LA JOLLA, CALIF. — 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."
Adds O'Donnell: "Our slogan was: Edgier than Grease. Funnier than West Side Story."
With Hairspray, the duo showed that they had a gift for creating a show that was uniquely theirs, while somehow remaining faithful to Waters.
"It helps that we're temperamentally similar to John," O'Donnell says. "We're from the same planet, but it's a slightly twisted planet. We want to be tasteless, but not offensive. We may be off-kilter, but we're not bad people."
A bang-up job
Of course, everything about the theater world is a bit skewed. For instance, percussionist Pat Pfiffner spends his nights in a dark pit inside a metal playpen that could be the fantasy world for any 2-year-old.
Pfiffner plays more than a dozen instruments. There's a Chinese opera gong that, when struck, actually rises in pitch; a washboard that makes the most satisfying scratchy sound; a drum as big as a wading pool. There's that quintessential '50s instrument, the vibraphone; a set of chimes; and an armload of chains that Pfiffner holds about three feet above the floor before carefully dropping them.
Later in the evening, he wields four long, skinny mallets topped with fuzzy balls over a xylophone. Pfiffner plucks the keys as deftly as if he were eating with two sets of chopsticks.
If it weren't for David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, who wrote the musical's score and lyrics, Pfiffner might not be playing such delightfully idiosyncratic instruments.
Both have considerable success in other arenas. Schlesinger co-founded the rock group Fountains of Wayne, best known for its 2003 hit "Stacy's Mom." Javerbaum is a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But both are relative newcomers to writing for musical theater.
For Javerbaum, who churns out the equivalent of a script a day for The Daily Show, the glacial pace at which a Broadway show is put together has been an adjustment.
"When you're working for television, you don't have time to over-think," he says.
Schlesinger says that writing music for his band has been excellent preparation for composing for musical theater.
"When I write for Fountains of Wayne, it might seem like I have an open slate, but actually, I don't," he says. "I always have in mind who will be singing this song, and what his personality is. Both D.J. and I are big fans of parameters."
Javerbaum made an attempt at looking serious.
"Parameters," he says thoughtfully. "I especially like their early albums."
Javerbaum and Schlesinger are loose, freewheeling types of guys. They also may be a little giddy from a combination of overwork and lack of sleep. Just 15 minutes earlier, they had been tinkering with a few lines in the finale, with lyrics that weren't quite as sharp and focused as they ideally would like.
And the clock was ticking. The duo had 30 hours to make whatever last-minute fixes they could devise. As of 8 p.m. Friday, the show was frozen, meaning that no more changes can be made for the duration of the run in La Jolla.
That's a relief for the actors, who have enough on their minds without being asked to memorize new lines or dance moves.
In Depp's shadow
Consider the dilemma facing James Snyder, the 26-year-old actor cast in the title role. He just has to win over fans of the performer who originally played Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker in Waters' film - that icon of cool, Johnny Depp.
"It's kind of intimidating," says Snyder, who just received his Actors Equity card (a professional accreditation) four weeks ago. Though Snyder has performed previously in productions on Los Angeles-area stages, he has never before even been a member of the chorus of a Broadway-bound musical, let alone starred in one.
"I'm following an actor who's one of the most interesting people I've ever seen on screen," he says.
"My friends keep sending me these blogs where people say, `He doesn't look like anything like Johnny Depp.' Well, I can't help that. But in the musical, I get to dance, and I sing songs he didn't sing in the movie, so I'm hoping it will stop being an issue."
The Juliet to his Romeo is Elizabeth Stanley, a lissome, blonde 20-something who previously played the role of April in the recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company. She says she hopes she will do a good enough job that she'll be invited to continue playing the ingenue, Allison, when Cry-Baby moves to Broadway.
"We haven't been offered contracts beyond La Jolla," Stanley says. "With the way this business is, I could be replaced by Jessica Simpson. It doesn't matter how great you are or how established you are, the creative team could decide they want someone else. It's not personal. I keep telling myself to enjoy being in the show now, to enjoy spending the fall in southern California and to enjoy working with this cast, who are really enormously talented and kind. I hope this journey continues. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Cry-Baby closes in La Jolla on Dec. 16. After that, the creative team will tinker with the script, songs, costumes and dances. Then, there will be an additional five weeks of rehearsal beginning in February before the New York run opens in April.
"The paying audience in La Jolla is our last great collaborator," says O'Donnell, who co-wrote the script with Meehan. "We have one eye on the stage and another on the audience. It's like rotating a tire - if there's a leak, you're gonna know. We pay attention to when they're coughing, to where they open the playbill and leaf through it. These are bad signs."
Chances are remote that anyone in the audience will be unwrapping candy or surreptitiously checking their cell phones during the big second-act number, "Jailyard Jubilee" - a song and dance that bears out Waters' childhood prediction that his future would involve prison and license plates.
During a recent rehearsal, a dozen performers impersonating inmates stood on stage in front of a brown brick wall topped with an ominous strand of barbed wire meant to evoke Jessup. Three dancers picked up yellow-and-black Maryland tags, circa 1954, and attached them to their shoes. They then did a handstand, landing simultaneously with a resounding, delirious clang. The clamor was so loud it probably startled the dolphins frolicking in the water outside Waters' elegant beachfront hotel.
During a recent breakfast at the hotel, the cult filmmeister who once had a performer eat feces on camera was reveling in his surreal journey - one that Cry-Baby oddly anticipates in its tale of the bridging of misfits and the establishment.
"I'm bored with being an outsider," Waters declares. "It's so hackneyed. George Bush thinks he's an outsider. Being the insider is the ultimate humor. Seven of my movies were on television last month. Seven! Pink Flamingos shows on basic cable."