This show is, at least for official purposes, supposed to be a parody of the 1999 film Cruel Intentions. But unlike, say, Silence: The Musical, this is quite obviously a more-or-less straightforward musical adaptation that is only billing itself as a “parody” to avoid paying royalties. My primary issue with it, however, is not its questionable attempt to take advantage of protected speech laws, but the fact that it is such a mediocre and half-assed adaptation that there seems to have been little point in attempting it to begin with.
The original Cruel Intentions was a very dark teen comedy-drama based on the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses and its American film adaptations Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont. It has its goofy, even stupid moments, but it is still a fascinating work because it succeeds in retaining the things that made Les Liaisons Dangereuses interesting in the first place…bored, malevolent aristocrats playing mind games with each other, and the idea of sex as a tool in a power struggle. This, combined with the superb chemistry of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe as the two sociopathic teens at the story’s center, has made the film an enduring cult favorite even if it obviously fails to match the quality of its source material.
This story could have easily inspired a fascinating and characterful score, but the musical version unfortunately took the easy way out and did it as a Jukebox musical. The songs taken from the film’s actual soundtrack (with one notable exception I’ll get to later) work fairly well, as they were already designed to suit the film’s content; Placebo’s “Every You, Every Me” is as striking an opening here as it was in the film, and the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” makes for a moving finale. But “You Oughta Know”, while it vaguely fits the mood of the scene it was used in, makes it sound like Kathryn cares far more about Court (the guy she’s trying to revenge herself on at the beginning of the story) than she ever actually did. Kathryn might love Sebastian in a twisted way, but she certainly didn’t love Court; she’s avenging a blow to her pride at that point, not a broken heart (it was replaced with “I’m the Only One” by Melissa Etheridge for the show’s off-Broadway run, probably because the Jagged Little Pill album was becoming its own Jukebox Musical around that time, but this substitution mitigates the problem only slightly).
That’s actually one of the less outrageous mismatches of song and situation in this show. Because Kathryn and Sebastian are such colorful and well-defined characters, the choices for their songs usually make at least a little bit of sense, with items like Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” and the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” actually being reasonable facsimiles of character songs if you squint at them a little (even if “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks has nothing to do with the scene it’s in beyond the phrase “I’m a bitch”). But the songs chosen for the supporting characters are just ridiculous, and only get more ridiculous as the show goes on. The songs for idealistic ingenue Annette are consistently tone-deaf and often have her singing the exact opposite of what she’s supposed to conveying (I get that the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” was on the film’s original soundtrack, but unlike the two examples mentioned above, it simply doesn’t make any sense as used in the musical). Two minor gay characters from the film are built up into a secondary couple who sing a lot of largely random songs but barely take part in the dialogue beyond their introductory scenes. Giving TLC’s “No Scrubs” to Cecile’s racist mother is just stupid, and I still haven’t figured out any rational reason why they had Cecile and Ronald duet to Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
This would be fine if this really were meant as a parody, but it plays the dialogue scenes completely straight (for crying out loud, the film’s screenwriter even co-wrote the musical’s book!), and several of the songs are presented quite seriously (is there even a way to present “You Oughta Know” or “Foolish Games” comedically?). The effect is that of an onstage reenactment of scenes from Cruel Intentions periodically interrupted by a concert of Nineties Pop hits. You can get the former by simply seeing the movie and the latter by turning on a radio station, and they certainly don’t gain anything from being combined, so the whole enterprise just seems pointless.
And of course, the stage version completely fails to come up with anything equivalent to the film’s ending, though to be fair there’s really no conceivable way to recreate that effect onstage. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, after Sebastian dies due to Kathryn’s schemes, the other characters posthumously publish his journal to expose Kathryn for the monster that she is. The last thing we see is her looking at a page with a picture of her and all her dirty little secrets written around it…’coke habit’, ‘bulimia’ and so forth. But if you look closely (and for some people, this requires repeat viewings, as they deliberately don’t call attention to it), also written on that page, in no bigger print than any of the other things, are the words “My love”. Once you notice this, the tear falling down Kathryn’s face as she reads it takes on a whole new meaning.
Granted, without the medium of film it would probably be impossible to convey this information with such superb subtlety, but the fact that they didn’t really try to convey it at all makes the ending seem far simpler and shallower than it actually is. In fact, the real problem is that the show as a whole is far less interesting than a musical based on this source should have been. The songs don’t make any real attempt to musicalize the characters, and the actors are often forced to convey emotions that are at odds with the words they’re actually singing. I saw this show’s first New York production at Le Poisson Rouge, and while Next To Normal alumnus Jennifer Damiano gave a brilliant performance as Kathryn, the show itself was still clearly an utterly pointless adaptation and a tragic case of missed opportunity, and I am displeased to see that it managed to crawl back out of its hole again.
I’m normally pretty optimistic about the future of Musical Theater, but when I do envision the potential doom of musical theater, I don’t think of any of the usual targets of the theatre snobs—I think of Shame of Thrones, or Fifty Shades–A Musical Parody, or the Friends musical…or this thing. These low-rent off-Broadway Pop-culture “spoof” musicals are modern theatre’s ultimate exercise in pandering to the lowest common denominator, and they seem to be the one place in the New York theatre scene where lack of effort is still rewarded. Even the newspaper critics handle these shows with kid gloves, blandly approving what they would spit on with contempt if it were actually playing Broadway. Off-Broadway used to be a place of creativity and artistry…it’s the place that gave us the revival of The Threepenny Opera in the Fifties, The Fantasticks and Hair in the Sixties, and such brilliant alternative crossover shows as Urinetown, Avenue Q and 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in the 2000s. Don’t let it be overrun by lazy cash-ins like this one. We’re better than that. I know we are.