Wake-Up Call

Provocative rock musical 'Spring Awakening' beautifully explores teen sexuality, violence and suicide

Once every generation or so a Broadway musical turns the complacent world of happy entertainment upside down.

That happened in 1968 when Hair adopted the world of Rock music and its many accouterments in clothing, hairstyles, drugs and more. Such was the case again in 1996 when Rent took an old story (Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohme) and translated it to a contemporary world of Rock musicians, AIDS and life in New York City’s “bohemian” East Village.

Despite these shows’ controversial portraits of contemporary counterculture, they were popular productions that audiences flocked to see. Hair ran for four years and Rent for 12. A tour of the latter stopped in Cincinnati just last fall featuring Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp from the original 1996 cast. Both shows won Tony Awards for best musical, Hair in 1969 and Rent in 1996. Both became motion pictures.

The current generation’s trendsetter, Spring Awakening (2007 Tony winner), is onstage in a touring production Jan. 12-24 at the Aronoff Center. (It’s worth noting that the leading role of Wendla is played by Christy Altomare, a 2008 graduate of the musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. She's pictured above with Jake Epstein.)

Like Rent, Spring Awakening is based on a century-old work, in this case a controversial 1891 German play about adolescents dealing with coming-of-age anxieties. Like Hair and Rent, the show uses an electrifying Rock score that reflects the contemporary idiom. But Spring Awakening departs in a significant way from its predecessors: Rather than modernizing its source material, it’s costumed and set in the late 19th-century era when the play was written, reflecting prevalent social beliefs and behaviors.

Juxtaposing 1891 with an aggressive Rock score that sounds like here and now, the show’s creators, composer and former Pop star Duncan Sheik (best known to music fans for his 1996 hit, “Barely Breathing”) and writer Steven Sater, have universalized the story.

Frank Wedekind’s play was scandalous in its day, portraying teen sex, violence and suicide. These themes were so verboten that the show went unstaged for 15 years. When it was finally produced in 1906 in Berlin, it was heavily edited. It was't performed in English for nearly a century.

When the new musical was first presented in New York City at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company during the summer of 2006, its fusion of morality, sexuality and Rock & Roll captured young audiences immediately. It moved to Broadway late in 2006, where it ran for 888 performances. The New York Times suggested, “Broadway may never be the same.”

Spring Awakening is not a frothy piece of show business. It approaches troublesome issues that teenagers struggle with — then and now.

The show portrays a group of high school students evolving from youth to adulthood. In a repressive, provincial town in Germany they struggle with their budding sexuality. The three central characters are Wendla, 14, an innocent girl who has received no sexual instruction from her prudish mother; Melchior, 16, more worldly and knowledgeable but torn by his many emotions; and his friend Moritz, also 16, repressed and frightened by what he doesn’t know and driven to suicide when he learns more.

Most of the adults — two actors play an array of parents and other stern authority figures — are unthinking at best and often harshly judgmental. Spring Awakening is definitely not a happy-go-lucky teenage classic in the style of Bye Bye, Birdie or even the cheerfully goofy Hairspray.

Instead, this show is a powerful and thoughtful theatrical work, full of emotion and meaningful messages. Spring Awakening’s producer, actor Tom Hulce (Amadeus, Animal House), says, “It was extraordinary how contemporary this story feels more than 100 years after it was first written. Then as now, it illuminates not only the stories of these young people, but also the role that we, as adults, take in raising our teens; the challenges of finding ways to be responsive to their needs, to empower them with the truth and to do all within our grasp to guide them with love and understanding into their adulthood.”

Spring Awakening is a cautionary tale but also a love story between Wendla and Melchior who find themselves at the mercy of a system that works against them.

Director Michael Mayer (currently headed back to Broadway to stage a musical based on Green Day’s album American Idiot) staged the original production and this touring production. “I want people to come and have a fantastic time,” he says. “I hope they laugh and recognize themselves. I hope they are moved by the story. Without getting preachy, I think this play can have a positive impact on society as well as provide a terrifically entertaining and very, very moving theater experience.”

The show has affected people, Mayer says. “We’ve received so many letters, so many e-mails from people saying, ‘This play has changed my life.’ We’ve gotten cards from kids who were suicidal, or whose friends were, and they say this was a real catharsis for them. I think families across the board have had big important conversations about growing up and sexuality and politics and religion and the family unit and social issues as a result of seeing this play together.”

That said, Broadway Across America does include this statement in its publicity: “Spring Awakening contains mature themes, sexual situations and strong language.” The musical numbers are hit-you-between-the-eyes songs delivered with athletic choreography. In “The Bitch of Living,” the boys dance stridently and sing with force about their inability to manage the anxieties of flowing hormones, “the itch you can’t control.”

There are softer, more thoughtful numbers, too, as the teenagers’ emotions ebb and flow. Spring Awakening concludes with a poignantly hopeful number, “The Song of Purple Summer,” expressing the seasonal cycle of nature, the progression from the burgeoning energy of springtime to the fullness of summer, the wonder of evolving life.

But the show is laced with cynicism, especially from Melchior, who loses both his friends tragically. When he sees that no matter what he tries to do, he’s going to be judged negatively by his small-minded teachers and other adults, Melchior sings a number called “Totally Fucked”:

There’s a moment you know — you’re fucked!
Not an inch more room to self-destruct
No more move — oh yeah, the dead-end zone
Man, you just can’t call your soul your own

Such words were not likely in the vocabulary of a 16-year-old boy in provincial Germany in 1891, but they resonate with today’s audiences. Melchior and his friends wear the clothing of the period, but the highly charged, dissonant music to which they sing and dance provides a bombastic counterpoint that bespeaks today. The dynamic contrast between the two is the energy behind Spring Awakening’s power.

If these songs don’t sound like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” well, that’s part of the point of this powerful show. Go with your eyes and ears wide open — and be awakened. This could be one of the most meaningful musicals you’ll ever see.

A final note: If you would like to experience the unflagging energy of Spring Awakening up close and personal, onstage seats are available for every performance for $25. They must be purchased in person at the Broadway Across America box office (downtown in the Mercantile Center at 120 E. Fourth St.). Specific procedures must be followed, but for those who enjoy theater delivered full-throttle, this will be a memorable opportunity.

SPRING AWAKENING runs Jan. 12-24 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

Read Rick Pender's review here.

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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