Blah Blah Blah Blah: Horny Teen Angst at Spring Awakening

After months of my own reticence holding me back, I finally ventured to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to absorb the uber-hyped Indie-rock experience that is Spring Awakening. For those reading this who may have been under a rock without internet access and a chatterati account at All That Chat or BroadwayWorld, Spring Awakening is a Frank Wedekind play of considerable controversy. Wedekind, a leading proponent of the expressionist movement in drama wrote the play as a scathing indictment of the sexual repressions faced by teens in 1890s Germany, replete with molestation, premarital sex (a moment that would hold up in today’s courts as rape), unwanted pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, oh, you know, all the good stuff… Well, anyway, now its an all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza created by composer-orchestrator Duncan Sheik, librettist-lyricist Steven Sater and director Michael Mayer.

Why I held back? Well, for instance, I have always been more of a Sondheim, Rodgers, Bock & Harnick type than one for Wildhorn, Lloyd-Webber and Larson. If it weren’t for my adoration of Adam Guettel as a composer, one might consider me a little old-fashioned in my tastes. The combination of the score, the type of music I admit that I only heard when out among friends in college or at certain trendy bars, as well as the insufferable hype of the New York critics (particularly my own injured pride when SA came along and these critics and the NY theatre scene pushed my darling Grey Gardens to the back-burner) and 8 Tony Awards set about so many preconceived notions in my head which led me to consistently balk in actually going to the show. Too many people told me it was changing the face of musical theatre forever. Too many people told me it was art. There’s something to be said for a backlash against such hype.

I for one appreciate when an opinion can be backed up by ample citations of merit than the purely sophomoric idea that any show is art. Peter Griffin farts, the crowd goes wild and Family Guy rightly spoofs the American notions of what commands merit. (Tangent: if you haven’t seen that episode, “The King is Dead”, the true musical theatre fans are in for a real treat). Though in recent weeks, I’d been hearing some divergent opinions the writing and dramaturgy. At one end, I was hearing about a show that possesses incredible universality, reaching out through pop music and explicit ingenuity to beckon a freshened outlook on the impending state of the American musical. On the otherhand, I was hearing about shoddy structure, an unfinished libretto and almost terrible lyric-writing.

So I finally put it to my own test. I had listened to the album, from which I couldn’t make much in the way of a dramatic sense, particularly as I was listening to expressionistic characters written in 1891 singing about their “junk,” with anachronistic allusions to stereos and with an overwhelmingly American vernacular steeped throughout the lyrics. Then after months of holding off (I had to see Grey Gardens several times, Gypsy at the City Center and catch the palpable revival of 110 in the Shade), the opportunity arose for me to see the show for myself.

Much to my surprise, I had a ridiculously good time. The score, especially in the angrier ensemble numbers, is a much-welcome adrenaline rush. Yes, through the anachronistic moments the actors pull out lavalier mikes and sing their inner monologues as though we are at a rock concert, there is that “universality” among ages. Let’s face it, the Protestants have left an indelible stamp on our sexual mores. Though we may be more lax in how sexuality is perceived today, there are a still a lot of leftover hang ups with controversies over sex education, birth control, etc. The failure of parents to communicate with their children over the issues that make our teenage years so utterly and inexplicably turbulent is still a baffling anomaly. I felt myself tingling with excitement whenever Tony-winner John Gallagher, Jr, as the unstable and misunderstood Moritz (think Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People meets Malcolm McDowell in If…), exploded his rage into song, or the build-up and release of my favorite song in the score, “Totally Fucked.” (Steven Sater’s lyrics lack subtlety, and I assume the choice was intentional).

For all the want of it, I can’t really get into a laundry list of the pros and cons to maintain a formal musical theatre review. As I’ve been writing this, I want to address more the place of Spring Awakening in the history of the American musical rather than expound on its individual strengths and weaknesses. But I shall before I engulf further into my loftier ambitions. Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele are the leads as Melchior and Wendla, easy on the eyes and ears, and faced with two of the more unsettling scenes in the work). Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella play every adult in the show with aplomb (especially Estabrook). Gallagher Jr. is the standout, as previously mentioned and Jonathan B. Wright plays the gay Hanschen with the dry flippancy of a Bond villain. The scenography is a grungy post-modern hodgepodge, complete with neon lights (the lighting design was extraordinarily inventive), gothic brick architecture and a cleverly placed chalkboard listing all the musical numbers. Though sitting in the same theatre that John Doyle‘s acclaimed revival of Sweeney Todd played, I was constantly reminded of the previous tenant of the theatre. However, the show’s greatest weakness arrives in the form of Steven Sater. As librettist and lyricist, he fails to fully create a tangible libretto; you want more from his book than mere setups for each number. His lyrics are only marginally better; particularly excruciating is “The Word of Your Body,” at which I was unsure whether I was supposed to laugh or cringe (ironically it also possesses the most haunting melody composer Sheik has written for the musical).

For a show that is building in energy and momentum, Sater all but kills the moment with what feels like a rush-job of an ending. Also, the final song, “The Song of Purple Summer” felt like a bizarre variation on “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide and didn’t really take the show anywhere. It must be stressed, the show wouldn’t take off it weren’t for Duncan Sheik. His gift for infectious and sophisticated melody brings us the evening’s highest points. You can see the audience becoming actively engaged, especially when the emotions of rage and anger vault out of the onstage band and the performers. The music is when Spring Awakening reaches the uber-heights that have been loftily established by the critics and fans. Kudos also to Michael Mayer for his lucid staging and clever use of space; and also to Bill T. Jones for his emotionally motivated choreography.

Has Spring Awakening changed the face of the musical? It’s probably too early to tell the kind of impact the musical will make on the genre, but it’s likely to be considered a benchmark of excellence. Going back 80 years ago to Show Boat, the first musical to attempt to integrate the song and story, while also tackling the serious subject matter of racism, alcoholism, failed marriages and miscegenation, we have the dawn of what is widely considered the modern American musical. Then Porgy and Bess in 1935; Pal Joey in 1940; Oklahoma! in 1943 gave birth to the musical play (yes, this was incredibly revolutionary in its day and changed the face of the genre as well, kids); West Side Story in 1957, with its revolution in dance; Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. Company in 1970, important for its innovation of songs as commentary on action and the first successful concept musical to grace Broadway. And most importantly for the purposes of writing here, Hair in 1968. Here we have the first rock score heard on Broadway, the introduction of the aural and rhythmic elements that began the decline of the musical theatre as popular song. We had nudity, simulated drug use, we had an expression of then contemporary counter culture, with a musical giving a voice to a cultural movement of iconic proportions. Jump ahead to Rent in 1996, with its update of La Boheme reflecting the AIDS crisis, winning the Pulitzer Prize and its immediate attachment to the youth of that generation.

When you examine all these elements, you find that Spring Awakening has been a long time coming. But so has Grey Gardens, what is essentially two (linked) one-act musicals based on a documentary. Or think of Adam Guettel’s neoclassical marriage of Rodgers & Sondheim in The Light in the Piazza (think his composition’s complex stream of consciousness sophistication, but cynicism-free gift for soaring romanticism in his melody). Or the R&B infused opera Caroline or Change (which has only grown in esteem since its closing three years ago). There’s also the infectious and satiric pastiche of Avenue Q and the tongue in cheek Urinetown. The process continues next spring when A Catered Affair by John Bucchino and Harvey Fierstein will open at the Walter Kerr.

Every new show is the product of everything that has preceded it. Thankfully, Spring Awakening is one of the few critical and financial successes that isn’t a tepid retread of a popular film or a poor excuse to showcase the songbook of a popular singer or group in a jukebox experience. It is an earnest attempt at reclaiming originality in a not-so-dead or dying artform (Further evidence on my opinion? Listen to “Intermission Talk” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Me & Juliet. That should put an interesting spin on the talk of the death of the musical theatre).

There are things about Spring Awakening I wish were different. I think it was incomplete on its opening and in spite of the seven or eight years of work put into the show, there was still room for improvement. However, it’s one of the greatest theatrical events currently offered in New York, that is bound to give you the adrenaline fueled feeling that you would find at a spirited rock concert. For the sheer theatricality and ingenuity of the experience, the show is a force to be reckoned with.

Footnote: Grey Gardens was the best musical of the 2006-7 Broadway season.