New York City Theater
Eugene O’Neill Theater
To say that “Spring Awakening” is about the sexual budding of clueless teenagers is like saying “Hamlet” is about a guy who wants to kill his uncle. Just as Shakespeare’s tragedy has levels that appear and re-appear with each new incarnation, so does “Spring Awakening,” the exciting, erotic, funny, innovative, angry and meaningful musical.
“Spring” is no jukebox musical, nor is it a movie-to-stage hybrid. Out of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 expressionistic work (considered so salacious it was banned), librettist/lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik fashioned an original piece as contemporary as it is universal. Though we’re distanced from its emotions, though the subject matter is hardly new, we feel the stings of repressive societies.
So contemporary is the musical, in fact, that its shock value is diminished, even when dealing directly with out-of-wedlock pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, sadomasochism, child abuse and homosexuality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene of same-sex seduction, played for and received with laughs. Where Wedekind’s audience would have been scandalized, today’s is amused.
This story of horny German teenagers beset by cruel teachers, absentee fathers and mothers who can’t or won’t explain the facts of life is old-fashioned only in kind, not degree. Many parents may still be reticent, yet the facts of life are no mystery to today’s kids brought up on TV’s frankness. Sex education is taught everywhere (with the possible exception of Kansas) and young girls probably know the stork didn’t bring them.
But that’s not the point. Set in its time period -- weird haircuts, woolen suits for the boys, long dresses for the girls – the evening plays out in a no man’s land of brick walls, utilitarian furniture and rock music. When the cast sings, they do so into hand-held, anachronistic microphones.
The language is not polite nor does the evocative score do what musical theater songs are supposed to do: advance the action. Rather, they’re character songs, revealing the disturbing inner thoughts and feelings of naïve youngsters dealing with sadness and love, death and hope.
But what “Spring” deals with, finally, and unsurprisingly, is life in all its corny promise. “And all shall fade,” they sing, “The flowers of spring / The world and all the sorrow / At the heart of everything.” This is a show about society on the brink of change and the turn-of-the-century young men and women who, caught between the Industrial Revolution and World War I, become “raw material for an obedient and productive society.”
Michael Mayer’s trenchant direction, Bill T. Jones’ powerful choreography (movement, really) and the physical production (particularly Kevin Adams’ brilliant lighting design) combine with a gutsy cast of mostly unknowns. No, it’s not the millennium. No, it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is a chancy, original work and should make Broadway proud.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 31, 2006