Rock Opera Spring Awakening A Wake Up Call for Musicals

If we’re very lucky, once in a generation an unexpected new musical comes along and changes everything. That is the

If we’re very lucky, once in a generation an unexpected new musical comes along and changes everything. That is the thrilling achievement of Spring Awakening, which has been brilliantly directed by Michael Mayer, at the Atlantic Theater Company.

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The Atlantic is on a roll! The theater has followed its production of Martin McDonagh’s staggeringly original black farce, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, with a wholly original musical based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening—of all things. The play was severely censored in its day. (Wedekind’s better-known “Lulu” plays are the basis of Alan Berg’s opera, Lulu). The musical adaptation is a surprise, however—and a delightful one—though the landmark 19th-century play about adolescent sex and prudish adults in a provincial German town could easily appear passé today.

The major achievement of Steven Sater’s book and lyrics, and Duncan Sheik’s superb rock score is to have found the modern within Wedekind’s stifling, repressed world. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Rent, particularly as Spring Awakening’s wonderfully gifted cast playing teenagers actually looks young. But Jonathan Larson’s Rent is sentimental showbiz, while Spring Awakening in its knee-high breeches will never make a window display in Bloomingdale’s. It is too unshowily good for that—too fine in its lyrical sensibility and melting stage poetry of the inarticulate.

Touch me—just like that.

Now lower down, where the sins lie …

Love me—just for a bit …

We’ll wander down, where the winds sigh …

The notion of sin—and therefore of shame—is comparatively new to us! The terribly undervalued Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori chamber piece, Caroline, or Change, explored childhood guilt and an adult’s shame at even being alive. But our bankrupt jukebox musical age more typically relishes cynicism. It is all about retro-pastiche and that catchall of insincerity, irony. Now comes the musical of the turn-of-the-century Spring Awakening to reverse all the rules and astonish us. In the 21st century, where everything is known (and available), where no fumbling teenage rite of passage seems even possible any more—what price childhood innocence?

The ambitious piece tells a story of abusive parents and corrupt teachers, of rape and abortion and suicide—the other side of growing up. Yet it is never predictable, for almost every scene is freshly conceived and the “O” of the lament for the damaged 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.

A lovely, unembarrassed, unhip yearning is its keynote. The plaintive urgency of the schoolkids in Spring Awakening is a near-expressionist state of mind in the midst of hormonal chaos and sticky dreams. Romance is feverish, naturally, and potentially a bummer. “I try to just kick it, but then, what can I do?” goes the song about stormy teen crushes. “We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you.” More than a few of us in the audience burst into laughter at that witty line. In its precocious way, it was as realistic about life as the guilty boy’s sweet song with the lyric, “There’s a moment you know … you’re fucked.”

Spring Awakening is about misunderstood teen angst, whirling, uncontrollable feelings and junk. It’s about ridiculous, manic energy, which Bill T. Jones’ choreography captures in fractured, jagged spasms and wild leaps of the imagination. Yet there is, at its pure heart, a melancholy spirit that touches us—from the beautiful Act I close, with its tantalizing dawn of sexual love, to the final moments of wary celebration and fear at the crossroads of adulthood: “And all shall know the wonder / I will sing the song / Of purple summer …. ”

Director Michael Mayer has achieved his finest work in partnership with his first-rate design team, Christine Jones, Susan Hilferty and Kevin Adams. The sound by Brian Housman, incidentally, is perfect. The cast is led by the excellent Jonathan Groff as Melchior, Lea Michele as Wendla and John Gallagher Jr. as the punkish mess Moritz. All the adult roles are played by Tony Award winner Frank Wood and Mary McCann, stalwart founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company. The adults never sing, however. Only the young sing.

With its memorable score and spare imaginative simplicity, Spring Awakening is a breakthrough musical of the highest order.

Truth in Advertising

I dare say the producers of Spring Awakening won’t have too much difficulty finding something to quote from my review in their ads in The Times for the show, if that’s what they want to do. But you never know.

I’m told I’m usually such a miserable sod that favorable quotes from my reviews can be slim pickings. But even when I rave about a show, there’s room for improvement. For instance, I wrote in my review of Mr. McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which swims in more blood than the Jacobeans, that it was “the best bloody play I’ve ever seen.” In the Times ad, however, the “bloody” was dropped and the quote became “The best play I’ve ever seen.”

Well, if it helps …. But a friend of mine, who’s a playwright, called me up to complain that he thought he was the one who’d written the best play I’ve ever seen. So I got on to the press representatives of the show and said, “Hello, it’s me. Sorry to trouble you, but The Lieutenant of Inishmore isn’t the best play I’ve ever seen. That singular honor belongs to a friend of mine and to something called Lear. Why, The Lieutenant of Inishmore isn’t even Martin McDonagh’s best play.”

So they put back the “bloody.”

But a more recent example takes the strudel. In the Times blurb for the British import of Henry Green’s Nothing, the quote from my review was published proudly above the title as: “I’ve rarely had such a good time at the theater—John Heilpern, New York Observer.

In fact, I wrote, “I’ve rarely had such a good time at the theater without enjoying myself.”

Still, I found the rewrite of my politely downbeat review so funny, I couldn’t bring myself to protest. I hope you weren’t misled by the ad that deserves an award for chutzpah.

Rock Opera Spring Awakening  A Wake Up Call for Musicals