During his misspent youth, John Waters often joked that his future lay behind barbed wire and guard towers.
"I used to say that I was going to end up in prison making license plates," he says. "Little did I know."
Little did Waters know that he, the self-styled Filth Elder and Sultan of Sleaze would one day be that most mainstream of figures - the man whose work inspired not one, but two Broadway musicals.
Little did he know that - five years after his maiden effort, Hairspray, became a bonafide cultural phenomenon, winning eight Tony awards and spawning a major movie - a team of producers, actors and designers would try to create theatrical magic for the second time in a musical called Cry-Baby that opens here tonight.
Theatergoers in this well-to-do San Diego suburb will pay up to $85 per ticket to see actor James Snyder, in the title role, croon, "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue?"
Cry-Baby explores the conflict between two groups of teen-agers in the 1950s: the rebellious Drapes (named for the draped collars on their jackets) and the clean-cut Squares. But in a sense, the gulf between the two sides depicted inside the theater is no more vast than that between the old Crab City meticulously reconstructed on stage, a world of Formstone rowhouses and plaster pink flamingos, and the southern California landscape of palm trees, red-tile roofs and multi-million-dollar homes fronting the Pacific Ocean.
The producers chose the La Jolla Playhouse for Cry-Baby's world premiere, in part because it has a history of sending shows on to success in the Great White Way, including A Walk in the Woods, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Jersey Boys.
"The depth, width and height of our stage are very similar to the Broadway stages, so when you build your set and hang your lights and design your sound, the configuration will work in both places," says Chris Ashley, the Playhouse's artistic director. "But our theater is much smaller and more intimate. We have only 600 seats, which allows the creative team to get a much better sense of how the audience is responding."
After four years of the budget and cast crises, staged readings and workshops that are standard procedure for any new musical, Cry-Baby is scheduled to open on Broadway in April. During what is widely acknowledged as a weak season for song-and-dance shows, the early buzz is that the show could be a strong contender for a 2008 Tony Award for best musical.
"I hear that Cry-Baby might be the sleeper hit of the year," says Chris Caggiano, a Boston Conservatory professor who teaches the history of musical theater, and who is a longtime fan of Waters' films.
"In musical theater, there often is pressure on sophomore efforts. But it always comes down to the merits of that particular show. The classic example is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, which was a giant watershed that changed the course of musicals forever. And they followed that with Carousel, which might be even better than Oklahoma. It's not a given that a second effort will be hyped so much that audiences will be disappointed."
Upon hearing this prediction, Elan McAllister, one of three lead producers, covered her face with her hands and groaned, "Oh Jeez. I don't even want to think about that."
It's not that people involved in the production haven't heard the gossip. It's just that an undertaking as mammoth as mounting a new musical involves so many details and 20-hour days, so much cold pizza consumed on the run, that no one associated with the show has time to worry about what may or may not happen five months from now.
As Thomas Meehan, one of the show's scriptwriters, put it: "You're asking me if my baby will graduate from college, and he hasn't even been born yet."
Hairspray and Cry-Baby share certain traits: Both celebrate society's misfits. Both are set in mid-20th-century Baltimore. Perhaps most important, both are characterized by a sunny optimism, a generosity of spirit that offers even the villains the possibility of redemption.
But Hairspray was set during the racial conflicts of the 1960s, with a score modeled on Motown and rhythm and blues. Cry-Baby takes place about a decade earlier. It examines differences in class, and its sound varies between the contrasting musical styles of the era: Lawrence Welk and rockabilly. Dance plays an even more prominent role in Cry-Baby than in Hairspray.
Perhaps most significantly, Waters' original, 1988 film version of Hairspray starring Ricki Lake was a much-loved cult classic. But despite Johnny Depp's star turn as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, Waters' 1990 film is much less well-known.
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan won a Tony Award for their script for Hairspray. When they signed on to write the book for Cry-Baby, they went to work trimming away extraneous subplots and characters.
"John Waters writes these eccentric, wonderful movies," Meehan says. "But - and not to denigrate John - they're all over the place. Our job was to take the movie apart, and put it all together again for the stage. Our duty is not to translate the movie, but to write a Broadway musical."