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 adaptation Dangerous Liaisons. 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, such as the intense opening “Every You, Every Me” and the moving finale “Bittersweet Symphony”, work fairly well, as they were already designed to suit the film’s content. But “You Oughta Know”, while it vaguely fits the mood of the scene it’s 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.
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 some degree of sense even when they’re less than ideal. But the songs 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. 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, and several of the songs are presented quite seriously (is there even a way to present “You Oughta Know” 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. Granted, Next To Normal alumnus Jennifer Damiano gave a brilliant performance as Kathryn in the show’s New York engagement, but in general, this is an utterly pointless adaptation and a tragic case of missed opportunity, and I imagine we’ve more or less seen the last of it at this point.