A Glorious New Awakening: The Broadway Musical Reborn

121806 article heilpern A Glorious New Awakening:  The Broadway Musical RebornIt’s with great joy and excitement that I report the triumphant opening of Spring Awakening on Broadway. A kind of miracle is happening at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. With its superb rock score by Duncan Sheik, and Steven Sater’s fine book and lyrics, this is the show that changes everything we thought we knew about that once-great invention, the All-American Musical.

After acclaiming its many wonderful achievements during its successful run at the Atlantic Theatre Company—not least the youth and sheer talent of the ensemble performing the story of adolescent sexuality and yearning—any fears of Spring Awakening being dumbed down or tarted up for Broadway prove unjustified. If anything, its masterly director, Michael Meyer, and his design team have taken it to an even higher level that confirms its greatness.

The bigger scale of the show for Broadway leaves its integrity uncompromised. There are additional musicians and singers, yet the sound remains crystal clear. More members of the audience now surround the performers onstage, but the intimacy of the production is maintained. Mr. Meyer has tweaked and restaged several scenes. There are two cast changes: The excellent Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook now play all the adult roles. There’s even the bonus of a new song at the top of Act II, “The Guilty Ones” (“And now our bodies are the guilty ones … ”). The most important thing is that nothing has changed in the spare, beautiful essentials.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s banned 1891 play Spring Awakening—of all unexpected choices—the major achievement of everyone involved in the musical version is to have found the modern within Wedekind’s stifling, repressed world. The staggering purity of this show will touch all open hearts. The melting lament of its confused and damaged youngsters speaks directly to us:

O, I’m gonna be wounded.

O, I’m gonna be your wound.

O, I’m gonna bruise you.

O, you’re gonna be my bruise.

In our bankrupt jukebox age of musical pastiche and irony, Spring Awakening doesn’t portray the young as ridiculous or crude. Nor is it sentimental showbiz like Rent. It’s fun, to be sure—bursting with jagged, irresistible vitality, thanks to Bill T. Jones’ innovative choreography. A lovely, unembarrassed honesty is its keynote. Its adult story of abusive, uncomprehending parents and teachers, of teenage rape, abortion and suicide, is the darker side of growing up. Its schoolkids’ feverish, plaintive urgency is a near-expressionist state of mind jumping with sticky hormonal fantasies.

But in its refined, imaginative simplicity, it daringly reverses all the conventional rules by returning the American musical to an original state of innocence. How it achieves this must be seen to be believed. The terribly touching coda of wary celebration and fear, “The Song of Purple Summer,” is quiet testament enough to everything the show has achieved: “And all shall know the wonder / I will sing the song / Of purple summer …. ”

Spring Awakening is the best new musical I’ve seen in a generation.

Bad Company

In 1970, Stephen Sondheim’s plotless musical of urban angst, Company, was revolutionary, and his many disciples still consider it a watershed achievement. If so, here’s to the ladies who lunch. And lunch, and lunch, and won’t stop lunching:

A toast to that invincible brunch,

The dinosaurs surviving the crunch—

Let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch!

Everybody rise! Rise!

Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise!

Rise!

Mr. Sondheim’s musicals are revived so frequently, he’s in danger of becoming the Hedda Gabler of music theater. “The Ladies Who Lunch” is Company’s anthem to bitter disillusion, as the acid portrait of the rocky institution of marriage is its theme. The show coincided with the disenchantment of the Vietnam era, and the traditionally sunny, optimistic American musical was apparently obsolete. Company is also in tune with Mr. Sondheim’s enduring brand of sour disenchantment, a worldview that influenced an entire generation of younger, lesser composers. In that bittersweet sense, his genius and lyrical virtuosity led the musical into a blind alley of wordplay and ironic cynicism from which it’s still recovering. Company is Spring Awakening’s emotional antithesis.

John Doyle’s revival at the Ethel Barrymore is particularly icy. There’s no sense of time or place, of the show’s actual Manhattan setting, in the neutral pitch-black wall, the mobile Lucite cubes and steel music stands, the dominant white Doric column and the shiny Steinway piano (both of which seem to get in the way of everything). The anonymously chilly set design signals a black-tie concert version of Company on the clumsy move, and so it mostly turns out.

As he did last season in his admired revival of Sweeney Todd, Mr. Doyle again uses a cast that doubles as the orchestra. To see a versatile actress lugging a tuba around the stage is novel only at first sight. The weakness of Mr. Doyle’s all-purpose musical conceit is that it frequently traduces Company’s neurotic angst, turning it into a jolly party piece. Not all the performers are accomplished musicians. Nor, I regret to say, are they the most natural of actors, with the exception of the excellent Raúl Esparza’s Bobby.

Mr. Sondheim’s musicals have never been blessed with outstanding librettos. George Furth’s overwrought, now-creaky book for Company—the pot-smoking scene was amusingly new once—has always been its weakest link. The renowned score (“The Little Things You Do Together,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and, above all, “Being Alive,” which Mr. Esparza nails memorably) stands apart on its own enduring terms like a worldly cabaret.

What do all these jaded (and foolish) people in Company see in its narcissistic, 35-year-old hero—the empty vessel and tortured perennial bachelor, Bobby? What does he see in them? And why are we all pretending?

Bobby, Bobby, bubbe, baby, darling Bobby—come out of the closet, for heaven’s sake! After all these years, it’s time.