Switchblades Laughin' at a Butter Knife

We're running the whole show at every rehearsal now. This is such a valuable part of the process, the editing, the repetition that leads to muscle memory, the working out of problems. It can get boring sometimes. But not with Cry-Baby. This show is such crazy fun to watch. One by one, all the problems are getting ironed out, the blocking is getting more and more natural looking, and I can see growing in front of me some really amazing performances.

Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy and the show's wickedly off-kilter style of humor is shining through every actor in the cast -- they really get it. The Teardrops have found their Grrrl Power. Dowdy is crafting one of those classic comic villains you just love to hate. Terrie is utterly fearless in diving into Lenora's deep, deep dementia -- and "Screw Loose" is going to bring the house down. Taylor has found the joy and adventure in Allison, and Ryan has found the honesty and core decency in Cry-Baby. Every comedy I work on proves it to me again -- nothing is funnier than the truth. If you play the characters, the emotions, the relationships truthfully, the comedy rises to even greater heights.

One of my pet peeves and most ferocious crusades centers on the plague of mindless, shallow productions of smart, well-crafted musical theatre. Yeah, I know, lots of theatre people who don't know any better will reply that all musicals are mindless and shallow. Well, you're wrong so shut the fuck up. That hasn't been true in decades and today the art form is moving in amazing new directions. This is no longer the art form of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The worst offenders inject their fourth-grade humor into well-crafted comedies, with the apparent conviction that anything that gets a laugh is Good, and the arrogance to believe that they're actually funnier than the people who wrote the show. As I've argued many times before, animals on YouTube make us laugh -- shouldn't there be a higher bar than that for theatre? Shouldn't a night at the theatre deliver more than America's Funniest Home Videos?

It's one of the reasons Cry-Baby sorta sucked on Broadway.

What routinely drives me crazy is that people choose to produce shows that are already incredibly funny -- Spelling Bee, Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors, Into the Woods, Chicago, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and yes, Cry-Baby -- and then they try really, really hard to make them funny. Which invariably makes them considerably less funny. But don't take my word for it. Here's the Author's Note from Howard Ashman, bookwriter and lyricist for Little Shop of Horrors:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

I remember first reading that -- after already having seen and loved the show off Broadway -- and it really had an impact on me. I became aware that the funniest comedies are always the most honest and the most straight-faced. It was the same with Urinetown in 2007. We followed the writers' intentions and approached the show on its own terms, as fiercely straight-faced but subversive, political (and artistic) satire.

The key to Urinetown is that every single character takes everything so incredibly seriously, with such insanely high emotional stakes, that it's hilarious. It doesn't need "help" to be funny. We just had to follow the outstanding road map Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann laid out for us. The more seriously we took the characters and the story, the funnier it got. Our audiences were roaring with laughter, partly because we never violated the reality of the story. They could believe in these crazy people and their story, and that made the comic ride a hell of a lot more fun.

The same is true of Bat Boy. And Cry-Baby.

One of the reasons the Laughs-At-Any-Cost approach so often fails is that the shows I'm talking about are really funny, but they're a lot more than funny. Little Shop is the Faust story, after all. Cry-Baby is about class and injustice in America. Bat Boy is about moral hypocrisy in American culture. Urinetown is about the shallowness of American politics. Load them up with funny voices, mugging, schtick, unmotivated gags, and you kill everything cool about the shows.

There's nothing less funny than the effort to be funny. When you try really hard to make a show funny, when you look for schtick to add, when you cram a show full of "bits," you essentially end up with a straight-to-video Pauly Shore movie. And nobody wants that. If the audience can tell you're trying to be funny, they'll find it far less amusing. Comedy is at its best when it sneaks up on you and surprises you. If you see it coming a mile away, it's less funny. Comedy needs two things to work -- it has to tell the truth, and it has to be a surprise, or in the best of both worlds, it tells a surprising truth. When an actor or director is just throwing in silly bullshit to try to get a laugh, the audience sees it coming, so the surprise is lost. And when the director or actor's agenda is getting laughs instead of telling a good story, the truth gets lost too.

One of the biggest problems with the original Broadway production of Cry-Baby was that the cast was working like dogs to get laughs, with lots of enormous mugging to the audience, lots of stopping the show for a punch-line and then leaving lots of room for laughter (which didn't always happen). The substantial truth at the heart of Cry-Baby got lost in the mess of middle school hijinks. Cry-Baby himself 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 give a shit 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 result was bad storytelling.

I've seen the same thing happen with productions of Bat Boy, Spelling Bee, and Urinetown over the years. Take them seriously, focus on character and story, and the laughs come by the bucketful. Try to make them funny and you cripple them. Sure, audiences may still laugh at actors making asses of themselves, but you've stopped making good theatre; instead you're just making great shows look stupid. When New Line produced these shows, we didn't have to "make" any of them funny; they are already brilliant. We just had to stick to the show the creators had written. The actors and directors who mangle otherwise wonderful shows with clumsy comedy bits either don't understand the shows they're working on, or they have no respect for the shows and their writers -- or their audience.

Over the years, we've produced some of the most outrageous, most unconventional musicals ever written (that's New Line's Bat Boy, in the picture), and we get full houses laughing uproariously at our comedies -- because we take our comedy seriously. The realer the characters are, the more convincing and involving the story is, the more rooted in truth the laughs are, the better and more memorable the experience will be for everyone on and off the stage. Maybe it seems counter-intuitive, the idea of taking comedy seriously, but all the great comedians and comedy writers will tell you the same thing. TV comedies like Third Rock from the Sun and The Beverly Hillbillies are so funny because the characters take everything so seriously, even as they seem to us wacky and bizarre. If you've seen New Line's Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, or Forbidden Planet, you'll know what I'm talking about; if not, come see Cry-Baby.

I think, generally speaking, the people who try that hard to be funny, who go out of their way to come up with comic bits, who don't seem to realize how funny the material itself is, are not actually funny people. Not everyone is. Some people are funny and some just aren't. (One of my favorite indie movies, Funny Bones, is about that.) And yes, people who aren't funny can still get laughs from an audience, in the same way that cat in the hamster ball or the bear on the trampoline on YouTube gets laughs from their audiences.

I just wish more theatre artists knew how much more funny and more satisfying the comedy would be if they'd just get off its fucking back...

I'm just sayin'...

Long Live the Musical!