NEW YORK / / Standing in front of 150 theater folk, John Waters holds up a newspaper. A huge picture shows lightning striking the Empire State Building.
"Lightning can strike twice. Did you see yesterday in the Daily News -- the Empire State Building? All the time it happens. It can happen again," he says with the deadpan delight of a man gifted at finding beauty in potential disaster.
The lightning Waters refers to, however, is metaphorical, not meteorological. Its first strike of good fortune was turning the filmmaker's 1988 movie, Hairspray, into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. That show has now been transformed into a movie that could become one of this summer's big hits. The second strike Waters hopes for is the success of the musical theater adaptation of his 1990 movie, Cry-Baby.
The crowd in the rehearsal hall at 890 Broadway has gathered for the latest staged reading of Cry-Baby, which is aiming for a spring 2008 Broadway opening. A handful of those assembled have navigated these waters before.
Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, who won a Tony Award for their script for the musical Hairspray, are repeating their playwriting duties on Cry-Baby. The show's producing team also includes several Hairspray alums, chief among them, Adam Epstein, who instigated the Cry-Baby musical and is serving as a Broadway lead producer for the first time.
From the song titles (including "I'm Infected," and "Screw Loose") to such inspired touches as a new character who's a combination priest and cop (Father / Officer O'Brien), the mastery of Waters' vocabulary and iconography proves undeniable. Waters-speak has clearly become a second tongue for Meehan and O'Donnell.
"Because they're veterans of John Waters, they have in many ways invaded and annexed part of his subconscious," Epstein claims.
"We're very lucky because we can go to that same place or a similar place and work there happily," says O'Donnell. "It's the old joke -- a neurotic builds castles in the sky, but a psychotic lives there. I'm not saying we're psychotic, but we're all living in the same castle in the sky."
Authenticity's an aim
The culmination of a month's rehearsal, the New York reading is produced by California's La Jolla Playhouse, where Cry-Baby will play a pre-Broadway run in November. Instead of being stranded at music stands, the cast -- directed by Mark Brokaw -- has memorized the script, the rockabilly songs and choreographer Rob Ashford's dances.
High on the list of key Waters iconography is Baltimore itself. Getting the details of his hometown right is crucial to Waters. "Baltimore is one of the stars of these shows," acknowledges Meehan (who also earned Tonys for The Producers and Annie).
With that in mind, early on, the musical's creative team took the train to Baltimore and did what Waters always does before he starts a movie. They drove around looking at locations. In this case, however, Waters served as tour guide, proudly pointing out Cry-Baby's roots to the group, which included songwriters David Javerbaum (executive producer of The Daily Show) and Adam Schlesinger (co-founder of the band Fountains of Wayne).
In Hairspray, which takes place in 1962, the central theme is race; in Cry-Baby, set in 1954, it's class. "John Waters' West Side Story" is what Meehan calls Cry-Baby. "It's warring gangs and lovers. It's Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story with a happy ending."
The factions in Cry-Baby are the "drapes," as greasers were known in Baltimore, and the "squares." When a drape, Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, falls in love with a square, Allison Vernon Williams, the sparks that fly aren't merely amorous. At the reading, the leads are played by James Snyder, a newcomer from California, and Elizabeth Stanley, who is currently in the Broadway revival of Company.
Waters, who is serving as consultant on the Broadway musical, showed his guests Morrell Park, Cry-Baby's neighborhood -- "the heart of drapedom, which really doesn't disappoint," the filmmaker says. And he showed them Allison's turf, Roland Park.
Revisiting Waters' world after Hairspray is considerably less daunting, says O'Donnell, whose background includes writing for Saturday Night Live and the National Lampoon. "It's like inventing the wheel -- once you've done that, making the second one is not as scary," he explains.
A cup of tears
Indeed, familiarity has bred experimentation. Among the changes Meehan and O'Donnell have worked into the plot is a backstory for Cry-Baby's parents that incorporates the Red Scare of the 1950s. In addition, Lenora, a mentally unstable drape with an unrequited crush on Cry-Baby, has been given a bigger role. Her solo "Screw Loose" "could be a theme song for my life," quips Waters.
At the previous staged reading, held last summer, "Screw Loose" had the invited audience screaming for more. This time around, that's what the crowd gets. Lenora sings a duet with Baldwin, Allison's square boyfriend, in which they both deludedly fantasize about their romantic futures.
But if the writers know how to extrapolate, they also know when to mine Waters gold. In the musical, as in the movie, a despondent Allison drinks a cup of her own tears. "I love they still have that in because that was the only thing the [movie] studio really didn't like," says Waters. "It is the most John Waters touch. It's the kinkiest thing."
"Drinking a cup of your own tears," explains O'Donnell, "is twisted, but it's human."
As the cocktail of teardrops suggests, Cry-Baby is edgier than Hairspray, or, as producer Epstein puts it, "It's a bigger envelope pusher."
The handling of sexuality also has more edge than its tamer musical predecessor, Hairspray -- based on Waters' only movie to earn a PG rating. After all, one of the things Cry-Baby parodies is the repressiveness of the 1950s, and as Waters comments at intermission, "Sexual repression, God knows, from what I've seen, is good for choreography -- a lot of writhing."
There is a potential pitfall to Waters' return to Broadway: Will naysayers claim the show is just a restyled Hairspray?
"I think maybe there will be some of that, but I do feel in no sense is Cry-Baby Hairspray II. It's its own self," says Meehan. "They may say, 'Well, it's no Hairspray.' But it wasn't meant to be."
And what is Cry-Baby's "own self"? Addressing the audience, a confident Waters sums it up this way: "Sexual repression, wayward youth, cool juvenile delinquent music, joyous bizarre rejects who will warm your heart in the end. It's perfect for Broadway. Trash with flash."