In which Bwog contributor Michael Snyder regains faith in Broadway. Go see Spring Awakening—$25 for Columbia students!
About two months ago I discovered that I don’t actually like musical theater. I found this out in a conversation with several dear friends who do, in fact, like musical theater. We were comparing favorite shows and my end of the conversation went something like this: “Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park, Company, Cabaret, Chicago, West Side Story.” My friend asked me if I liked anything that hadn’t been written by Sondhiem, Kander and Ebb, or Bernstein. I said that I have a soft spot for Rent. It occurred to me then that for every musical that I love (and the ones I love I really do love) there are at least four that make me want to vomit all over myself. This is not an exaggeration.
So, for me at least, there’s very little new musical theater to get excited about. These days, there seems to be very little in musical theater that can be called new at all. There are the revivals, some of which are truly brilliant (John Doyle cannot be praised enough), there are the ‘new’ shows that emulate musicals of the 1940s, there are the bubonic plague-like Disney blockbusters (I include Wicked in this category), and there are the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that refuse to go away (I am convinced that, in the event of a nuclear holocaust, The Phantom of the Opera would continue to play for packed houses of cockroaches.) But new musicals—new in the way that Hair was new, new in the way that Sondheim’s musicals have always been new, new in way that Rent was at its premiere—don’t show up very often. The American musical as a genre seems to be going from terminal to vegetative.
But something is happening at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on 49th Street. Spring Awakening, which premiered over the summer Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company, has, either by a fluke or a stroke of inspiration, transferred to Broadway and is not-so-quietly redefining musical theater. This show is not perfect, but it is truly extraordinary and perhaps even revolutionary. Spring Awakening is the story of young teenagers in provincial Germany around the turn of the 20th century grappling with a society that represses their burgeoning sexuality and the consequences of that repression. The play upon which the musical is based was written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind but was not produced until 1906 due to subject matter that was considered lewd and unseemly.
One of the most inspired gestures of Spring Awakening, and certainly the bravest, was the decision not to update the play. Rather than do the expected and rewrite Wedekind’s groundbreaking play in present-day suburban America—the intuitive setting for composer Duncan Sheik’s pop/rock score—Steven Sater, who adapted the play and wrote the lyrics, elected to maintain the 19th century feeling of the original play by preserving its language and tone. Somehow this choice, rather than making Spring Awakening feel remote or dated, makes its heartbreaking message all the more urgent. Mr. Sater’s fantastic adaptation of Wedekind’s play makes this that rare musical blessed with not just a passable book, but a great one, a play that can truly stand on its own. In Spring Awakening, the music does not carry the entirety of the dramatic and emotional heft. In fact, some of the most affecting moments in the show are dramatic scenes, not songs.
Of course, the songs are fantastic too. Mr. Sheik’s music is fresh and exciting, combining elements of spirituals, pseudo-punk rock, girl- and boy-band pop, and, yes, John Larson. The songs are at turns funny, beautiful, and simply—for lack of a better word—awesome. Songs like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and the show-stopping anthem “Totally Fucked” are so energetic that they practically burst from the stage, others like “Left Behind,” and “Blue Wind” are exquisitely beautiful, and the phenomenal opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” is both.
The single greatest feat of this production is the way in which Director Michael Mayer sewed these songs, composed in an unmistakably modern verbal and musical idiom, into a play that was first produced 100 years ago. To say that the songs fit in seamlessly would be to underestimate what Mr. Mayer has done here. Mr. Mayer rejoices in the seams and does everything in his power to draw the audience’s attention to them. The songs begin with a rush of neon as characters pull hand mikes from pockets, and the lighting shifts from the stark realism of the dramatic scenes to a fantastically vibrant musical world. In Mr. Mayer’s production, everything is exposed, raw, and completely alive.
None of this would matter, though, were it not for the stunning cast. All but two of the actors in Spring Awakening are in their late teens or early twenties (the other two actors play all of the adult rolls in the show), and there is not a single weak link among them. Standout performances are given by Lauren Pritchard as the mysterious, nymph-like Ilse, Jonathan B. Wright as the wily seducer Hanschen, and Gideon Glick as his rather willing prey, Ernst. The actors in the leading roles, Jonathan Groff as Melchior, John Gallagher Jr. as Moritz, and Lea Michele as Wendla, all turn in remarkable performances in difficult roles. Ms. Michele especially manages to convey an innocence entirely at odds with her rather adult beauty; it is in this strange and uncomfortable juxtaposition, most fully realized in Wendla, that Spring Awakening takes shape.
As I said, this is not a perfect show. At times the youthful energy and vibrance of the musical numbers can overwhelm the more subtle moments of Wedekind’s delicately constructed and characterized play. Occasionally the lyrics fall flat because they are either too obvious or too self-consciously obtuse, but there is an undeniable charm in a show whose most rousing chorus consists only of the words “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah!” and whose cast sings every word with total conviction. Were these young actors completely polished, were the lyrics less stylized, were the staging any less vital, Spring Awakening would not be half as exciting or half as fresh. On Broadway, a world dominated by glittering plasticized perfection, a show that indulges itself in opulent emotions rather than opulent sets and costumes is refreshing and necessary.
Spring Awakening will surely be compared to Rent, and with good reason. Both are rock musicals built around the lives of young people and designed to invigorate a young audience, and Mr. Sheik’s score owes quite a lot to John Larson’s now-ubiquitous magnum opus. But Spring Awakening is no mere imitation. If anything, Spring Awakening is proof that Rent represented not just the first incarnation of a musical gimmick but the birth of a real style with nuances and depths still to be explored. Spring Awakening takes up that challenge and succeeds marvelously. If Spring Awakening is the future of musical theater, maybe we’re not “Totally Fucked” after all.