Spring Awakening: Teenage Angst, Self-Discovery, and Electrifying Music
There's an image that captures the spirit of Duncan Sheik's Tony Award-winning rock musical: a frizzy-haired teenage boy in 19th-century German garb gripping a microphone stand and writhing in a hard rocker's pose. He's wearing a black laced-up boot on one foot and a modern-day sneaker on the other.
And the play does just that: blend the repressive adult society of the past with the raw emotions of youth. Spring Awakening is based on the controversial 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind. The play was banned in its day because it was deemed obscene. Its subject matter has the power to shock some people even today: it involves the issues of teenage sexuality, self pleasure, homosexuality, rape, abortion, suicide, and child abuse.
Singer-songwriter and composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater took Wedekind's play and injected it with a gritty pop and punk rock soundtrack. While the musical maintains most of the original dialogue, the characters speaking in a formal, 19th-century manner, the songs employ raw, realistic teenage speech. From the start, Sheik and Sater decided that they didn't want to do a typical musical, where the actors spontaneously burst into song and dance, singing their words to each other. Instead, the songs and dancing reflect the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters.
Thus, a scene of a group of schoolboys sitting still in straight-backed chairs reciting Latin in unison is juxtaposed with a dance number of the boys leaping over their seats, stomping their feet, and rocking out. The song perfectly captures the inner frustration and pent-up energy of kids kept in a stifling, forbidding adult environment.
What's the Story?
The play starts with Wendla Bergmann (originated by Lea Michele of Glee fame) wondering about the changes in her body and the strange new feelings she's having about growing up. When her mother tells Wendla that her older sister is expecting a second child, Wendla asks where babies come from. Mortified, the girl's mother scolds her and avoids answering the question. No matter what your position on sex education these days, know that skirting the subject altogether can only lead to trouble!
Meanwhile, star pupil Melchior Gabor (Jonathan Groff) seeks knowledge from reading and philosophy, scorning the narrow-mindedness and strict ways of his teachers and parents. To his mind, sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, even though the prudish adult world won't allow any mention of it. Melchior tries to help his best friend Moritz Stiefel (John Gallagher, Jr.), a boy so distracted and troubled by erotic dreams that he's in danger of failing his classes. These childhood friends and their peers share a fateful season, their lives intertwining and their sexuality awakening in unexpected ways. No one makes it through unscathed.
The original soundtrack.
Teens: Not So Different Back Then As Now
An important theme of Spring Awakening is the gap between generations. Lacking proper support and guidance from their parents and teachers, these kids fumble through that awkward adolescent stage. At times angry, confused, and yes, horny, they can't make sense of their own world, much less that of a callous society. As a result, their genuine problems go unnoticed and unchecked until it's too late. Martha suffers abuse from her father. Ilse is kicked out of her home for similar problems. Moritz's life quickly spirals out of control, and the people closest to him can't see the pain he's in.
In March 2010, I had the good fortune to see Spring Awakening at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The energy and raw emotion of the cast was incredible. The audience had both teenagers and people well past middle age. Reading the playbill, I was surprised to discover the reactions to the play of different cities around the country. In the Playbill, the current Melchior, Jake Epstein, talked about cities that really got into the play, those that were largely silent, and others that had walk-outs. There's no doubt that the play is intense, sometimes dark and unsettling. But the moments of unabashed humor are there as well, lest you think it's all gloom and doom. It's not.
Spring Awakening has been lauded for its honest and unflinching look at youth. Some groups have championed it as a tool for opening dialogue between parents and their children. Despite the play's thorny issues (or perhaps because of them), it's been a hit with teens and parents alike. Besides the messages it sends, Spring Awakening is ultimately a story about growing up, presenting both sorrow and joy, the loss of innocence, and the promise of hope and rebirth.