Boohoo! 'Cry-Baby' musical to close

The Baltimore Sun

This week, when the Broadway cast of Cry-Baby launches into its second-act number "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe," the rendition may be particularly heartfelt. It was announced yesterday that the $12.5 million production will close after Sunday's matinee.

But that doesn't necessarily mean you won't be seeing Cry-Baby on a stage near you. And you'll certainly be hearing from John Waters, whose 1990 cult film inspired the Broadway musical.

"I don't think this means the death of John Waters the musical," says Chris Caggiano, a musical theater professor at the Boston Conservatory and a lifelong Waters fan. "I think there are other possibilities, though they may be off Broadway."

The show, which played 45 previews and 68 performances on Broadway, was a victim of reviews that were middling at best. The show's seats were, on average, 65 percent filled during the past eight weeks, and the musical played before more than 66,000 people.

For a smaller show, those numbers might have worked. But Cry-Baby was trying to fill the 1,600-seat Marquis Theatre. In addition, the show used more than 40 performers between the cast and pit orchestra.

"In my experience, 65 percent is the tipping point," says Caggiano, who writes a blog named Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals.

"You can survive on 65 percent if you're selling full-price tickets, but they were discounting steeply. I think their average ticket price was $35, which was unbelievably low."

Waters himself wasn't surprised at the decision to close.

"It's very, very hard to survive a pan in The New York Times," he says. "We basically kept it open for the Tonys. When we didn't win the best choreography award, I knew that probably was the final nail in the coffin."

Cry-Baby was nominated for four Tonys but was expected to win just one, for Rob Ashford's athletic, inventive choreography. Instead, that Tony went to Andy Blankenbuehler of In the Heights.

However, Elan McAllister, one of Cry-Baby's lead producers, announced that a national tour of Cry-Baby will be launched in the fall of 2009. She added that the creative team thinks Cry-Baby might be a bigger hit on the road than it was in the Big Apple.

"We think the tour is going to do really well," she said.

"We got some really great reviews from out-of-town critics who loved the show. We anticipate that on the road, it will be better embraced than we were in New York, where we never found our audience and were basically dismissed."

It's a sure bet that any tour would play Charm City. "We would love to start the tour in Baltimore, but we haven't been able to put that in place yet," McAllister says.

Most shows that bomb on Broadway also fail in regional theater, but that's not true of all. Seussical, for instance, was a huge flop on the Great White Way but has been incredibly successful on the road.

Nor does one commercial failure mean that the quirky Waters has exhausted his crossover, mainstream appeal.

Hairspray (which continues to do a booming business on Broadway) and C ry-Baby are Waters' two nostalgia films, and therefore are the two that are most likely to attract conservative theatergoers.

It's hard to imagine any other film, except possibly Serial Mom - which also features a "normal" family - being embraced by the same audience that made Hairspray such a huge hit.

And, as Caggiano points out, there's always off-Broadway, which attracts a more daring clientele.

"Broadway can be adventurous in its bland, homogenized way," he says, "But I would be deeply disappointed if anybody every made Polyester or Female Trouble into a Broadway show. I'd want to see those musicals off-Broadway, sitting on a folding chair in a church basement."

Nor does one failure doom a career as long and varied as Waters'. It seems that, roughly every 10 minutes, news is announced about a new Waters project: a film, a television show, a book, an art exhibit or a Valentine's Day album of his favorite songs.

The filmmaker is known for being reluctant to discuss his current projects. But, for instance, funding has been lined up for Fruitcake, which has been billed as Waters' first children's film. A shooting schedule has not yet been set.

An exhibit of Waters' sculptures and photographs opens in St. Louis in October and on both coasts next spring. He is also writing his next book, Role Models, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

"My career right now is going better than it has ever gone in my whole life," Waters says. "If you're talking about my name as a warped brand, no, I'm not concerned. I never even tried to be mainstream in the first place."

Jed Dietz, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival, says that in the commercial world, success counts more than failure - especially a success on the magnitude of Hairspray, a movie, which became a Broadway musical which, in turn, became a commercial film.

"Thirty years from now, high schools around the country will still be producing Hairspray," he says. "If that isn't mainstream, what is?"

He points out that what has made Waters successful in the past is his unique way of looking at the world. And that hasn't changed.

"A lot of what John brings to the table is the way he sees things, his prism," Dietz says. "And that's polished and ready to go."

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