When Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater’s (book and lyrics) musical adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s play debuted on Broadway in 2006 it picked up eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and made stars of young cast members Lea Michele (Glee) and Jonathan Groff (Looking). It was a quick favourite with young audiences; its culture-clash of rock songs set against the background of conservative 1891 Germany was trying to say something about breaking free of the expectations of an older generation. It was so successful that Sydney Theatre Company staged a production (to mixed reviews) in 2010.
Although revivals so close to the original production are rare, Spring Awakening was was revived on Broadway in 2015 by Deaf West, featuring a ground-breaking group of young performers, both deaf and hearing – including the first actor in a wheelchair ever on Broadway.
In Sydney, the Australian Theatre for Young People seems like the perfect company to produce a new take on the musical, not only because of its history of taking adolescent theatremakers seriously, but also because of its track record of productions that capture the churning rebellion that accompanies coming of age. It also feels like the right place to offer a rejoinder to recent attempts to curtail the sexuality of young people through the damaging changes to the Safe Schools program.
This production is helmed by Helpmann Award-winning actor Mitchell Butel, who made his directorial debut in 2015 with Violet at the Hayes Theatre – a critical success that won three Sydney Theatre Awards.
Butel’s Spring Awakening feels like no other production that has gone before. It’s frank, it’s beautiful, it’s gently reigned-in: not histrionic, but greatly sad.
We open with the teens taking selfies onstage before a woman clad in blue gently collects their phones – effectively taking away their mode of self-expression. The opening strains of the first number plays, and the show-proper begins, as per the book, in late-19th-century Germany. The woman in blue returns to the stage as an angel of sorts: a guiding, encouraging figure – and the only one in this story who validates and normalises sexuality.
The teens of Spring Awakening are tormented by ignorance. Wendla (Jessica Rookeward, a stunning new ingénuewith a clarion tone) wants to know where her sister’s babies come from; her mother can’t tell her. This will have devastating consequences. Moritz (a sensitive, complex Josh McElroy) has no clue why he’s dreaming about a woman’s legs; the supposed ‘wrongness’ of this will lead to tragedy. Martha (Kate Cheel, haunting) is abused at home but is terrified of speaking out; if she has nowhere to go she will end up like Ilse (the intriguing Alex Malone), sleeping in the snow, haunted by men.
The only teen who isn’t tormented by not knowing is Melchior (James Raggat), a young radical who “doesn’t believe in anything.” He’s a voracious reader and actually knows what sex is and how it works. He believes in individual sexual and political freedom. In most productions, Melchior is a brooding rebel with an air of intelligent superiority; not so here. In Raggat’s thoroughly engrossing performance, he seems completely normal – the same as every other kid, just with more information (and he’s eager to share it). The result is a character who is more likeable, and when Melchior and Wendla share a moment or two in a hayloft, it’s easy to become invested in their budding relationship.
Butel shapes the show with empathy and an emphasis on connection. The two adult figures, played by Thomasin Litchfield and Richard Sydenham (in an excellent and ultimately moving performance), feel real, and not like sinister emblems of repression; they think they are doing the right things for their children, and seem to love them. Moments that might flicker past without any weight in previous productions feel necessary here: when Hanschen (Patrick Diggins, deliciously sure of himself) seduces Ernst (Joe Howe, a deer in headlights), the audience is only laughing at Hanschen’s arrogance, never their relationship.
Spring Awakening is not, on paper, an excellent show: Sater’s book is stilted and his lyrics are abstract, dense with arcane references (from the bible to centuries-old poetry);sometimes Sheik’s rock-influenced score doesn’t feel coherently paired with the time and place of the book, even as a contrast.
But this is a surprisingly good production: musical director Lucy Bermingham (who also worked with Butel on Violet, for which she won a Sydney Theatre Award) leads a tight band, and along with the actors creates musical theatre magic – when the young women sing a reprise to Wendla’s ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ it could give you chills; and Amy Campbell’s choreography is naturalistic, evocative, and never too overwhelming for the small ATYP space.
There is a note of hope towards the end of play, after the horror and loss – a sense of moving forward and growing up. Butel’s Spring Awakening, specifically, is urging its audience to understand that children deserve better – that they shouldn’t have to wait to be the middle-aged adults in charge to have some agency over their lives. It’s a message well worth hearing.