Published in The New York Times
DAVID JAVERBAUM and Adam Schlesinger are boyish-looking guys who grew up seven miles apart in Essex County, N.J. Each went to an elite Massachusetts college, moved to New York, got married, had two daughters and contributed to some of the wittier works of pop culture of the last decade.
But until they wrote the songs for the Broadway musical “Cry-Baby,” scheduled to open April 24 at the Marquis Theater, they had never met.
“He just seemed like a guy I would have already been friends with,” said Mr. Schlesinger, 40, best known as the bassist and a songwriter for the pop group Fountains of Wayne.
After John Waters’s film “Hairspray” became a Broadway smash, Mr. Waters and some producers got the idea to adapt his 1990 movie musical “Cry-Baby” — about a James Dean-style bad boy in 1954 — with all new songs. “Cry-Baby” is “ruder” and “more of a satire” than “Hairspray,” Mr. Waters said, and they wanted comic songwriters with an offbeat point of view.
Mr. Javerbaum, 36, best known as the executive producer of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, wowed the producers with his some of his lyrics. They paired him with Mr. Schlesinger, and the two hit it off.
Though they share a contemporary style of humor very different from that found in classic Broadway musicals, their intention was not to turn the medium upside down. “Even though we try to come up with absurd lines or wacky premises, we’re also sticklers for playing by the rules of theatrical songwriting,” Mr. Schlesinger said. “We want the rhymes to be real rhymes, and we want the characters to move forward.”
The two wanted the show to acknowledge the clichés of 1950s teenagers while avoiding outright parody, and not to use the meta-humor of shows like “Spamalot,” in which the characters are aware that they are in a musical. “It’s more like having word choices be odd or just coming at things with a fresh take,” Mr. Javerbaum said. “What if, for example, you took a classic song about a woman who says she’s crazy for you, and the twist is she’s actually crazy?”
The men were more prepared for Broadway than their day jobs might suggest. After writing two Hasty Pudding shows at Harvard, Mr. Javerbaum attended New York University’s graduate musical theater writing program, was a writer of the 2001 Off Broadway musical “Suburb” and won the 2005 Ed Kleban Award for most promising lyricist.
And while Mr. Schlesinger had never written a musical, his songs for Fountains of Wayne, including the band’s biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom,” frequently feature well-developed characters.
“I’ve always had an easier time writing songs that are linear and have a story,” he said. “It’s atypical for pop songs. In theater it’s a requirement.”
Before joining “The Daily Show” as a writer in 1999, Mr. Javerbaum wrote for The Onion. (His satirical headlines included “U.S. Ambassador to Bulungi Suspected of Making Country Up.”) His current projects include a musical about the former interior secretary James Watt and a baby-book parody called “What to Expect When You’re Expected.”
Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show,” said what distinguished Mr. Javerbaum was “his ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge, combined with a rather ‘Rain Man’-esque ability to turn a phrase.”
Mr. Schlesinger says the constraints of Broadway songwriting appeal to him. A few years after graduating from Williams College, he and his Fountains of Wayne band mate Chris Collingwood used to sit at a bar in the West Village scribbling titles for songs on napkins and challenging each other to write them.
Mr. Schlesinger moonlights in the melancholic band Ivy and has written jingles and movie music, including the title song for “That Thing You Do!” “I can imagine him being equally comfortable with a tampon commercial or the national anthem of a fledgling Eastern European country,” Mr. Collingwood said in an e-mail message.
“The more specific an assignment, the easier it is for me to nail it,” Mr. Schlesinger said. “I’m a pretty good chameleon.”
In “Stacy’s Mom,” the 2003 hit about a teenager lusting after an older woman, the singer’s delusion is funny in part because it’s in the style of a straightforward ’80s love song like “Jesse’s Girl.”
Similarly, the songs in “Cry-Baby” combine the rockabilly style of Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson and early Elvis Presley with lyrics that are a little off track. The song “Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby Baby)” uses a simple chord progression, while the lyrics go a bit overboard. “It’s about playing with the tropes: something that musically sounds familiar right away but lyrically does something that you don’t expect,” Mr. Schlesinger said.
For “Cry-Baby,” the songwriters worked off an outline written by the book writers, Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell, and would start each song by coming up with a title or a concept. Sometimes Mr. Javerbaum would write the lyrics and e-mail them to Mr. Schlesinger. Other songs were completely collaborative. Though Mr. Javerbaum was originally hired to write lyrics and Mr. Schlesinger to write music, they now share a “songs by” credit.
During previews they’ve continued tinkering. “Girl, Can I Kiss You ...?” contained a line Mr. Javerbaum disliked: “It’ll serve to reveal all the things that you feel, like my braces, my tonsils, my lung.” He rejiggered it to “It can swish; it can swirl; it can twist; it can twirl; it can tickle the top of your lung.” “It’s more specific about the subject matter,” he said. “I also like the alliteration.”
“I imagine it’s like a grease monkey under a car with a wrench and oil: it’s like a paradise down there,” he added. “That’s what I feel like I get to do with words and writing these days.”