Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The heralded recovery of musical theater in the 2000s—after more than a decade of seemingly mortal illness—has been an unexpected joy, but it has been compromised by a central artistic limitation: its dependence on an IV drip of nostalgia. Some shows are injected with the spirit of Tin Pan Alley (The Drowsy Chaperone, Thoroughly Modern Millie); some subsist on the essence of tasty pop corn (Jersey Boys, Movin’ Out, Mamma Mia!); others live on modified retro children’s fare (Wicked, Avenue Q). Such perpetual reliance on audiences’ happy associations with the past suggests a widespread nervousness with delivering the present in a musical package, as though the Broadway musical itself were somehow ineluctibly passé. (In adapting 1968’s The Producers from screen to stage, Mel Brooks moved it to the 1950s.)
Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, which has now moved to Broadway after a summer tryout at the Atlantic Theater Company, marks a brave departure from this sentimental addition to yesteryear. True, the musical is adapted from Frank Wedekind’s still-shocking 1891 drama about teenage lust and its casualties. But there is no affection in the play’s or the musical’s depiction of the past. The small-town German social culture depicted here is one of repression, conformism and violence. And the audience can only pity the confused adolescents squeezed in its vise: pretty buds bursting into doom.
Spring Awakening’s dark subject matter—its willingness to apply pressure to such tender culture bruises as abortion, masturbation, pedophilia, child abuse, suicide and homosexuality—keeps it a striking distance from most musical theater. But what really marks it as a breed apart is its brooding, pulsating black-and-blue score. Sheik’s music is thrillingly modern; paired with Sater’s imagistic, sometimes profane lyrics, it is like nothing that has ever been heard on a Broadway stage. This is not the sound of your parents’ cast albums; this is the sound of your iPod, of alt-rock radio, of late-night parties in a melancholy mood. It makes Rent seem long past due.
The emotional diffidence of rock music, which often hides its feelings behind poses of rebellion of nonchalance, would not be appropriate for many musicals, but it gibes perfectly with the uneasy self-positioning of the kids of Spring Awakening—who are portrayed, with touching ardor and confusion, but a young and talented actors in their teens and early twenties. Prominent among them are the Tiger Beat–ready Jonathan Groff as Melchior, a local teen idol impatient with inchoate radicalism; the dewy Lea Michele as Wendla, whose parents keep her in a prison of sexual ignorance; and the mahogony-voiced Lauren Pritchard as Ilse, a bohemian outcast who spends her days posing for old artists and fending off their advances. As Melchior’s cloudy-headed, Beavis-haired best friend, Moritz, the exceptional John Gallagher, Jr. contributes much of the musical’s twisted, tormented soul. (All of the adult roles are played by two actors, both new to the production. Christina Easterbrook is wonderful as the women; Stephen Spinella, as the men, less so.)
Directed with palpable sympathy by Michael Mayer, the production is built around a clever structural device: When the actors shift into song, they also shift into modernity, in some cases pulling hand-held microphones from their jacket pockets. (The combination of schoolboy uniforms and rock music recalls Pink Floyd’s The Wall or AC/DC’s Angus Young.) This concept does double duty: It establishes a link between the 19th-century characters and their modern-day counterparts; and it also helps ease the discomfort that today’s realism-soaked audiences encounter in musical theater when people start singing.
The latter goal has become more of a challenge with Spring Awakening’s transfer to Broadway. The authors have made a several textual changes to the show, most of them serving the interests of clarity and focus. But the piece’s intensity is harder to maintain at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre than at the Atlantic; the much larger Broadway audience ineitably includes more people likely to giggle or comment at uncomfortable moments, breaking the show’s sense of tension. At the performance I attended, during a creepily comic scene between the predatory Hanschen (Jonathan B. Wright, perfectly waxy) and the tremulous Ernst (Skylar Astin), some random boor in the audience yelled out “gay!”
To Spring Awakening’s credit, the show fights for, and earns, its audience’s seriousness, and the laughter almost entirely dissipates in Act II. The show’s best songs—such as the defiant “Don’t Do Sadness,” the snarling “The Bitch of Living” and the yearning “The Word of Your Body”—have that rarest of Broadway qualities: contemporary musical cred. And that is especially true of the second-act showstopper that may well be the year’s best production number: the unruly “Totally Fucked,” an explosion of nihilism channeled into precise chaos by choreographer Bill T. Jones. Fluorescent lights flash, the characters’ worlds come crashing down, and the show takes a vital leap forward for the American musical.
Spring Awakening. Eugene O’Neill Theatre (see Broadway). Book and kyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Dir. Michael Mayer. With Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher, Jr.
Original Off Broadway theater review by Adam Feldman (June 22, 2006)
Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a bleak 1891 drama of adolescent sexuality scorched in the bud, was so devastatingly honest that it was destined to be deemed ahead of its time. And although time has caught up, Wedekind’s critique of sexual repression—with its frank depictions of masturbation, homosexuality and abortion—feels freshly vital in the age of abstinence pledges and moral majoritarianism. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s dark, pulsing new musical adaptation of Spring Awakening manages the seemingly impossible task of staging teenage taboos without inspiring giggles. Its pubescent subjects have little in common with, say, Bye Bye Birdie’s chirpy teens; they are authentically complicated, full of lust and resentment and radical navet.
Rock music, whose arrested Dionysian posturing has limited its dramatic effectiveness in the past, is perfect for the inchoate romanticism and sullen anger of the young characters who sing it here. (The actors pull out handheld mikes when shifting into song.) Sheik’s refreshingly unironic tunes dig the show into an intense, moody groove that is admirably sustained by director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose work reaches a spasmodic crescendo in the aptly titled number “Totally Fucked.” (At times, the staging smartly recalls Pink Floyd’s The Wall.) Jonathan Groff, as the toppled golden boy Melchior, and John Gallagher Jr., as his screwup of a best friend, are standouts in the dynamic, mostly teenage cast. Spring Awakening, a spiky hothouse bloom, drags not only Wedekind’s play but musical theater itself firmly into the now.
Spring Awakening. Atlantic Theater Company (see Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Michael Mayer. With ensemble cast.