teenaged eyes to sex, violence, and other vices like never before, inadvertently creating a new, more sophisticated, more cynical teen market.
Teen exploitation films were full of sex and sin and booze and cars, but many of them also had a sanctimonious "moral" laid out explicitly, at the beginning or end of the film, often by a nameless authority figure behind a desk or podium, sometimes by a "survivor" of the "tragedy." These fake morals gave the raunchy stories the patina of respectability to placate parents and would-be censors. Cry-Baby has a parallel opening, with the respectable and cautionary song "The Anti-Polio Picnic," complete with Mrs. Vernon-Williams as authority figure.
But for 1950s teenagers, these movies mirrored the real world, in which they were discovering they had a certain kind of power, a kind of power that just might be able to challenge the power of their parents. And the teen rebel was born. In 1954, the year Cry-Baby is set, Elvis Presley burst upon the American scene with his first hit, forever changing notions of gender and sexuality, rebelling against the "strong, silent type" model of previous generations of men like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, in favor of a remarkably sexual, nakedly emotional new model of maleness embodied by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.
And like all well-made theatre, though Cry-Baby is set firmly in 1954 it's really about our world today. Just as the opening does, the show's finale, "Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again," encapsulates the entire show with its ironic split personality, as the characters all look ahead to a bright, sunny, optimistic future for America that we know in 2012 will never arrive. It makes the show’s finale both happy and joyful, if you listen to the lyrics; and at the same time, deeply disturbing, even tragic, if you think about what they’re saying. In that regard, it’s among the most Brechtian musicals in the canon, leaving you with deeply mixed feelings, like Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Like the best theatre, the show implies far more than it ever says, and it asks from the audience active participation in teasing out the contradictions and implications of what we see. What's actually on stage is only half the picture. And that's a big part of the fun here.
Cry-Baby delivers a message parallel to the message of Hair, that we Americans have yet to solve so many big problems that have been with us for so long. With Hair, that message was less present in the original production and only really emerged later with time and perspective, but it's a depressing thing to realize. With Cry-Baby, it still might be a bit depressing, but we're laughing too hard to notice.
Just a spoonful of sugar…
You Can’t Beat the System
The Cry-Baby script and score were not the problem on Broadway. Not even close. The producers, the director, the choreographer, the designers all misunderstood what Javerbaum, Schlesinger, O’Donnell, and Meehan had written. The theatre was too big. The 19-piece orchestra was too big. And one of the biggest problems with the original production was that the cast was working like dogs to get laughs, lots of mugging to the audience, lots of stopping the show dead for a punch-line and then leaving a big pause for laughter which didn't always happen. But that style was at fundamental odds with both John Waters’ source material and the very special musical that Javerbaum, Schlesinger, O’Donnell, and Meehan had fashioned. The script and score were mischievous and sly and straight-faced, but the production was heavy-handed and sitcommy. The director was forcing the show to be something it was not, like making a left-handed kid write with his right hand.
The substantial social and emotional truth at the heart of Cry-Baby got lost in the clumsiness and the cluelessness that sank the Broadway production. On Broadway, the character of Cry-Baby was a joke. And because the actors didn't take the characters seriously, and the characters didn't take the story seriously, neither did the audience, so they didn't care if Cry-Baby and Allison got together or not. There was no emotional investment, because sketch comedy doesn't traffic in emotion, just easy laughs. The producers and the director didn’t trust the material or the audience, and the result was bad storytelling. As other directors had done to Assassins, The Capeman, and High Fidelity, they tried to make Cry-Baby fit a pre-existing category, when in truth this show was a wild, new hybrid of several forms. It is, as much as any other show is the last ten years, in a category of its own. But Broadway doesn’t know what to do with that, as we could see more recently with Lysistrata Jones and The Blue Flower. So despite a strong, smart book and an endlessly clever score, the show tanked on Broadway, running only 45 previews and 68 performances.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Cry-Baby writing team created a really smart, fresh, rowdy, smartass piece of theatre, and the money men tried to turn it into Spamalot.
The director didn’t understand some of the fundamental principles of storytelling and comedy. Good storytelling rests on structure and emotion. Good comedy rests on surprise and truth. But Cry-Baby on Broadway delivered surprise without truth, and structure without emotion. The director failed at his two fundamental jobs – understanding the story and helping the actors find the internal emotional truth of their characters.
Toys in the Belfry, Bats in the Attic
It is often said among acting teachers 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 they’re really telling us is 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 her stalker-ish invitation for sex at the end. 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; and the better the actor strikes that balance, the more we actually feel a little sorry for Lenora a couple times, in between her bouts of shouting, fainting, and talking to people who aren't there. The Drapes won’t let her into their rock musical, so Lenora lives in a musical comedy but, like Allison, she doesn’t belong there. She has the heart of a rock-and-roller. Unlike Allison, Lenora doesn’t have a guide into the world of rock and roll.
Likewise, instead of just playing the leather-jacketed "bad kid" (as James Snyder did on Broadway), the actor playing Cry-Baby should come at him 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.
But the most important thing about Cry-Baby is his intensity. His personality is forged almost entirely from the fallout of the crushing injustice that ruined his young life. Like Brando in The Wild One, everything about him is intense – his love of music, his love for Allison, his desire to please Mrs. Vernon-Williams to win Allison’s hand, his sense of justice, his loyalty to friends, all of that. But the other side of that coin is the rage and pain and humiliation in him, which he only barely holds in. When something happens (like Baldwin punching him or Mrs. Vernon-Williams dismissing him as "not our kind"), he almost can’t control it. We see all of that boiling just under the surface throughout the show. Each new injustice, each new humiliation makes it harder and harder to hold in his rage The song "A Little Upset" is a comic understatement that delivers the laughs but also makes us focus on the rage from this new injustice that must now be unbearable.
The great irony of Cry-Baby’s story is that the Squares all treat his parents’ tragic story as a joke while they find importance in the most trivial of other things. Mrs. Vernon-Williams’ big confession song in Act II, "I Did Something Wrong Once" presents that irony most explicitly, dismissing the past tragedy as a faux pas. And this disconnect – that tragedy apparently only matters if the victims are in your social class – draws a heavy black moral line between the Drapes and the Squares. (Note the parents’ names, the upper class Fred and Adele Blandish, presumably named after the very mainstream and square Broadway stars Fred and Adele Astaire, who also invoke old-school musical comedy; and the lower class pacifists Will and Ariel Walker, possibly named for Will Shakespeare and his last fictional muse, Ariel in The Tempest…?)
The distinctions here are clear. Cry-Baby would never lie about someone in court, but Baldwin would. Cry-Baby probably wouldn't lie about anybody ever. He's the truly moral one here, and that’s why he and Allison belong together.
Is Cry-Baby the moral one because of the loss of his parents to injustice when he was so young? Imagine that happening to you as a kid. He lost the most important connection in his life when he was stilled unformed. It's kind of like the Batman origin story. Only instead of turning to the dark side as Batman does, Cry-Baby turned to the light. But there's always this sadness underneath everything in his life. He meets Allison and thinks how much his parents would have loved her. It's this deep damage, this complexity, the emotional weight of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Brando, and Sal Mineo that made them the new male ideal. Cry-Baby is a tragic figure who happens to live in an outrageous musical comedy world – and he knows he doesn't belong there...
The same principle applies to Allison. Rather than just being a cardboard "good girl," Allison is an individual, not conforming to any stereotypes and far less "good" (i.e., conforming) than the "good girl" label implies. She gives us all the information we need when she introduces herself to Cry-Baby with "I’m a good girl. But I don’t wanna be!" Allison is smart, adventurous, open-minded and open-hearted. Her dominant character trait is her complete openness to new experiences, a total lack of judgment of others, and a real love for the adventure of life -- most of which was lost in the original Broadway production. 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.
Instead of being in opposition to the Drapes (as Allison was in the original production) or afraid of them, Allison is the real misfit of the story, trapped in the squeaky clean world of the waspy upper-class (twice!) 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, "She's a good girl possessed by a bad girl."
In creating Cry-Baby (and most of his other films), 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.) 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. In classic exploitation films, the characters are built more on moral positions than on human psychology, but 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. Vernon-Williams gains self-knowledge herself and ultimately understands that she must let Allison grow up. The central action of the show is Allison discovering the Drapes and their music, venturing into their world, doing her best to learn the Drape ways, falling in love, and then ultimately finding her place with the Drapes – not just because she's in love with Cry-Baby, but because this is where she belongs.
John Waters wrote in his book Shock Value, "You always know immediately who I like and who I don't like in my movies. There's always a war of some kind between two groups of people. The people who win are happy with their neuroses; the people who lose are unhappy with them." I think the key to Cry-Baby is understanding the Drapes, the "bad" kids. They’re not cartoon Greasers, they’re not punch lines, and they’re not types. There’s far more to them, and as the story progresses we’ll start to see the ingrained, institutionalized prejudice that was the lifeblood of suburban mid-20th-century America. It isn’t rational. In the courtroom scene, Baldwin says to Judge Stone, "Don’t believe them, Judge. Listen to your own inner prejudice!" It’s a funny line, but it’s also cogent social commentary. The first words Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker sings in Cry-Baby are:
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?
In other words, the mindset behind the prejudice is not based in any concrete reality. The show’s social satire – that the bad kids are really the Good Guys, and the good kids are really the Bad Guys – finds resonance even in today’s topsy-turvy political debate. As far as these Squares in 1954 Baltimore are concerned, rock and roll is "race music," indecent, unfit for the public airwaves, 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. Where Grease only indirectly implies the politics of the times, Cry-Baby’s plot hinges directly on the politics of 1954, McCarthyism, Cold War paranoia, class warfare, rabid nationalism, and the demonization of pacifists and other political minorities.
The Drapes can scare the Squares merely by showing up, but that gives them a certain kind of Power. In 1954 and still today, The Others (blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims, Drapes, mixed race Presidents) are seen by some as both alien to "our way of life" and therefore also politically and morally dangerous and subversive. In 2012, it’s hard not to see at least a hint of President Obama in the pilloried outsider Cry-Baby, rejected by "upstanding" Protestants, not for what he says or does, but for who he is.
One of the creators of Bat Boy 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, Cry-Baby Walker is all three, too. He's different because he was born poor, he lives in the wrong part of town, he sings rock and roll, 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. Baldwin says at one point "He’s a psycho firebug just like his nutcase parents! A congenital pyromaniac!" Cry-Baby has no place in the world and no place in the social structure; he has no protection. Finally, he's also gifted in that he’s a talented musician and singer and the magic of his music will win Allison’s heart. Like the Bat Boy, Cry-Baby is an outcast not for anything he's done, but for who he is.
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 some got deeply 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 (though in this story to politics, not to war) 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.
Cry-Baby works like Huckleberry Finn, in that what the characters find "wrong" or "anti-social" we the audience find innocent and innocuous, maybe even praiseworthy. Rock and roll doesn't scare us today. The ironic cultural backdrop of the show carries a subliminal message about how much our perspective, values, norms have changed, and how not fabulous the 1950s really were for many people. This was the peak of American Cold War hysteria and racial hysteria, of nationalized, government-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?) What makes Cry-Baby so relevant to today's audiences is that it shows us a world of two mutually exclusive realities, exactly like America in 2012, where the two sides 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, much like Mark Twain, these 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. John Waters wrote in his book Shock Value, "Things that don’t happen in real life happen in my films. I ask you to root for the outsiders, for serial killers, for terrorists, for people who are generally the villains in other movies. I’m asking you to always look at people in a different way, and through humor in how you change people’s opinions."
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. (represented in Cry-Baby by the Whiffles). Rock and roll was for teenagers. It was for outcasts. Jazz was made for the brain. It was about detachment, bemusement, cool. But rock and roll came straight for the heart and the groin. It was about primal feelings and desires. It stripped its sound of precision, elegance, finesse, training, just like punk. Real rock and roll was animal, outlaw. It was sweaty. It didn’t float like jazz. It exploded. It pounded. Rock and roll was banned in major cities across America. It terrified white adult America. Listening to rock became the ultimate rebellion for white kids especially. Their parents saw it as the biggest danger to all that’s decent. For the first time in American history, kids were being open and honest – even inappropriate – about their emotions. This was the most nakedly emotional music most white Americans had ever heard. And it changed everything.
Rock and roll was responsible for an "emotional revolution" in America. It began as "race music" (in other words, African American music) and was initially declared unacceptable for young white ears – early in Act I, Baldwin tells Allison, "You don’t wanna hear his kind of music! It’s indecent! They don’t even allow it on the radio!" But it fast became the first truly racially integrated American art form, coming from equal parts black rhythm & blues and white country music. We get a hint of this coming revolution at the end of the show when Dupree announces he’s going to build a radio tower and host his own radio show. Dupree will be the one to bring "race music" to Baltimore. Rock and roll marked the first time in America that blacks and whites shared the same culture, both consuming and creating it, and Cry-Baby is set right at the birth of all that. 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...
The Sexualized Other
The Drapes (apparently, originally known for the drape of the collars on their zoot suits) offer Allison a kind of hope in the lure of sexual and emotional freedom and the relentless self-expression of rock and roll. But Baldwin and the Squares offer her only fear. If you don't count global thermonuclear war, the Squares are most afraid of difference. They're afraid of The Other, a basic, primal, human instinct that probably served us well back in caveman days, but not so much today.
Though Grease and Cry-Baby are very different animals, they explore a similar cultural context (taking place only five years apart), most notably female sexuality. Many people are uncomfortable with the end of Grease 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."
For both Sandy in Grease and Allison in Cry-Baby, the journey isn't really 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. In the finale, Allison will sing:
Well, I’m not the girl I used to be,
It all worked out alright.
Now I’ll be myself forever,
And forever starts tonight.
Authenticity is the holy grail Allison seeks, and she's lucky enough to be living right at the birth 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 Brando, 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 punch lines, but from the moments that reveal either the freakish inauthenticity of the Squares or the uncomfortable, even sometimes ugly authenticity of the Drapes.
A Whole Lot Worse
John Waters wrote in his book Shock Value, "When I entered junior high, I received the thrill of my life. Actual girl juvenile delinquents were in my class, and, to my astonishment, they got into catfights. I immediately lost interest in the school’s curriculum and concentrated completely on every move of these cheap girls. I had never seen anything like it. Dressed in black, straight skirts, white ‘angel blouses,’ and pointy-toed ‘fruit boots,’ they hung in packs, combing their Debra Paget bangs and discoloring their lips with pimple medicine. They never did their homework and were proud of it. They were only ‘wasting time’ until they could legally quit school, run away, and become full-time ‘skags’." That’s who the Teardrops are, Cry-Baby’s back-up girl gang, Pepper Walker (his cousin in the show, his sister in the film), Wanda Woodward, and Mona "Hatchet Face" Malnorowski.
These Drape girls know that everybody looks down on them, perhaps even more than they look down on the male gang members, because open sexuality is more socially acceptable from a man than from a woman – certainly in 1954 and arguably still today. So the girls perpetually strike preemptively by being intentionally, childishly nasty to everyone, by performing their bad kid status as a layer of protection. Like the chubby kid who makes his own fat jokes before anyone else can, or the gay kid who knows he can't hide his gayness so he brandishes it like a weapon. The childishness of their insults is like an extra, added fuck you to the intended victim, as if they’re not worth more. They also perform an extreme kind of sexuality, also as a shield, because they know how terrified of sex the "normal" people are. The Squares’ Achilles heel is irrational fear, and the Drapes know how to use that. But the Drapes' nastiness is not who they really are – it's more a general reaction to "polite society" than a personal attack. But they're not bad people; they're just performing their "badness" as a kind of body armor to protect against the simplistic moral judgment that's always radiating out of the Squares like a crayon sun. Most importantly, the Drapes aren't cartoon characters; these are real people, behaving in an extreme, even cartoonish way. Their "bad kid" status becomes a performance – a mask – for the world. As they say in politics, they're attacking from a defensive position. The original production missed all this subtlety completely, instead portraying the Drapes as genuinely nasty people, which gave the audience no one to care about.
The Drape gang in Cry-Baby might be an exaggeration of the young life John Waters lived. He said in an interview on the Rookie blog, "I wanted to go downtown and be a beatnik and find bohemia. I hung around with other kids – not always from my school but from my neighborhood – that didn’t fit in either. It was a very mixed group, though. It was straight, gay, rich, poor, black, white. We hung around together and built our own little family. We had fun together and protected one another. We didn’t care what the other ones thought! That’s the thing: there’s all those people in high school, and you have to endure them, but you don’t have to hang around with them. I didn’t have a good time in school because I was bored. Boredom is the worst, because it turns into anger. I went to a Catholic high school, but you didn’t have to wear the school coat, so I wore hundreds of different ones. I never cut my hair, either. Hairdos and fashion are always what make teachers crazy. I always used fashion to rebel and make people crazy, because you can sort of protect yourself with fashion. I wore ludicrous outfits that I would think back on and go, ‘Oh my god, I’m so glad there weren’t pictures’."
Or maybe Allison is the surrogate for John Waters.
In that same interview, he said, "I was never a real juvenile delinquent because in the 50s they were in gang fights! I would have lost. But I love the bad boys. Johnny Depp’s character in Cry-Baby was based on this boy who lived across the street. I thought he looked great, but all the parents hated him. He fixed his car in the driveway and was a high school dropout. I don’t know what happened to him – he’s probably dead. But I made that [character] on my memory of somebody. I exaggerated it and idealized him and made him Johnny Depp."
Grease is Not the Word
Both as film and stage musical, Cry-Baby is often compared to Grease, but the similarities are only on the surface. Yes, both stories are set in the 1950s and look at similar (though not identical) cultural zeitgeists, but so does West Side Story. Both use rock and roll as musical language, but so do dozens of other shows, and considering their nearly identical periods, that’s hardly surprising. What else would they use? Both involve Romeo and Juliet stories, but so do thousands of other films, shows, and novels. And that’s where the similarities end.
Grease is about the effect of rock and roll on American culture in the fifties, specifically on sexuality. Cry-Baby is a comic love story, laid over the top of some sly social satire. Grease is a free-form concept musical modeled on Hair, while Cry-Baby is built on the musical comedy model. People might assume from its kinder, gentler film version that Grease is a love story, but it’s not. On stage the romance is just one device among many for making a larger, more interesting cultural point. Grease isn’t about Danny and Sandy, and the proof is that fifteen of the show’s twenty songs have nothing at all to do with them (and neither character was in the show’s first version, in Chicago). But in Cry-Baby the love story is the central plot (with virtually no subplot), and the show’s two central themes of class and injustice are focused through that love story.
Most significantly, while Grease rebelled against form (much like Hair did), Cry-Baby is partly about form. Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy. It's old-school, 1950s musical comedy, but with a self-aware irony on top that the older shows didn't have. In these new shows, there are always two layers operating at once. Other examples of neo musical comedies include Bat Boy (the arguable masterpiece of this new form), Urinetown, Lysistrata Jones, Spelling Bee, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Rock of Ages, and others; and there are even a few examples further back in history that pretty much fit the mold, like The Cradle Will Rock, Pal Joey, Of Thee I Sing, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. These neo musical comedies use the style and devices of musical comedy and the ironic socio-political content and the Brechtian devices of the concept musical developed by Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, and Kander and Ebb. It makes for a heady mix, more complex than its precursor, more ambiguous, and therefore, more interesting and more fun.
Because of this Battle of the Styles, half the characters in Cry-Baby live by one set of rules, and the other half live by another set. The Squares live in a rosy 1950s musical comedy, in which "Squeaky Clean" is one of those Clever Charm Songs that used to distract us from clumsy or nonexistent plots. In contrast, the Drapes live in a gritty, off Broadway rock musical world, in which sexuality and The Beat (which, as we all know, You Can't Stop) rule the day, and the driving "You Can't Beat the System" at the end of Act I serves as a powerful indictment of our unequal society and an American justice system which rigs the game in favor of the rich and the mainstream, while at the same time the song also rejects the music of the Squares for something more visceral, more emotional, more up to the task of this funny but dark story.
What audiences ask from a musical comedy today has changed a lot since 1954. Cry-Baby argues by implication that "Golden Age" musical theatre (1943-1964) may be a jumping off place for new works, but in their original form most of those musicals from the last century 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. As only one example, take the song "Girl Can I Kiss You With Tongue?" in Cry-Baby. It’s the first love song between our lovers, totally parallel to "People Will Say We’re in Love" in Oklahoma! or "Till There Was You" in The Music Man. The sentiment is the same. But in the Cry-Baby song, the ensemble singers are all ostentatiously French-kissing while they’re singing back-up. It’s musical comedy, but it’s not. It’s sort of old-fashioned and sort of shocking, both comforting and appalling. It’s also hilarious, because we recognize our own expectations about what a musical can be turned back on us. John Waters wrote in Shock Value, "Humor was always the first thing. The shock thing, well, it was humor and shock. I wanted people to be shocked, but to start laughing from the shock. Not get angry. Not leave. It was joyous shock. They weren't especially disgusted for real."
Really, "Girl Can I Kiss You With Tongue?" may be the most John Waters moment in the entire show. The song (and its staging) essentially says to the audience, in a playful but forceful way, Fuck you if you think you’re gonna tell us what’s acceptable in a musical or place limits on the making of our art. Though the original Cry-Baby film had higher production values than Waters’ first few films, at its core Cry-Baby really belongs with Waters’ early work, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. These films are the cinematic equivalent of Allison rejecting mainstream oppression in favor of full personal freedom.
The Cry-Baby stage adapters weren’t just looking for laughs in this show; unlike Spamalot or The Book of Mormon, Cry-Baby has a point of view, an agenda. The split personality of the score mirrors the plot – the 1950s vs. the coming 60s, "nice music" vs. rock and roll (when Cry-Baby is set, rock and roll couldn’t be played on the radio yet), conformity vs. freedom (notice how rarely the Squares syncopate), sexual repression vs. sexual openness, façade vs. truth-telling, rich vs. poor, the powerful vs. the powerless, all of that.
Content dictates form.
Cry-Baby fully embodies the revolution that is taking place in the art form, as we stand at the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era and the beginning of the emergence of the rock musical as the primary language of the American musical theatre. Just as Show Boat in 1927 marked the end of the first era of musical comedy and the beginning of the serious musical drama by combining the two forms in one show, just as Follies in 1971 marked the end of the mid-century musical comedy and the ascendance of the Prince-Sondheim concept musicals by doing the same thing, so too Cry-Baby marks an epochal change in the art form today. Its New York production was too big a clueless mess for the critics to see the intelligence and complexity at the heart of this clever, rich, political piece of theatre, but all that is there. This is one of those shows like Rocky Horror and Grease that have so much more going on under the surface than some critics (and directors and actors) are able to see.
We might wonder if Cry-Baby himself is speaking for his show when he sings, "Nobody gets me…"
The cultural backdrop for Cry-Baby is mostly just assumed, but it matters. After World War II, most adult women had been expected to leave behind the independence of their lives on the home front during the war and return to a life of near complete dependence again – no more job, no more money of their own, no more sexual control or choice. Betty Friedan wrote of the times, "It was fun at first, shopping in those new supermarkets. And we bought barbecue grills and made dips out of sour cream and dried onion soup to serve with potato chips, while our husbands made the martinis as dry as in the city and cooked hamburgers on the charcoal, and we sat in canvas chairs on our terrace and thought how beautiful our children looked, playing in the twilight, and how lucky we all were, and that it would last forever." These were the real people behind the metaphor of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As The Century of Sex says, "Conformity became a national passion, part of a return to sexual and political conservatism."
The Battle Over Sex has always been waged between the Haves and the Have-Nots in America. Throughout history, there has been great sexual freedom and little shame among the Have-Nots, since they have nothing (or very little) which can be imperiled. But the Haves are always terrified of any kind of cultural change, especially sexual, because the fallout could always endanger their position as Haves. Allison is a Have, Cry-Baby is a Have-Not. The sparks are bound to fly. All in all, the 1950s was one of the most interesting decades of the twentieth century – so much wealth, so much repression, so many massive changes in the culture, perhaps most significantly the invention of the suburbs, in which middle-class wives would be forever isolated and tranquilized.
In 1951, J.D. Salinger’s controversial Catcher in the Rye had been published and became an instant, lasting hit among teenagers, with its profanity and frank discussions of teenage angst and sexuality. Then America was hit with The Wild One in 1953, starring Marlon Brando, the movie that started the whole leather jacket "greaser" thing as well as the "teen exploitation" film genre. The central relationship in Cry-Baby between Cry-Baby and Allison is a more self-aware, satirical take on the central relationship in The Wild One between Johnny and Kathie.
Later in the decade, a kid who really was all that was feared of Cry-Baby shocked the nation. From the truTV website: "Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate embarked on a murder spree that horrified the country. This was the country that had elected Eisenhower and Nixon for a second term in 1956 and where the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was firmly entrenched as the national policeman. This was also a country that was undergoing unsettling cultural changes. Frightening and offensive symbols of rebellion emerged and thrived: Elvis Presley, James Dean and the whole rock 'n roll culture focused on a new generation that challenged the status quo of the sterile 1950s. The country that uncomfortably watched James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause in 1956 suddenly saw a Dean-like figure in Charles Starkweather to make them really uncomfortable. What was the world coming to? Were the violence and the alienation of Starkweather just the beginning of some uncontrollable trend that would destroy the fabric of society?"
Today, some Americans idealize the 1950s as a time of moral clarity, patriotism, family stability, traditional values, a time to which America should return. To many American traditionalists, the 1950s are the Eden of modern America’s superpower creation story, a time of unstained innocence, clear cut rules, and lots of happily conspicuous consumption for the burgeoning new middle class (as illustrated in Cry-Baby by Allison’s reference to the "new slaughterhouse"). In one moment in Act II, Mrs. Vernon-Williams tells Allison that she can tell something’s wrong –
Sweetheart, you’ve been behaving like this for weeks. Skipping school. Sleeping late. You’re letting yourself go. Yes, you shampoo, lather and rinse, but you don’t repeat.
Rules had to be followed, order had to be maintained, products had to be consumed, or else chaos – and Communism – would break out.
The Sixties brought with them the cultural upheaval that these folks perceived as the (fully avoidable) expulsion from the Garden. It’s no accident that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for eating from the tree of knowledge. It’s why 2012 Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is against public schools and thinks college is for snobs. To conservatives, knowledge is dangerous. Knowledge interferes with faith. In Cry-Baby, the only thing that keeps Allison a square is not having the knowledge of any other option. Once she knows the Drapes, she discards many of her former values – because freedom is better than oppression, and an open mind is more fun than a closed one. But this is exactly the thing American conservatives have always feared most. And in truth, their mythological 1950s never actually existed (one of the secondary points of Cry-Baby and many of Waters’ films, the "lie" of respectability). What felt to conservatives in the 50s like moral clarity was actually barely-masked racism, sexism, and economic oppression. The only people who were safe and comfortable were middle class and upper class white men, the only demographics that still idealize that time. In the stage version of Cry-Baby, Mrs. Vernon-Williams almost has the status of a white man because she’s a rich widow; and that’s the only reason she can ultimately save Cry-Baby.
The Cry-Baby score is a model of smart, inventive theatre writing. Some of the songs function in a traditional musical comedy manner, developing character and story. Some of the songs function as atmosphere (like "Jukebox Jamboree") since this is a world of music and the central action of the show is tied closely to the kind of music the characters sing. Some of the songs are homages to actual songs of the period, and some of the show’s songs use the musical vocabulary of period styles but expand and deepen that vocabulary. But maybe what most distinguishes the Cry-Baby score from most other Broadway scores is that the brilliantly funny lyrics are often married to hilarious music. Not many composers can do funny music. Larry O’Keefe does it all through Bat Boy, but other examples are few and far between. Whether it’s Cry-Baby’s multiple-ending’d overture, or the freakishly over-perfect runs rocketing us into "The Anti-Polio Picnic," or Baldwin and Lenora’s comic inability to harmonize on the word harmony in "All in My Head," the music of Cry-Baby is consistently funny and adds immensely to the fabric of the genuinely subversive, off-balance comic universe the team created.
The show starts with a jazz-infused overture that sounds like it came right off the soundtrack of The Blackboard Jungle or Teenage Doll. And where drum solos might go, instead the whole band yells out pre-show instructions, like "Turn off your cell phones!" and "Unwrap your lozenges!" telling us exactly what kind of evening we’re in for. Irreverent, rule-breaking, smartass. Stephen Sondheim’s Ten Minute Rule says that you can use any language and employ any device you want in a musical, as long as you use it in the first ten minutes, to set up the rules for the evening, to give the audience a road map of sorts. Though I doubt Sondheim ever thought the overture would do some of that work.
Following Sondheim’s dictate, "The Anti-Polio Picnic" is one of those textbook musical theatre openings, accomplishing a lot of storytelling without the audience realizing it. First, it introduces the lead Squares – Mrs. Vernon-Williams, Baldwin, and Allison – and gives us a snapshot of their world view. Then, it introduces the identifying trait of the Squares which animates the central conflict – fear. The song is about not just polio, but also Communists, UFOs, and "lustful primitive urges." This song catalogues a culture of fear and paranoia.
In an only slight exaggeration of real life, "Communist" becomes a catch-all accusation for any Other you want to get rid of. The label is hurled at Cry-Baby throughout the show, and at the end, a frantic Baldwin similarly turns on Mrs. Vernon-Williams. This song sets up the central conflict, though it does it obliquely, subliminally. We’re introduced to a happy if repressed community –
What a wonderful time to be a teenage conformist! (Conformist!)
What a wonderful time to be what’s known as a Square! (We are square!)
We’re lucky to be us,
So happy and homogeneous.
The Other is not permitted here. But that world – that America – can’t last forever. History keeps moving forward.
This perfect world is so precarious that its musical comedy opening number isn’t allowed to end before a rock musical invades and takes over with the pounding rockabilly of "Watch Your Ass." Suddenly we meet the other half of this community, the ones who are feared and who have learned how to use that fear. And the music changes from sophisticated and sassy to raw and rowdy and sexual. "Watch Your Ass" introduces all the lead Drapes each with a solo, the three Teardrops, Dupree, and finally Cry-Baby as he makes a star entrance – because there’s still a touch of musical comedy here.
All in the course of less than ten minutes, the writers have introduced every major character, given us a sketch of their personality and world view, set the two groups in opposition to each other, and introduced Allison to Cry-Baby. Not only is the writing skillful and economical, it’s also hilarious along the way. At one point, Mrs. Vernon-Williams says (with Jerry Herman underscoring), "I’m proud to announce that at last night’s meeting, the women’s club came out strongly against polio, by a vote of 56 to 8!" They’re that conservative.
But we also get the point of view of the Drapes, directly from Cry-Baby. You might argue this is an old-fashioned musical comedy "I Am" song that every lead has to sing.
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 don’t like our attitude,
Our music or our groomin’.
You call us lewd, and crude and rude;
You think we’re barely human!
But this song isn’t just about introducing Cry-Baby. It’s an accusation and it’s not joking. This is a song about injustice, the other central theme of the show. This is the song of the dispossessed. This isn’t the Burger Palace Boys from Grease. This song does more work, more subtly, than most "I Am" songs, also giving us important social context, and also setting up the central Capulet vs. Montague conflict. In its indirect approach to tell us about who Cry-Baby is, it’s an "I Am" song that has been turned around into a "You Are" song. We find out who Cry-Baby is by listening to him describe the way these people treat him.
And to tie the whole double-number together musically, the end of "Watch Your Ass" returns to almost exactly the same chord stacking (only this time on the word ass instead of step) which never finished at the end of "The Anti-Polio Picnic." The Drapes have taken the Squares’ Big Finish away from them in a final humiliation, transforming their musical comedy joy into rough-and-tumble rock and roll attitude.
It’s an important moment in the show because rock and roll democratized popular music in the 1950s. Anyone could pick up a guitar and play the four chords they needed to play rock and roll. This new, more visceral, more emotionally naked music elevated the hopes and fears of the oppressed – the poor, the working class, people of color, and teenagers. Rock and roll challenged notions of class and gender, the social pillars of mid-century America, and the accepted conventions of what was "appropriate" in those arenas.
The first character song for our two leads, "I’m Infected," functions as an old-school "I Want" song, introducing us to the characters and their basic motivations, as well as the driving desire that will propel them through the story. But this is a double "I Want" song, which is fairly unusual, and it also references the social context (the fear of polio) and satirizes a whole subgenre of rock and roll lyrics, in which the power of love makes the singer physically sick. Actual period examples of this kind of song include Jerry Lee Lewis’ "Great Balls of Fire" and Little Willie John’s "Fever" (later recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958). The lyric of "I’m Infected" takes the metaphor to its logical absurdity when the two soon-to-be-lovers sing, "There isn’t any remedy for coming down with you!" But they also sing, "Let’s take this love only as directed!" which suggests comically that their love is both the sickness and the cure for these teenage lovers. We’ll return to this quirky subgenre at the end of the show with "Do That Again," an even more dead-on Jerry Lee Lewis homage.
In the next scene, "Squeaky Clean" is a brilliant pastiche of songs by the Hi-Lo’s and the Crewcuts in the early 1950s, but here the metaphors are too pointed, too square, so that by the end of the song, charming and funny as it is, we all know instinctually that this is not the musical world Allison belongs in. We’ve just heard her sing rock and roll – she doesn’t belong in this song, and she knows it as clearly as we do. Everything she used to take for granted has been called into question. The situation we started with at the beginning of the show has been thrown off-balance. Allison takes a verse of "Squeaky Clean" and reveals more than she intends:
This is my song for
The kind of boy
I’m told I long for…
She doesn’t believe it anymore. She sings, "I know one kiss from him would be enough," and with that sentence, the show continues both its surprising subtlety and its playfulness with layers of meaning. On the surface – or in any other musical – we could assume the line means that one kiss would be enough to know Baldwin was the man for Allison. But we’ve already seen cracks in Allison’s Square perfection, and now we get the hint that maybe what she really means is that one kiss would be enough to know she doesn’t really want Baldwin. This perfect Square world isn’t really perfect. Allison has been changed by meeting Cry-Baby and singing his music. One lyric in this song is particularly telling and funny, as Baldwin and the Whiffles sing:
Promise me, Venus,
I’ll get to show her
My squeaky… cleanness.
The writers know that the audience is subconsciously expecting a rhyme here, and most of them probably expect penis to be that rhyme, but all these boys can think of is cleanness. This very funny fake-out tells us subliminally that Baldwin is sexless, that this song is about fake sexuality and fake masculinity. After seeing the open, authentic sexuality of Cry-Baby, Baldwin’s characteristically period, lyrical dodge seems even more depressing. Allison wants sex. We may only have a hint of that thus far, but later in Act I, she’ll tell us about her feelings for Cry-Baby:
Now I’m yearnin’, and I’m burnin’,
And I’m longin’, and I’m lustin’.
My thoughts have gone from dirty
To truly disgustin’.
He can take my every treasure.
He can break my every law.
He can go under my shirt, over my bra…
Baldwin will clearly never be able to satisfy this new Allison. In one of the writers’ more subtle jokes, Baldwin and the Whiffles sing in "Squeaky Clean":
The two of us together
Would be such a perfect match,
If she’d only say she’d have me…
What a catch!
But those last three words take on a comic double-meaning. Allison is a great girl, "a catch" for the right boy. But that line also tells us that Baldwin’s vision of the future has a stumbling block, or "a catch" – he can’t have Allison unless she agrees, and she’s less than eager to agree. And we’ll watch as she gets less and less eager as the story moves forward.
Within moments after "Squeaky Clean," Cry-Baby is back to get Allison. And when Mrs. Vernon-Williams tells the Drapes they have to leave the metaphorically sexless Maidenhead Country Club, Cry-Baby launches into another piece of rock and roll, "Nobody Gets Me." Just as "Watch Your Ass" was the Drapes’ companion piece – or challenge – to "The Anti-Polio Picnic," so too is the rowdy "Nobody Gets Me" a response to "Squeaky Clean." The choice for Allison is clear. And though on the surface this might seem like a second old-school "I Am" number for Cry-Baby (if you count "Watch Your Ass"), in as many scenes, this song does also something more. The lyric gets at one of the central themes of the show, America’s switch from idealizing Gary Cooper and John Wayne to now idealizing the damaged, misunderstood James Dean and Marlon Brando. Cooper and Wayne would never cry, but Dean sure would. Cry-Baby sings:
Nobody gets me.
You say I’m no good.
Nobody gets me.
No way you could.
It’s an insightful piece of social satire and it also moves the plot forward. Not only does Cry-Baby like Allison, he has come to get her.
When Allison takes up Cry-Baby’s song for herself, in her reprise of "Nobody Gets Me," she works through the pros and cons of the situation and makes a decision. But notice that she doesn’t sing a reprise of her own song; she reprises Cry-Baby’s song, showing us (perhaps subliminally) that she and Cry-Baby have similar feelings, even a similar place in the world. It’s reminiscent of the moment in The Music Man when Marian and Harold swap their signature songs ("Goodnight My Someone" and "76 Trombones") to show us that they’re alike, that they belong together. Here in Cry-Baby, this song and decision is the show’s obligatory moment, toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it emerges. That this obligatory moment comes inside a song is the proof of the writers’ musical theatre chops. A good narrative theatre song should take us somewhere; the character or plot (or both) should be in a new place at the end of the song from where they started.
Once the show moves to Turkey Point, "the redneck Riviera" as Mrs. Vernon-Williams puts it, it gets easier and easier to see how different Cry-Baby is from Grease, and how different Allison’s journey is from Sandy Dumbrowski’s. The Teardrops’ trio, "A Whole Lot Worse," is the song that definitively separates Cry-Baby from Grease. Where in Grease, the girls sing the materialistic "Freddy My Love," in Cry-Baby, they sing the angry, aggressive, even violent "A Whole Lot Worse," in which Wanda remembers:
One day, the Oscar Meyer man
Tried to cop a feel.
I climbed up and stabbed him
In his wiener mobile.
Pepper tells us she steals her mother’s purse, not just on Mother’s Day, but for Mother’s Day. That’s her ironic Drape version of the gift that oppressive authority figures deserve. Notice also that neither Mona nor Wanda are mean; they’re acting in defense. And we can wonder if Pepper has a home life that explains her disregard for her mother. Though they are in some ways companion pieces, Cry-Baby is a lot darker than Grease. In Grease, the girls teach Sandy to drink wine and Rizzo sings "Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee;" in Cry-Baby, the girls present Allison with her own switchblade and sing this. At the end of the song, they tell Allison:
It takes years to be bad;
It ain’t no passing fad.
It takes commitment and time
to master petty crime.
So if you want your degree
You’re gonna have to be
a whole hell of a lot worse!
It is sort of a parallel moment to the pajama party in Grease – the female bonding scene – but it operates on a whole different level of character and thematic complexity and grittiness. These kids in Cry-Baby aren’t in their comfy bedrooms with their parents downstairs; these Drapes have had to make their own family and their own home at Turkey Point, because they’ve been discarded by the "respectable" world. Their only defense against that exclusion is full-throated rejection of the values of that straight world. And while Marty in Grease is asking her boyfriend for presents, sixteen-year-old Pepper in Cry-Baby sings in "Watch Your Ass":
The world is full of thugs and thieves
And tramps and scamps and beggars.
And each one comes and each one leaves…
And that’s how I got preggers!
It’s a different world, not just sociologically but because it springs originally from the brilliant and twisted mind of John Waters.
A Panel of Doctors Tried to Lock Me Away
Within a few lines of dialogue, the crazy Lenora gets up at open mic night at Turkey Point and dedicates her song – and her body – to Cry-Baby. She launches into what may be the funniest song of the show, a dead-on parody of Patsy Cline’s iconic signature song, "Crazy." But here the insanity is not metaphor:
Darlin’, it’s so
Hard to be sixteen and schizo.
But I know it’s worth the cost.
I’ve made up my mind, which I’ve lost.
A panel of doctors tried
To lock me away.
But until the day when they finally do…
I’ll be here if you need a loose screw.
In this last verse of the song, the music again earns as many laughs as the lyric, as Lenora slides up a full octave, to scream-sing "clinically certified," then right back down to an intimate torch song alto. Notably, it’s not just Lenora’s words that are crazy; her music is crazy too. But her next line – "A panel of doctors tried to lock me away" – is both funny and chilling. It’s a subtle return to the theme of fear of the Other, a comment on arbitrary authority, and it also foreshadows the end of Act I. And in case anyone misses the real agenda here, she ends the song with a thinly veiled invitation to Cry-Baby for sex, even implying that she may just be the town pump ("I’ll be here if you need a loose screw."). But sadly for Lenora, Cry-Baby isn’t even on stage to hear her.
On the surface it seems like this song serves no purpose but laughs, but it’s actually more structural than that. This is Lenora’s old-fashioned, Rodgers and Hammerstein "I Want" song. It doesn’t feel like that because we don’t yet realize she’s the second female lead, and also because she’s batshit crazy. This story is set up with two protagonists (Cry-Baby and Allison), both following the classic hero story, and two antagonists (Baldwin and Lenora), both various degrees of crazy. What’s unusual about Cry-Baby is that the antagonists are also the old-school Comic Second Couple, parallel to Will Parker and Ado Annie in Oklahoma! or Frank and Ellie in Show Boat; and Baldwin and Lenora pretty much follow all the old rules, but down a much darker and much funnier road. Throughout Cry-Baby, the writing team takes the conventions of old-fashioned musical comedy and twists them into tantalizing post-modern pretzels, nowhere more so than with Baldwin and Lenora – who at this point in the show don’t even know each other yet.
"Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)" is essentially a one-joke song, but it takes that joke seriously and accomplishes so much under the surface, that the song is stronger – and funnier – than it might be in other writers’ hands. Inspired by songs like Elvis’ "Baby, Let’s Play House," the running joke of the song is that Cry-Baby is improvising a love song for Allison, but the choruses consists of only a single word repeated over and over. The audience laughs not just at the seeming emptiness of the lyric, but also at their knowledge that you’re not supposed to have a lyric like this in a musical. And behind the joke, the song also moves the plot forward. Within this song, Cry-Baby makes his seduction, he entices Allison into the song with him, and he leads her to the moment when she truly finds her inner Drape. From this moment on, we see Allison as a rock-and-roller, not a square. It’s an important plot and character development slyly hidden away in what only seems like a one-joke song. The song also makes another, more meta-theatrical joke about early rock and roll, which usually had consciously simplistic, repetitive lyrics because, as it is with the blues, the point of a rock song is The Beat and the performance, not the content. And yet theatre songs have to convey information; they have to pull their weight in the storytelling. A good modern musical theatre song can’t just be funny or vocally pyrotechnic; it has to function in the musical. So Schlesinger and Javerbaum created a song that does both, that invokes the silly simplicity of early rock and roll, while it sneaks in good musical theatre writing that keeps the story moving.
The action moves to the glade at Turkey Point where sex is in the air. "Girl, Can I Kiss You with Tongue?" is a tribute to all those early rock and roll songs that were very much about sex but hid it in metaphors transparent enough that teenagers understood but parents did not, songs like "Wake Up, Little Susie" and its parody in Grease, "Rock and Roll Party Queen." Here the Cry-Baby creators wrote a song that takes the same theme but discards the sexual metaphor in favor of blunt literalism, and to great comic effect. To add to all that, the ensemble is onstage French kissing through the entire song – in one section, even while they’re singing. The shock of actors’ tongues flailing about again takes the metaphor out of the song and forces it into concrete reality. At the same time, the staging of the song works almost exactly like nudity onstage works – the audience can’t distance themselves from it because they know that real people are actually doing this on stage in front of them. There is no artifice here, no pretend. These actors are actually French kissing. And the audience finds itself laughing at its own discomfort, raising the moment into meta-theatre, where we become aware of the act of creating theatre while we’re watching it.
It’s also interesting to note the difference in language between the two men vying for Allison’s affections. While Baldwin sings the innocent "She makes my spirit rise," in "Squeaky Clean;" yet in "Girl Can I Kiss You?" Cry-Baby sings the more carnal, "Now you’re mine, and I pine to taste you tasting me." A bit more to the point. Baldwin sings, "If she’d only say she’d have me…" but Cry-Baby sings "Now you’re mine."
The first act ends with the powerful, blues-infused "You Can’t Beat the System," an intricately constructed musical scene, the music weaving in and out and under dialogue as it alternates with singing, including some big, powerful vocal harmonies, not to mention some wild key changes that goose the energy level over and over again. It’s the kind of extended musical scene pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein as far back as Show Boat and Carousel, later developed by Stephen Sondheim in Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and most artfully, Passion, and most recently perfected by new artists like Larry O’Keefe and Andrew Lippa. It accomplishes everything a modern musical theatre first act finale has to – bringing all the plot elements together into a cliff-hanger, emotional or narrative or both, in this case, both. Alongside all that, Javerbaum and Schlesinger have come up with some hilarious, surprising rhymes. A few examples…
Drapes: They chain ya, detain ya,
Restrict ya and restrain ya,
They rented special shackles from the state of Pennsylvania.
Notice the great alliteration of restrict and restrain. And the repeated s and sh sounds in the last line. And later in a structurally parallel moment, with an only slightly different rhyme…
Drapes: They’ll nail ya; they’ll jail ya;
They’ll say that you’re a failya.
Squares: We certainly appear to have you by the genitalia.
And there’s also one other fun trick lyric here worth mentioning, when Cry-Baby sings:
I'm just another sap
Too poor to beat the rap.
The one way I'm a felon is I fell in to their trap.
Which is followed by one of the most poignant lyrics in the show, even though it speeds by before we can register its gravity:
The world’s the one that did it
But the world is still at large.
Life is a trumped-up charge.
In other words, the society which breeds such paranoia and fear is to blame for his problems (both past and present), but who takes responsibility for that? It’s a sharp, insightful jab at our dysfunctional American prison system. Later in the song, we see the arbitrary nature of our justice system, the power put into the hands of too few, the inequity between rich and poor, as Judge Stone sings ominously:
There will soon be justice here,
For you’re about to see:
You’re looking at the system,
And you can’t beat me.
That’s a powerful, scary social commentary, mixed in amongst all the lunacy. This is comedy with an agenda.
As Act I comes to a close, Allison has crossed over to the Drapes, but will Cry-Baby’s apparent betrayal send her back to the Square world – and if so, won’t she just be a fish out of water yet again? There are some huge laughs here (most notably, Baldwin’s "Listen to your inner prejudice, Judge!" and Mrs. Vernon-Williams’ admonition to Allison to say "scrotum" instead of "balls"), plus an ending both hilarious and powerful, as Cry-Baby screams for Allison á la Stanley Kowalski.
Significantly in this scene, Mrs. Vernon-Williams
questions her own long-held assumptions and pleads to Judge Stone on Cry-Baby’s
behalf. Though the audience doesn’t know it yet, we got a one-line setup about
this in the first scene ("I forgot the Walkers had a son!"), and this moment at
the end of the act is an important one for Mrs. Vernon-Williams that will lead
to both her songs in Act II ("Miser" reprise and "I Did Something Wrong Once"),
and the final resolution of the story’s central conflict at the end of the show,
in a last minute reveal worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Drapery in the First Degree
The second act opens with "Misery," a classic 12/8 rock ballad that is both conventional and not. Like many musical comedies, it’s an Act II opener that checks back in with most of the major characters and re-establishes the plot and the conflicts set up in the Act I cliffhanger. It’s also an old-school musical comedy list song, like "You’re the Top" or "My Favorite Things." Some of the rhymes are really interesting, most notably the ones leading up to the "misery" list:
Deep in my heart, it must have been real love,
Because now it is causing me quite a good deal of
Misery, agony, helplessness, hopelessness, heartache and woe.
And later in the song:
She’s up in her room.
He’s locked in his prison.
And I’d like to think that (s)he also is in
Misery, agony, helplessness, hopelessness, heartache and woe.
They’re great rhymes, but more than that, they make real sentences without contorting or inverting those sentences.
But as with almost all the other songs in the show, this song does much more than clever lyrics. The running joke of turning the ubiquitous 1950s rock and roll whoa into woe is not only funny, but it sets up such fun opportunities throughout the song, and it returns to the theme of extreme emotion. By substituting woe for whoa, the songwriters give a weird kind of motivation for the early rock convention of ending a phrase with "whoa, whoa, whoa." Now, it’s actually part of the song, as each of the characters searches for the right word to express their despair. It becomes even more explicit when the Teardrops enter and Pepper and Wanda actually evaluate each other’s word choices. It’s fun to note the many words they use to describe their unhappiness during this song. In addition to misery, agony, helplessness, hopelessness, heartache, and woe, there’s also suffering, sorrow, dejection, despondency, torment, grief, depression, despair, dejection, anguish, furious, outraged, indignant, disgusted and pissed. Just as we’re realizing this is an old-school, musical comedy "list song" (like Cole Porter’s "You’re the Top") that spins comically out of control, Dupree hits us with some subtle postmodern self-reference:
Ten kinds of hurt fill my soul as I languish:
Depression, despair, dejection, anguish,
Misery, agony, helplessness, hopelessness, heartache and woe…
And in case we missed it, the men drive the point home:
Ten types of woe!
And just to be perverse, the songwriters sneak in one list of happy adjectives:
But when I dream of my darling
Waiting there for me,
I feel happiness, pleasure, contentment, serenity, joy, bliss and glee!
The list of words gets funnier and funnier the longer it grows, and then in a brilliantly meta-theatrical moment, the full chorus comes right out and tells us what they’re doing:
But for now, nothing’s left but to join in this chorus
Ripped from the world’s most depressing thesaurus.
The song essentially is a thesaurus, after all, and this lyric makes us wonder whether or not Javerbaum and Schlesinger were using a thesaurus when they were writing this – which is also funny. But note the despair here – "nothing’s left" but to complain. There’s no action they can take to right the wrongs. They are literally helpless, even hopeless. As they told us at the end of Act I, poor people – the powerless – can’t beat the system. All the fear the Drapes (and Allison’s rebellion) has caused has been squashed, put back in its cage, not unlike the mainstream culture did to women, gays, and people of color in the 1950s.
Polite society is safe again.
The next song, "All in My Head," also functions both traditionally and not, a textbook example of how the neo musical comedy works. The song uses most of the conventions of musical comedy, but it also subverts every one of them. They harmonize on the word harmony but they do it very badly. They tell us how much their respective lovers love them, even though we know they’re wrong. Even the title phrase, "all in my head," means one thing to Baldwin and Lenora inside their delusional world, and something else entirely to the audience. It’s these characters’ lack of self-awareness that makes the song funny. Even funnier, Baldwin sees Lenora’s madness but not his own.
Musically speaking, this is our first return to square music since "Squeaky Clean." We’ve been spending all this time in the rock and roll world, but that world has been shattered now, at least for the moment. So, like Allison, we return to the square world. "All in My Head" also functions as a conventional Act II number for the comic secondary couple, whose relationship mirrors the central couple. Other examples include "All ‘er Nothin" in Oklahoma!, "Always True to You in My Fashion" from Kiss Me, Kate, and "Plant You Now, Dig You Later" from Pal Joey. But here, the secondary couple isn’t really a couple. At least, not yet. This time, Allison’s reject and Cry-Baby’s reject find themselves in a secondary couple’s comic love song, even though they’re singing about other people. Add to that, Lenora is crazy and Baldwin may be starting to lose his mind a bit too by this point, but they live in a musical comedy so they have to do this song together. Yet again, the writing team uses old-school conventions but subverts them to fit into a John Waters world.
In the original production’s staging of this song, Allison and Cry-Baby are dressed up as mannequins in wedding clothes who step out of a store window in a fantasy. But like much else about the production, that misses the point. This song is really about Lenora and Baldwin, not Allison and Cry-Baby. Traditionally, the lead couple never shows up in the secondary couple’s Act II song. One could argue this is just another subversion, but it’s one that gets in the way of the storytelling. If the song and the moment belong only to Lenora and Baldwin, that nicely foreshadows one of the crazier plot resolutions at the end of the show. We see here the scariness of both these characters which keeps them from winning their respective loves – Baldwin talks about living in "some un-ethnic part of town" and Lenora sings about having a house with "fifteen chimpanzees out back and an ant farm under the bed." These people do not belong with our heroes. On top of everything else, "All in My Head" also dives into the sexism and misogyny of the 1950s – and of 1950s musical comedy. Lenora may be crazier, but Baldwin is scarier, at least from the perspective of the twenty-first century.
We move on to a transition song, "Jailyard Jubilee" – an ironic reworking of "Jukebox Jamboree" from Act I, now fashioned as a tragic blues-folk dirge, perhaps modeled on actual period songs like "Sixteen Tons" – to move the action to the prison where the Drapes are being held. And with just a few lines of dialogue, we start the second act show-stopper, "A Little Upset," a brilliant study in comic understatement, in which Cry-Baby and Dupree refer to their rage over their unjust incarceration as "a little upset," "kinda bad," "ever so sad," "fuss[ing] and fret[ting]," "a little bit irked," "not feelin’ so hot," and "our number one pet peeve." This relentless understatement is funny, but it also tells something important about Cry-Baby, that he’s not naturally violent or "anti-social" (as they used to call it), despite his horrific past, that in fact he really is the nice boy Allison thinks he is.
A lot of plot gets taken care of during this song, in which Cry-Baby finally is pushed beyond his breaking point and leads a prison escape cum musical comedy dance number. Some of the incredibly funny – and character-driven jokes in the lyric are worth quoting. At one point, 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 –
And then they’re on to the next verse. It’s funny because the audience has to fill in the punch line, which is a punch line specifically because it’s missing. On top of that, the missing word is a double-entendre, referring both to Cry-Baby not finishing his literal sentence, but also planning to escape and not finishing his prison sentence. That’s a lot to ask of an audience, but it works. By the end of the song, almost every element of the plot has moved forward.
We return to the square world again for a scene with Baldwin, Allison, and Mrs. Vernon-Williams, which leads to Mrs. Vernon-Williams big eleven o’clock number, a traditional musical comedy staple in which the lead character (here a secondary lead) has a great revelation about themselves which leads to the resolution of the conflict. Other examples are "If He Walked Into My Life" in Mame or "So Long Dearie" in Hello, Dolly! This is by far the most "Broadway" song in the score, but it’s just as full of wacky comedy and surprise trick rhymes as the rest of the score. And the double meaning of once provides a subtle running joke in the song. The phrase "I did something wrong once," which starts almost every verse, can be taken two ways, either meaning that she did something wrong at some point in the past, but also that she did something bad only one time. And it’s that second meaning that provides the laughs in this morally topsy-turvy universe. And it’s also a great teaser – Mrs. Vernon-Williams keeps telling us she did something wrong( over and over) but never what that thing she did is. And in holding back that information, the song propels us into the show’s final scene.
The location moves to the new patriotic theme park, Star-Spangled Funland, where Baldwin, Allison, and the Whiffles are performing the hilariously dorky song, "Thanks for the Nifty Country," a pointed satire of shallow patriotism from the point of view of the privileged class, the kind of confident ignorance we see at every time of great national turmoil in America.
In the final minutes of the story, Baldwin challenges Cry-Baby to a sing-off to win Allison’s hand. Baldwin and the Whiffles offer up "This Amazing Offer," a wacky take on early television and advertising, which Cry-Baby answers with "Do That Again," a rocking Jerry Lee Lewis number, no doubt inspired by "Great Balls of Fire," not just paying tribute to the musical style but also the love-as-sickness theme in "Great Balls of Fire," Little Willie John’s "Fever" (later recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958), and other songs of the period. Baldwin offers only a sales job, and Cry-Baby offers passion, so Allison chooses Cry-Baby, the one we knew she belonged with from the show’s third song. Really, the whole show has been a sing-off, after all, and the Drapes have won both in micro and in macro.
All the conflicts are resolved and we launch into the show’s finale, "Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again," a matching bookend to the opening number, with the full cast, all of them outside, happy, and dancing, but now the whole cast sings rock and roll! In the battle between square music and rock and roll, rock and roll has taken the day. The central conflict of the show, Allison’s crossing over from the square world to the Drape world, is summed up in her solo lines:
Well, I’m not the girl I used to be.
It all worked out alright.
Now I’ll be myself forever,
And forever starts tonight.
Now that she and Cry-Baby can be authentically themselves, there is no longer an obstacle to their love.
The finale mocks both the sunny optimism of old-fashioned musical comedy and the political mess that continues today in America. Cry-Baby and his friends see a future for America that seems hopeful and optimistic to them but darkly, ironically funny to us today, including universal healthcare, universal housing, an end to racism and class warfare, no more war or violence, no more mental illness or venereal disease. The lyric indicts both the rosy vision of the future that the 1950s offered up to Americans and also the many social ills that America still hasn’t solved after all these decades. It laughs in both directions at once, just as the entire show does.
Like old-school musical comedies, Cry-Baby is an evening of jokes and clever songs, but unlike those musical comedies, it’s also so much more than that. Like the other neo musical comedies in this new golden age of musical theatre, there is the surface, there is what’s beneath, and there is the humor that comes from the dissonance between the two. Cry-Baby was still funny in its shallow Broadway production, but it was only funny. Treated with respect and intelligence Cry-Baby is both wickedly funny and socio-politically subversive. And that’s a pretty potent comic cocktail worthy of John Waters.
Copyright 2012. Excerpt from Scott Miller’s upcoming, though untitled next book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.