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 â€” but mainly trauma â€” 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 â€” the adult roles are played by one man and one woman â€” 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 â€” physically, intellectually, sexually, and emotionally â€” 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.