Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Angst Meets Analysis: A Conversation About Spring Awakening

In December 2006, I was working a night job at Borders for extra cash. I actually kind of enjoyed it: the clientele was fairly pleasant, and I got paid to see what everyone was buying for Christmas gifts, while also ogling my punk drummer coworker. One night, I rang up a CD soundtrack, taking a second look when I saw the cool old-timey-ish cover art and the name of the guy who did "Barely Breathing" when I was in high school. "What's this?" I asked the (cute) dude purchasing the CD. "You have to get it," he extolled. "It's like the next Rent."

Turns out, it was Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's re-imagining of the nineteenth-century German play of the same name. The original text was not performed until 100 years after it was written, due to the controversial subject matter: suicide, homosexuality, abuse, and lots and lots of sex talk, all involving teenagers. In Sheik and Sater's version, the basic story remains the same (with a couple of major changes), but with a modern-rock soundtrack that amplifies the young characters' subconscious thoughts and desires. I may be a HUGE theatre geek (okay, I AM a huge theatre geek), but other than the "classical text with modern music," I don't see a striking resemblance to Rent. But whatever.

For the past two and a half years, I've been addicted to the soundtrack. In 2007, I seriously considered jetting to New York for the sole purpose of seeing it on Broadway (that, and Grey Gardens). Didn't happen for various reasons; however, the national tour is currently in my home city of Chicago. Last Thursday night, I sat on the edge of my nosebleed seat, fingers clutching the program as I awaited the fulfillment of a two-and-a-half-year wish.

Did Spring Awakening live up to my classical-yet-rockin' hopes? For the most part...yes. In fact, the entire production--performances, music, technical elements, and script--spurred an interesting dialogue between me and my lawyer/actor pal Dennis, who was also in the audience. I also gabbed on about it the morning after with my friend Gil of the hilarious theatre blog Broadway Abridged. Just for funsies, and to paraphrase the Old 97's, here's what we talked about.

WARNING: This is not a straight up review of the usual Unpro variety. It's more of an analysis. Familiarity with Spring Awakening is pretty much required, and there are MAJOR spoilers ahead. If you are a fan of musical theatre, I would strongly encourage you to check out the Spring Awakening soundtrack--it has its share of missteps, but the majority of the tunes are alternately heartwrenching and toe-tapping. The book of the musical is available, and if you're a huge dork like me, you can also find the original play and compare the two. For the latter, I highly recommend Jonathan Franzen's translation. If you want to cheat, here's a plot summary.

However, if you've got some familiarity with the show, or you really don't mind spoilers, read on! My comments are in bold.

Dennis: Excellent performances with need for some of the minor characters to further define themselves individually. Use of set and lighting integrated well with story—sense of what was outside world and what was “internal monologue” worked well. At times the hand mike conceit/concert format got a little sloppy or indistinct in its definition compared to when they were not used and when the merger of internal and external occurred. But this is minor intellectualizing.

Lauren: The hand mike device does get sloppy toward the end. I had been warned of this by a friend who saw it on Broadway, but I was hoping they improved upon it for the tour. I think an issue with this show is that it’s got a strong following, though probably not QUITE as fanatical as Rent in its heyday, so they probably have to be careful about what they change. Loved the set design and lighting—the juxtaposition of neon and Germanic worked nicely for the most part.

Ilse’s hair confused me a bit. I know this play is not super-concerned with historical accuracy, and that’s fine, and I know that Ilse is a rebel and a runaway. That said, I didn’t quite buy the short haircut with bangs. If nothing else, that’s a haircut that requires a lot of upkeep, and I’m not sure she’d have the energy/patience for that in her lifestyle. I know that in this tour, Ilse is played by a Canadian pop star, and I almost want to Google Image her to see if that is her signature look (like, maybe it’s in her contract that she has this haircut). In the original Broadway production, Ilse had very long, wild hair and I think that works better. If this chick had had long hair, she would have had kind of a Goth/Morticia Addams look, and I think that would have worked well for the character.

Wendla’s confusion on where babies come from was so well done and compelling and so repudiated any notion of abstinence-only and the repudiation of science in setting policy in favor of Bush Administration use of morality based philosophy.

I hadn’t thought it in terms of the Bush Administration, but that’s a good point. I personally related it to Catholic school sex ed—during my senior year, two girls at my high school were pregnant. When you are in a school of 150 students total, that’s a lot. I thought it served as an excellent cautionary tale: if you don’t tell your hormone-addled teen how it all works, they’re going to figure it out one way or the other. Besides pregnancy, there are other terrible consequences to misinformation as well, such as rape. Ignorance, particularly about sex, is quite dangerous.

Moritz’s suicide is obviously emblematic of the modern pressure put on kids to succeed getting the right high school/college/etc. etc. However, the modern approach is not necessarily as Germanic. The father’s breakdown at the grave is excellent in that in a quick moment it recognizes that parents, too, are often trying to play a role for others. This is hinted at throughout when the parents are talking about what will the neighbors think (Moritz) and what is the best thing to do (Melchior) and their own failed educations (Wendla’s Mother).

I thought it was interesting how Melchior basically blamed the father for Moritz’s suicide. Granted, the dad had a role in all of it, but someone’s reasons for killing themselves aren’t always so clear-cut. Moritz was a tormented guy, and that was shown from the beginning. He was dealing with a lot, but not all of it was outside pressure—it was the sexual awakening too, where he wanted something but couldn’t quite name it, and then got freaked out by the information overload. Add into the mix that he is hormone-addled and spontaneous, and there you have it. I was kind of mad that Melchior was blaming the father entirely, but then I remembered that the song was from Melchior’s perspective. Because he’s a teenager and Moritz’s best friend, of course he’s going to see it that way.

Now, my three critiques: Melchior, while his performance was just fine, physically was incongruent w/ the rest of the cast. He looked like the football quarterback. He was too tall and too mature looking compared to the other “kids”. For some reason that bothered me. While Melchior does need to be a stand out, he also needs to be one of the group, too.

I disagree here: I thought he was the strongest of the three principals. I didn’t have a problem with his physical appearance, because a) he is presented as a little more mature than his peers (due in large part to his intellect and liberal parents) and b) he’s sort of the “golden boy”—the teachers like him (up until they find the sex essay), the girls adore him, etc. Handsomeness and looking more mature than his gawky dude peers goes along with that. He struck me as the perfect person we all know, who you want to hate but you can’t because they’re just so damn nice.
I don’t disagree with you analysis of what Melchior’s character should be; I just didn’t think this guy pulled it off as well cuz his physicality was too much. If he had been just a little smaller and a little younger looking, I would have bought into him better. The “spanking” scene is a good example. With his size, he would have done more damage to her; someone more in my vision would have made the scene more believable, I think.

The actor playing Moritz, for me, did his best when the character was pissed off. I got a little annoyed when he was the bumbling, confused teen—I felt that he overacted and if he had gone a little more subtle, we still would have gotten the message.

I thought Wendla was fine, if a little vanilla. Then I thought about it: in my experience, fourteen-year-old girls are often one extreme or the other in the way they present themselves to the world (how they are inside is another story). They’re either the good girl who wants to please everyone (Wendla) or the sullen, pissed-off rebel. So I’m not sure if there was much more the actress could do with the material she had. In summary, I would have liked to see her a little more fiery at times, but I’m not sure if the character is really written that way.

I didn’t like the way Melchior discovered Wendla’s death. Simply tripping over the grave stone in the cemetery of a fresh dug grave is too simplistic and coincidental. First, gravestones are rarely ready and placed when the grave is still freshly dug. Second, the staging of that on the bare stage was just too minimalist/simplistic—especially since the spirits appear shortly thereafter to prevent the suicide.

Kind of random, I agree.

Further, I can’t believe none of the girls would have gone to meet him. I expected the girl being abused would have been the girl to meet him w/ the news. Then, she, combined w/ the spirits convinces him not to kill himself. He gives her the razor to defend herself. She goes on then he goes on w/ the spirits. Because I felt the staging of the ending was weak w/ just a black out and them walking off in the black out. I would have liked something else, though I’m not sure what, but as long as they had the dry ice, something simple rock concert-like or theatrical might have been cool.

You should read the original play. There is a big difference in the ending: Melchior still survives, but there’s a whole other character. It would NOT have translated well to musical theatre, but it’s an interesting ending nonetheless. That’s all I will say for now. Jonathan Franzen’s translation was one I really liked.
My biggest critique? The spanking scene. I thought it was terrible.

I really like the idea of the scene: teenagers want so much, but they often can’t articulate what they want. They’re a mess of hormones and curious as hell. And even if they are well-informed and okay with what happens when they’re alone (Melchior), it’s a whole new ballgame when you’re with another person. Particularly if the request involves violence, and then you kind of enjoy it and at the same time you’re hating yourself for it. And in the end, you’re completely freaked out by the whole ordeal.

In the original play, Melchior rapes Wendla—the sex is very much NOT consensual. So the beating serves as a foreshadowing that this otherwise gentle, sweet guy has a violent side. My friend and I agreed that this wouldn’t work for a contemporary audience: the mass appeal and marketability of Spring Awakening would have gone WAY down if Melchior were a rapist. I also like the change because Wendla is less of a victim (in this respect, anyway).

However, without the rape, the beating scene is in a weird place—it comes out of nowhere and goes right back there. What would work in this case is to have an earlier scene or a couple of lines which foreshadow Melchior’s darker side. Not a horrific, rapist side, just…darker. (Again, not unusual for a teenager!)

I blamed the director more than the actors. It seemed that the director was shying away from the magnitude of the scene—strange, considering the play covers suicide, abortion, and child abuse. As a result, it was exaggerated to the point of being comical. People around me actually laughed, and it wasn’t uncomfortable laughter.

Also, even from my nosebleed seat, I didn’t believe for a second that he was actually hitting her. There are ways to convincingly fake that. It’s called stage combat, director: look into it.

According to my friend who saw it on Broadway, this scene didn’t work there either. Maybe someday, someone will get it right.

I didn’t have the problem understanding that scene and didn’t find it out of context. I knew about the original script and the rape and am glad they changed it, too, as it would not have worked for the musical even though the scene as it was came close to rape since Wendla had no idea was she was doing. That ambiguity was the cornerstone of the play—he knew and she didn’t; which makes you whole, which makes you feel—innocence or knowledge? Melchior’s mother’s line about how he did that to her and knew what he was doing and therefore the reform school is justified is the other textual extreme—my God, we gave Eve the apple and look what she did with it.

(FYI: the picture is not of the touring cast, though they're a very attractive bunch. It's of Alexandra Socha and Hunter Parrish, playing two of the leads on Broadway. I have no idea why I find Hunter Parrish so yummy, as pretty boys are usually not my type and I don't like Weeds, but there ya go.)


  1. I've subsequently talked w/ someone who saw it on Broadway and it was not performed w/ a proscenium, but in a sort of three-quarters round w/ the audience much closer. Thus, the ending was not as problematic in its staging as it was more intimate as I understand it. Dennis

  2. Yeah, I know it was that way at the Atlantic (the original off-Broadway run), and they tried to recreate it for Broadway. That's one of the things that concerned me about seeing it where we did. It's not really anyone's fault, but I'd love to see a production in a smaller space. In community theatre terms, it's more an STC show than a Muni, don't you agree?

  3. One of the creators (I don't remember which... director?) explained his reason the hand-mike device gets sloppy. We're talking about the scene where Moritz meets Ilse, but they talk to each other through microphones. Which makes no sense there. His reasoning there was that many believe that when Ilse is presented out of nowhere in the original play, it's supposedly the "Man in the Mask" character from the play's ending but in a "different form", which is based on a line about the Man in the Mask saying he came to Moritz once before. So to address that they beleived this was true, that the scene wasn't all it appears because that character is supposedly not really that actual character.

    This is ridiculous, because the character of the Man in the Mask was removed from the musical. Also, Ilse actually appears in group scenes, so she obviously exists.

    The moment of the father's breakdown at the grave was probably my favorite moment of the musical, and I generally don't like Act 2. (Also we couldn't tell whose father it was. Maybe it was Melchior's father actually? How are we supposed to know for sure, eh?)

    The way Melchior discovered Wendla's death didn't seem so weird on Broadway, and I can complain lots about the musical but that wasn't weird. Until they both popped out of their graves and sang Come To Me Reprise from Les Mis.

  4. Gil, that's really weird and I'm going to pretend the creator didn't say that (or that I didn't hear it). I actually didn't mind the mikes so much in that scene, once I got used to them--for me, it showed how Moritz was already so far removed from the world of the living.

    The adult man did a fantastic job with the Act 2 breakdown--I thought the whole "Left Behind" sequence was really heartbreaking without being manipulative. We've all known someone who died young and/or took their own life, and the scene illustrated it really nicely. Plus, it was way more subtle than the rest of the show, so it gave the audience a breather.

    I would say that it's Moritz's father, as we had seen him yelling at Moritz earlier and the song addresses that. Another friend of mine who saw the show said that maybe it doesn't matter, as adults in the kids' world are pretty much interchangeable (with the exception of Melchior's mother, who is more sympathetic and less of an oppressive authority figure).

  5. This was a very interesting read. Am keen to hunt out the original play now...and to play the cast recording again. Haven't actually seen it performed live but know it very well through one channel and another, so enjoyed the more analytical breakdown :)

  6. Even though this is not a straight up review, I think I got your point, however, I don't think the same way you do.

  7. Spring Awakening is more than tough!!

    Some scenarios are very hard to deal with.. they also have those characters, that go over and over again with lifelike problems..

    Society has changed!! Yes, but some problems are here from a long time..

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