There’s something happening in the New York theatre right now. Something so deliciously indulgent, so wonderfully hysterical, so ridiculous, so sexy, so generous to its audiences, such a joy on every visceral level, that I won’t even attempt to break it down in any meaningful manner. In this time of ours in which important statements are begging to be made and the nation is in dire need of high-level discourse, so is born the equal and opposite need to embrace the joy of the divinely-executed lowbrow.
I have had the opportunity to see virtually every piece of theatre produced on Broadway since 2010, both play and musical. While I daily found myself challenged intellectually, morally and ethically, there was one show I found myself back at over and over again: Rock of Ages. A true masterpiece of masterfully-delivered camp that knows exactly what it is doing and precisely who its audience is.
When that gorgeous 2.5 hours of escapist delight disappeared, Broadway lost something vital to its balance.
Now, a show has come along that fills this void perfectly. Cruel Intentions: The Musical is, at its very base level, the second coming of Rock of Ages, but for those born about 15 years later. Technically a parody of the 1999 motion picture of the same name, the creators have put together a jukebox musical that draws from every genre of rock-pop radio jam to come out of that glorious decade.
As a musical theatre kid who was inexplicably obsessed with 1980s gangsta rap, I was by no means a huge follower of the popular music of my time (I graduated high school in 2001). But, in a time with no Spotify and no high-speed downloads, you were pretty much limited to the CDs you owned and the offerings on the radio.
Even if you weren’t an intentional fan of “popular music,” if you ever went to a school dance or spent any respectable amount of time making out in the car or dry humping on your mom’s couch while she was at Costco… you HEARD these songs and they stuck with you.
Boy bands, Boyz II Men, No Doubt, TLC, Ace of Base, Marcy Playground, REM, Melissa Etheridge and more all come together to create the soundtrack of this musical celebration. Delivered by a perfect ensemble of attractive Broadway dynamos, the show is driven by two powerhouse leading lady performances. Carrie St. Louis and Lauren Zakrin are both alumni of Rock of Ages and have both ridden the Glinda bubble in Wicked, among other credits.
While every member of this company has a chance to shine, the energy and vocal ferocity of their performances, even while delivering joyful camp, can be ranked up there with the great diva displays in modern musical theatre.
They took the time to sit down with this fawning kid of the ‘90s and talk about the show!
MB: I must confess that I've seen this film way too many times. It came out when I was 15 or 16, so it was something of a rite of passage and guilty pleasure. What was your relationship with the film prior to taking on this project?
St. Louis: I feel like it was our whole generation's guilty pleasure! I had seen it in my late teens as well and I've always been a big fan of Reese Witherspoon so this project seemed like a perfect fit!
Zakrin: I was absolutely a fan of the movie growing up. I think I was a little bit too young for it when it came out, so I didn’t quite grasp all of the themes and happenings, but it felt like this dirty little secret I was trying to figure out…
MB: How did you first get involved with the show? Tell me about the audition process.
St. Louis: I had spoken with the director Lindsey Rosin about the pop-up engagement in February but was unable to make it work at the time, so I was thrilled when it was announced that it would be having an Off-Broadway run! I saw the show in February and loved all of the songs (of course) and the overall vibe of the production at (le) Poisson Rouge. This time it all synced up.
Zakrin: After The Great Comet of 1812 closed, I went on a month-long road trip camping through all of the West Coast national parks. Cruel Intentions was my first audition back in the game. I flew back on a red-eye, took a shower, and came straight to the audition. It was pretty painless. I had a great time in the room with Lindsey, I sang a little “Underneath Your Clothes,” by Shakira, and stayed for a quick but fun dance call. And that was it!
MB: It becomes clear from the beginning that this is going to be an evening of fun, camp, and nostalgia for the 1990s. Tell me how about you go about striking the perfect balance and discovering where the biggest laughs and largest moments are going to strike. I love that split second where you can physically feel the audience collectively realizing what song is being launched into.
St. Louis: That's what is so fun about this show! We know what's coming but the audience always takes a moment to register the song choice (and they all fit so perfectly into the dialogue of the show). My character, Annette Hargrove, isn't necessarily the comedy role, which is challenging because it is such a silly show. She's the good girl who gets her heart broken by Sebastian and then belts out one of my favorite 90s hits, “Foolish Games” by Jewel.
Naturally when the piano starts to play the opening chords and I start singing, no matter how heartfelt, there are a few giggles in the audience because it is so recognizable, but then I can always sense a shift as the audience starts to flashback to their first breakup and listening to this song over and over again on their Discmans (or is that just me?). It really brings you back.
Zakrin: My character, Kathryn, has one of the darker storylines in the show. Personally, I try to keep her as grounded as possible. She does a lot of… ugly stuff as a human, and I think it has to be based in reality in order for the audience to understand her or have any compassion for her. Some of the things she says and does organically generate laughs from the audience because they are so downright nasty or uncomfortable… but I leave most of the camp to Bunny, Cecile, Greg, and Blaine. It’s hard not getting to be the funny one ;) But like you said, the show has to strike the perfect balance.
MB: The song list is truly incomparable. Boyz II Men, Marcy Playground, Christina Aguilera, No Doubt, R.E.M... if you were alive in the 1990s, chances are this show contains at least one of your favorite earworms. Personally, would you say that this is the soundtrack of your youth?
St. Louis: Oh definitely! The funniest part is that I knew all of the choruses but found that I had been making up the verses all of this time!
Zakrin: I think because I was a bit younger, a lot of these songs didn’t make it on to my mixtapes as a child. There were actually a few that I was unfamiliar with coming in.
MB: What is your favorite moment for your character, musically? What song in the show do you wish you could take a crack at?
St. Louis: I really love “Foolish Games” because it is Annette's moment to break out and show her point of view in a show mostly told through the eyes of Sebastian and Kathryn. If I could sing any other song, I'd probably sing "Sunday Morning." It is the complete opposite of my role and it is a JAM! But Lauren kills it every night, so I'll leave it to her.
Zakrin: Musically? That’s a tough one. “I’m The Only One” is definitely my favorite to sing, and sits the best for me in my vocal range. When I found out they were adding to the show for this version I was so stoked! I also really enjoy singing “Bitch” through the mashup of “Kathryn’s Turn.” I get to sing little excerpts from different songs in the show and tie it all together with an “I’m The Only One” ending. I think it really helps see inside Kathryn’s breakdown and why she makes the choices she does at the end of the show.
MB: What is the funniest single moment of the show to you? Is there one scene what constantly cracks you up onstage?
St. Louis: Oh every single thing that Alex Boniello and Brian Muller (Blaine and Greg) do. Their storyline is definitely expanded from the movie and they milk every second. The two of them together is just ridiculous, in all of the best ways.
Zakrin: Another tough question! There are so many. Jessie Shelton and Matthew Griffin are great together as Cecile and Ronald. I always die during “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” when they each have their own breakout dance moment that they take just a little too far. Jessie KILLS “I’ll Make Love to You.” And everything Brian Muller and Alex Boniello do together as Greg and Blaine is GOLD.
MB: The night that I attended, there was definitely a perfect energy in the house. Birthday parties, girls’ nights out, random drunk people hiding from the horrors of SantaCon. Have you found audiences to be overall very receptive and ready to buy what the show is selling? It did threaten to get a little rowdy at times – any fun instances yet of things going overboard?
St. Louis: Oh the audiences LOVE it! How could you not? It really is the perfect way to escape all of the craziness in the world right now and listen to your favorite 90's hits and relive your favorite guilty pleasure movie! Glass of wine in hand! What could be better?
One night in the middle of our (tasteful) sex scene, a girl in the audience yelled out, "Get it Annette!" I must admit, the whole audience, myself included, erupted in laughter.
Zakrin: The audiences have been fantastic. I think people have an idea of what they are getting themselves into when the show up, and then end up getting even more than they ever suspected. I think they are pleasantly surprised, and we love the energy we get from them. Sometimes they get a little extra enthusiastic, but it is nothing I would ever complain about!
MB: One of my first realizations was how beautifully this fills the hole left by Rock of Ages, which I probably saw 20 times. You've both starred as Sherrie in that show. How would you say this experience is similar, and what have been the main differences? Would you say that your time living in the pace and humor of ROA has been good training for what you're doing now?
St. Louis: It's similar in that they are both jukebox musicals that definitely showcase the pop/rock highlights of those decades. And they are both such fun shows that don't take themselves too seriously. The 90s are more my generation so I understand the nostalgia a lot more with Cruel Intentions. I mean, I never thought growing up in Palm Springs, California, and rocking out to the radio, that I'd be singing these songs on stage in New York City professionally!
I definitely think my time in ROA was good training for Cruel Intentions because, as you mentioned before, there is a timing with it all. We know what's coming next, but you have to land it so the audience catches up and can join in. The whole cast really commits to the material, the sincerity, and the humor, in such a balanced way, that it's impossible not to buy into it as an audience member as well.
Zakrin: Yes! For those looking for a nostalgic 90s jukebox show to pick up where ROA left of us in the 80s, Cruel Intentions does the trick! Rock of Ages is just so, so, so much fun. People love taking a trip back in the time machine and reliving the good old days!
MB: Both of you have also spent some time Glinda-ing and Lauren, you've come off of a gorgeous run in Great Comet. Do you think of yourselves primarily as pop or legit singers, or is it a nice luxury being able to go so beautifully back and forth?
St. Louis: I actually studied classical music/opera at the Thornton School of Music at USC! So I was primarily focused on legit soprano repertoire and then three months out of college I booked Sherrie in Rock of Ages! So I started working on my belt/pop rock voice and now it's nice to be able to go back and forth!
Zakrin: Of course it is a blessing to be able to do both, but I would have to admit that singing legit/soprano is where my heart lives. Somehow, I keep ending up in shows where I am belting my face off, so I will keep riding the wave! But I look forward to some classical or operatic work in the future :) Great Comet was such an absolute joy for me. It doesn’t get better than singing the beautiful and genius work of Dave Malloy.
MB: Tell me a little bit about the character you play, and why we should (or shouldn’t) be rooting for her?
St. Louis: Annette is the virginal headmaster's daughter who unknowingly gets swept up in a bet made by Kathryn and Sebastian. Sebastian is a known player who seems incapable of feeling, but he falls for Annette and decides to ditch the bet for her. You root for Annette because she is the only one who is able to make Sebastian (and potentially Kathryn in the end) realize how cruel they are and that true love always wins in the end (aww).
Zakrin: Should you be rooting for Kathryn? No, I don’t think that is quite on-the-nose. But I do hope you can connect with her, and see the human side of her. And perhaps see the little bit of her that lives in yourself. We are all capable of ugly actions, and evil thoughts. Jealousy, malice, cruelty, selfishness. We choose every day whether or not to act upon them. I think Kathryn is an important representation of what that looks like and how it feels, especially in our current social and political climate.
MB: That’s an interesting point. There does seem to be a greater relevant message that exists in the material, that this generation could take as a lesson or cautionary tale.
Zakrin: Definitely. Also, our show still stays true to a lot of the comedy and humor that was more relevant in the 90s. I think bringing our attention to the fact that we used to laugh about these kind of things is important. Times have changed, and a lot of that comedy is uncomfortable now. Progress is important, and it is important to recognize the mistakes we have made in the past.
MB: I miss the 1990s. Remember when the biggest problem in the country was Bill Clinton's dirty sex? What was your favorite thing about the 90s?
St. Louis: Oh man, there are so many things!! Candy necklaces, chokers, overalls, platform shoes, jellies, the music, tamagotchis, skip-its! But honestly, everything's already back in style again!
Zakrin: Spice Girls. Britney. Candy necklaces. Dunkaroos. Limited Too!!!
MB: Fun, camp and humor aside, this show is a hell of a sing. How do you keep your voice healthy for what basically amounts to a rock opera?
St. Louis: A lot of steaming, coconut water, lots of sleep, and sleeping with a humidifier! It's just a way of life for singers! And I wouldn't trade it for anything!
Zakrin: It isn’t easy! I try to take it day by day, just focusing on what my needs are and where my voice is at on that particular show. Lots of hydration, lots of steaming. Lots of lemon and ginger and turmeric. We just had a little bit of a cold that made its way through the cast (as you can imagine with all of the onstage kissing) while we were doing a 10-show week. We all had to really buckle down on our vocal and health care regimen. But everyone is still blowing it out of the water!!
MB: This is the first fully-staged musical ever produced at (le) Poisson Rouge. I was really impressed with the creative methods devised to create a lot of different environments in what is essentially a bare space. What is it like performing in such a cool room?
St. Louis: It's a totally different vibe. You don't have to sit in a stuffy theater seat silently observing. People often sing along and hoot and holler, which just adds to the energy in the room. Plus (le) Poisson Rouge is such a well-known music venue with a legendary history. It's awesome bringing a musical into that space. The band is onstage with us the whole show and it's an intimate size so the audience really gets transported into our world!
Zakrin: I love it. I think LPR is the perfect environment for our wicked, dirty little rock show. Have a cocktail and sing along with some No Doubt!
And it seems the show is a hit, having now extended again! Will you all be with it for awhile? Any other projects you're working on at the moment?
Zakrin: We will all be with the show through the extension, so come keep us rock it out!
St. Louis: It's been a great run so far! I do my own solo show at 54 Below which I'm bringing back in the new year, and I'm bringing my show (with Israeli singer, Isaac Sutton) on a tour of Israel in March which I'm very excited about!
MB: For anyone who is somehow not familiar with the movie, how would you sum up the show, and why should they give it a visit?
Zakrin: It’s a gut-busting, SEXY, boundary-pushing, jukebox musical throwback to the 90s :)
St. Louis: It's the movie you love, with the songs you know, performed live with drinks. Come relive the 90's and all of its nostalgia with us and escape the crazy world we live in today!
MB: Finally, did you ever watch the film sequel? (Yeah, I don't want to talk about it either.)
Zakrin: Not yet!
St. Louis: No, I haven't! Maybe I'll have to do that now…
Cruel Intentions has now extended through March 16 at (le) Poisson Rouge.
General admission tickets start at $39 for standing room, $59 for table seating, and $109 ‘Secret Society’ tickets which are in a reserved, premium seating location. All seated tickets require a 2-beverage or food minimum.
Tickets are on sale via www.CruelMusical.com or can be purchased in person at the (le) Poisson Rouge box office (158 Bleecker Street) between the hours of 5-8 PM Monday-Saturday.
Title Photo: Lauren Zakrin and Carrie St. Louis in CRUEL INTENTIONS (photo by Jenny Anderson)