Directed by Michael Mayer
Colonial Theatre, Boston, Mass.
April 28 – May 24, 2009
Based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play of the same name, Spring Awakening is a modern musical focusing on age-old issues. It confronts sex, love, and everything in between through a musical score that is much more akin to radio rock songs than the classic music characteristic of shows like Les Miserables.
Spring Awakening is about the challenges teenagers face while discovering their sexuality in a world that doesn’t want them to. This story is not simply about hormone-driven lovers and angsty teens; what the audience is given is a graphic, bittersweet, but timeless picture of the pain, joy, and pleasure that accompany the process of discovering one’s sexual self.
The musical begins in nineteenth century Germany with a young girl named Wendla Gergmann who hesitantly asks her mother how babies come to be. Flustered, the mother attempts to evade the subject, but eventually answers with, “Babies come to be when a woman loves a man with her whole heart.” This opening conversation evokes one of the guiding questions of the musical: Is making love the same thing as love? The scene also epitomizes how parents, as authoritarian figures, struggle to preserve the status quo by withholding truth, and how this process of protecting their children results in chaos and tragedy. This is emphasized in the director’s decision to only cast two actors for the roles of all the adult figures.
While there is a main plot that some may consider a love story, it is the interaction of all the characters that creates the effectiveness of Spring Awakening. Wendla’s love interest is Melchior Gabor, an intelligent and precocious golden boy who “does not believe in anything.” The third main character is Melchor’s friend, the fumbling and nervous Moritz Stiefel, who is terrible in school and an altogether awkward young fellow, despite his best efforts. Through a chain of unfortunate and catalytic events, their worlds are changed forever.
The music was composed by Duncan Sheik with lyrics and script by Steven Slater. Much of the music borders on alternative rock, contributing to a refreshingly edgy vibe. The songs (many of which are explicitly titled) have lyrics that are quite deep, rather than the usual mush about love and despair, and they directly address controversial topics. “The Bitch of Living,” for instance, deals with the frustration of not understanding one’s angst. Another crowd please, “Totally Fucked,” roused the audience thanks to the raw emotion and expression in the lyrics and singers’ voices.
Spring Awakening is a brave and unnervingly in-your-face musical. Overall, it communicates its message well and is bold in its artistic direction. It is worthy of its 11 Tony Award nominations. Every aspect of the musical is crafted carefully, including the fluid transitions choreographed by Bill T. Jones. What was most amazing to me was that the original play was written in 1891. Although Spring Awakening is hailed as a modern musical, it also addresses age-old issues that have always existed but may not have been scrutinized and exposed in such a public light.