The Scene: A bunch of high schoolers, in a room full of their parents, teachers, and friends, performing a musical. In the musical, they play a bunch of teenagers not too unlike themselves.
And they are simulating masturbation, unprotected sex, abortion, teenage homosexuality, teenage lesbianism, group masturbation, masochism, child abuse, insubordination, and out-and-out total adolescent rebellion, all to the rapturous tune of musical numbers with titles like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.”
Oh, if Tipper Gore could see them now.
So went the very first uncut high school production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s adaptation of Spring Awakening, the unlikely 2007 musical that took Broadway by storm. The show won the Tony for Best Musical, but one problem persisted: Musicals’ legacies are often defined by their ability to exist in places far from The Great White Way, especially high school drama programs. At a time when funding for the arts—let alone high school extra-curricular activities, and racy ones at that—are consistently being truncated, would the show go on? Let’s face it: Oklahoma , this ain’t.
But then again, neither is the Upper West Side, and six years after debuting on Broadway, The Beacon School—an “alternative public high school” right around the corner from Lincoln Center, which bills itself as focusing on “aesthetics, arts and technology”—proved itself about as far from Oklahoma as a high school theater program could be.
Granted, it may be only twenty or so blocks from the theater in which the Tony award-winning musical originally debuted on Broadway in 2006, but it’s still a high school, and this is still—by all accounts—pretty racy content for teens. Except for the nudity (naturally), everything from the original production was intact. The premiere on Thursday received the reception one would expect: A student seated next to The Transom clasped her hands over her mouth when one character begged another—her crush, of course—to beat her from behind, after hiking up her skirt. A kiss between two boys and a teenager feverishly masturbating while trying to obscure it from his parents garnered waves of laughs. And you could’ve heard a pin drop during the first act closer, when the two leads consummated their teenage lust.
Despite the parents all having signed off on permission forms for their kids even to audition, a rehearsal and a staging are two entirely different matters. Come intermission, had the parents been sufficiently mortified?
Donna Fish, whose daughter Nicole played Wendela—the character who had just been deflowered not moments before—couldn’t have been more proud.
“It’s phenomenal,” she raved. “I had taken my kids to see Spring Awakening when Nicole was in 8th Grade. She’d wanted to play that role ever since. We’re pretty open with each other, so [the content] wasn’t a big deal.” It also rang true: “We just went through the college process, and it’s interesting to watch the pressure on the kid [in the show] who’s worried about failing out, and Nicole’s anxiety about getting into school.”
Kathleen Cullen, whose daughter Caitlin played Martha, explained that part of being a parent is empathizing with those anxieties. “To be honest, it’s nothing we haven’t ever been through before,” she noted, “and wanted to talk about, and maybe haven’t.
“I knew it was going to be in very good hands,” she added. “I knew Jo Ann”—that’s Jo Ann Cimato, the show’s director and de facto producer—”would treat this with dignity. I pushed Caitlin to do this, but I’m not sure I’d do it with anybody else.”
Ms. Cimato, who both the students and parents spoke of glowingly, held her students in high regard as well. “We’re so grateful that they’re so artistically aware and astute,” she explained, “that it is like working with professionals.” And they kids are indeed talented: The production was fiery, engaging, and lacking the cheesy artifice that makes most people cringe when they think back to their own high school’s attempts at theater.
They are also undoubtedly mature. Ms. Fish’s daughter has a line in her showbill biography about her desire for the other parents in the audience to go home and educated their children on the show’s themes, “because if they don’t, Rick Santorum will.”
That said, Ms. Fish explained, “Nicole was more embarrassed for us to see [the sex scene] than we were to see it.”
After the show finished, the giddy students told a different story.
Isabel Schnall, a senior on her way to Ms. Cimato’s alma mater, Boston University, thought the parents were more embarrassed than the kids. She played Ilse, the outcast. “We know these things,” she said with a laugh. “We’re in high school. They’re more scared of them.”
“It’s more embarrassing for them,” agreed Brooke Shilling. “The whole show is about their job, as parents.”
“They know the basics [of the show],” explained Zachary Kuskal—who played Moritz, one of the leads—of his parents, “but I don’t think they’re prepared for it.”
And yes, despite the forthrightness of the parents The Transom encountered, some indeed had moments of discomfort, initially.
“I mean, my mom did, when she heard I was doing a masturbation scene,” noted Kaya Simmons. “She was like, ‘Ohhhhh, mygod.‘ But once I explained what was happening, I had her full support.”
“Some of the parents wanted a little bit of an explanation, but most of them were happy to do it,” recalled Ms. Shilling.
Everyone agreed on one thing: Their favorite number in the show: “Totally Fucked.”
Ah, to be young again.
“The musical director and I, we leave rehearsal with them every day,” Ms. Cimato noted. “They run away into the twilight, and we’re both like, Thank God we’re not sixteen anymore,” she laughed.
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