First, let's break down what a musical actually is. On the surface level, that's obvious: a film, or a play, containing one or more "musical number". What this actually means, though, is that you will be watching a story unfold and then the characters, who had previously been talking like regular people, will suddenly burst into song. They will start singing in hushed tones, and will get louder and louder until they're screaming over each other, waving their hands around in this way that does not happen in any other situation (you know the way). They will liekly jump on cars and stomp their feet and smile really widely, as if they have eaten your children and are trying to convince you otherwise. And then they will stop, abruptly, and continue talking as if nothing ever happened. And this will happen multiple times. That is the definition of a musical. A lot of people enjoy them, for reasons I appreciate but do not entirely, always, fully understand.
Until Cry-Baby that is. If you've never had the pleasure of watching Cry-Baby, here is a basic overview: it was directed by John Waters and released in 1990, two years after his better known and more commercially successful musical Hairspray. Set in 1950s Baltimore, the film centres on two youth subcultures: the "drapes" and the "squares", who are direct rivals. The drapes are rebellious and wear leather and ride motorbikes, and the squares are snarky do-gooders who sing in harmonies and never stay out late. Unsurprisingly, the musical is about what happens when a square called Allison (Amy Locane) falls in love with drape Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), and whether love can overcome such a long standing neighbourhood taboo. So far, so standard.
Except it's not standard at all. Because Cry-Baby is in a league of its own. As anybody who loves John Waters will know, he is the unequivocal master of bad taste (which sounds like a "buzzword-y" thing to say, but it's true). From Pink Flamingos – in which our thin-eyebrowed protagonist literally eats dog shit – to my lowkey favourite Serial Mom, where a friendly suburban housewife decides to go on a rampage and murder everyone that pisses her off, Waters has built a career out of holding a mirror up to society's absurdities and making you laugh and gasp at the same time. This works particularly well in musical format because musicals are already fucking absurd (I'm sorry, but I cannot cry at Les Miserables because they are singing. They are singing). And that's why Cry-Baby is a musical at it's most artful. In taking something that is often consumed by families gathered around the television at Christmas, or children visiting the theatre on school trips, and then making it as openly weird and trashy as the format truly is deep down, Waters adds a heady dose of self-awareness to something that often requires it, while also teaching kids how to French kiss and break out of jail in the process.
There's no social ideology at which Cry-Baby doesn't take aim: the beauty myth, the nuclear family, class structure, the cult of celebrity. While the squares are everything that conservative society holds up in high regard – rich, Christian, virginal, conventionally attractive, from "solid" families – you ultimately side with the drapes. They might live in trailer parks and bathe in metal buckets and have faces and bodies that don't look like regular musical heroes, but they're cooler, they're way warmer and their parties look more fun. In one scene, a judge in a courtroom turns to Hatchet-face (Kim McGuire) a character with rotten teeth and wild, smeared makeup and says, "it's a shame about your face". She immediately throws her head forward and screeches, "There's nothing the matter with my face! I… got... character!" As with all of Waters' films, this is the central tenant of Cry-Baby. Who gives a fuck if you don't look like Zac Efron or Vanessa Hudgens? Be as ugly and wretched and freaky-looking as you like. You've got character.
But it's not just the aforementioned themes that make Cry-Baby a masterpiece. The songs also bang. And I don't mean they bang in a 'drank lots of cava at your uni friends hen party and thought it would fun to reenact the final scene from Grease with that girl you don't even like' kind of way. I mean they are genuinely good songs. "King Cry-Baby" sounds like it could have been sung by Elvis on one of his poppier days. And "Please, Mr Jailer", which is sang by Alison while dancing seductively in a red dress atop a black Hudson Hornet, is so viscerally catchy that I would legit play it during an after-club house gathering and I don't think anybody would complain. Not even behind my back. Granted, that particular song is actually an old piece of gospel blues from 1956 by Wynona Carr, and the original is darker and more stirring, but you can't deny this film's ability to put together a killer soundtrack that shits on all adaptations of Oliver Twist.
And then there is the cast, an iconic ensemble of misfits, many of whom have appeared in Waters' previous work. With the exception of Johnny Depp, who we will put aside for now, those that appeared in Cry-Baby are like 'drapes' in real life, each with their own beautiful and distinct stories. Traci Lords, who plays Wanda, worked as a underage porn star before escaping and starring in a string of cult films and thrillers. Susan Tyrrell, who plays Ramona Rickettes, had long become a kind of weirdo icon at this point, having appeared in over 75 films including Andy Warhol's Bad. And Iggy Pop, who plays Belvedere Rickettes, is, well… Iggy Pop. In consistently choosing these real life outsiders to play on-screen outsiders, Waters pushes his ideals further than the art itself and into actual existence. To be in a John Waters film is to stand for a set of values (which is to reject values entirely). Tell me another musical that does the same thing.
Cry-Baby may not have caught on in quite the same way as, say, Chicago or West Side Story. There aren't kids in classrooms throwing down their chairs and breaking out into "Doing Time (For Being Young)" (I don't think? I don't even know what schools are like these days, sorry?). But Cry-Baby stands alone as a film of daring and vision and it also weirdly made me get well into musicals, so there's that.