Spring Awakening

Authors are constantly asked where they get their ideas. The truth is, the best ideas are those we aren’t looking for at the time. They’re the kind which sneak up on us out of left field when we are reading or researching something else. When we have a specific task, then, we often look in unusual places for inspiration. Nonetheless, if I were given the task of coming up with material to adapt into a socially-relevant but still successful Broadway musical, I’m not sure I would start by researching obscure late-19th century German plays. Then again, I’m not Steven Sater or Duncan Sheik, creators of the Tony-winning rock musical Spring Awakening.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s obscure and frequently banned late 19th century play of the same name, Spring Awakening illuminates the trauma and joy — but mainly trauma — of adolescence. A group of young teens in a rural nineteenth century German village are fumbling their way toward adulthood, relying on their friends and classmates for support and (mis)information. The story packs so many of the universal terrors into the show that it could not be called drama; it’s much closer to parable. Although the cast only numbers thirteen actors — the adult roles are played by one man and one woman — the themes and activities addressed and/or depicted include: promiscuity; individuality; peer pressure; parental pressure; religion and atheism; sexual desire; loss of virginity; masturbation; pornography; homosexuality; incest; physical abuse; teen pregnancy; abortion; suicide; and the adversarial relationship between parents and children. As far as I can tell the only relevant themes left unmentioned are racism and class differences. It’s a lot to take in for a two-act musical.

It manages to address these topics without being excessively preachy, too, which is remarkable. It’s raucous, raw, and raunchy, and definitely not for the faint of heart. I’m not a student of Broadway, but as far as I know there has never been another award-winning musical featuring portrayals of circle jerks, open masturbation, and bare-assed humping. Then again, I don’t imagine the current fad for Disney-sourced box-office bonanzas is likely to generate many plays with a show-stopping second act number like “Totally Fucked,” either.

Which brings me to the first of two oddities about the musical. While it has its moments of comedy, Spring Awakening is a dark play; it should be, given the gravity of its themes. However, the songs have a general lightness and grace to them which, while beautiful, runs counter to their themes. It’s as though the melodies are sending a message of hope which is missing from the book. It isn’t jarring; in fact, I didn’t realize what seemed off until later. Perhaps that’s a secret to creating a successful musical: no matter the darkness of your subject, always leave ’em singing your tunes.

While the play’s adults are largely horrid creatures seemingly hell-bent on destroying the children, not all of them are ogres. And while the teens make stupid choices through lack of real information, some escape their destruction through luck, or by their own wits. Adults, the play shows us, need to hold greater respect for teenagers and to nurture them, not keep them ignorant and cowed. The producers hope, it seems, that the adults in the audience will take that message home with them, and give a little more hope to their own children.

And here is where the choice of source material starts to work against the intent. If we are to take home a message of hope, what are we to make of the settings of the story over a century ago? If adults have been abusing children — physically, intellectually, sexually, and emotionally — for so long, is it likely to change? Does a rock musical hold the power to change the way adults and adolescents interact? The creators of Spring Awakening hope that it does, and based on its popularity, perhaps they’re right. I certainly hope so.

In spite of these peculiar dissonances, I really enjoyed the show. The cast is wonderful, with strong performances both musically and dramatically. The staging and direction are also quite good, using a small but symbolically-resonant design to keep the story moving and the audience entranced. And the story, while grim, was compelling, and stayed with me on the drive home. I can easily recommend the production.

Spring Awakening is playing at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts through May 16. If you have teenagers, consider bringing them to see it with you. While there may well be some uncomfortable moments, the discussion it should foster would be well worth it.

5 thoughts on “Spring Awakening”

  1. Excellent review. I loved it, but agree with your “dark” assessment. And the tunes were great. I took my 13 year old son, who giggled with embarrassment throughout.

  2. “Perhaps that’s a secret to creating a successful musical: no matter the darkness of your subject, always leave ‘em singing your tunes.”

    This is what makes Sondheim such a genius, and why Lloyd-Webber holds no appeal. He can manage grim topics without letting the music become facile.

  3. I’ve been a huge fan of SA for several years (I found this through their official blog) and I think this is a pretty fair assessment of the show. I appreciate how you lumped all of the themes together rather than the tendency of most reviewers to just list off all the more shocking sexual elements.

    I found it interesting that you seem to see the setting as a negative, though. Usually I see it talked about from the angle of, “be outraged by how little has changed in 100 years and want to see progress”, but you’re right that it also carries with it that sort of hopeless message that maybe the more disconcerting parts of the show are as timeless as any of the others.

    I’m not sure that’s something the musical can fix, though . As you say, it’s just something that comes with the source — taking the Spring Awakening story and putting it in modern day is something that’s been attempted quite a bit with the original play (and the creators of the musical originally had that plan, too, and scrapped it for a reason) and I’m not sure it’s ever really been done well; to pull it off you sort of have to change things to the extent that you might as well write a whole new play.

    However, though I think the musical does have its changing teenage/adult relationships agenda going on, I feel like its main goal is to speak to teenagers and in that context I think the setting has its strengths — it brings with it this “things may be hard, but they’ve always been hard and life still goes on” kind of message. The original playwright, Frank Wedekind, was frustrated with the first production of the play because people failed to see the humor in the material — he felt the story was more impactful when played lightly. I don’t think the musical is perfect by any means but I like to think Wedekind would’ve appreciated that the tone isn’t as dark as the book seems to call for.

    Sorry for rambling in your blog comments — I’m not really disagreeing with you, it just got me thinking 🙂

  4. Making people think is all I can ask for as a writer, Arq; thank you for the kind words. The story’s darkness could just be a matter of perspective, and the creeping cynicism that can sneak in as you get older. It certainly isn’t an ultimately hopeless story, and there’s a lot of humor to leaven the sadness. And, to be fair, I don’t think the disconnection between adults and children will ever fully change. In some ways it may become even more pronounced; as the age gap between childhood and first parenthood widens the memories of the parents’ own adolescence will fade, and perhaps the empathy fades with it.

    I’m thrilled that you found my little site, and that it was mentioned on the SA blog. (Do you have a link for that? I found a site mention in the forums, but not a link. I’d like to say thank you.) Feel free to come by and ramble any time.

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