BY PAMELA FOOHEY
Not since Rent have I seen so many people my age at a Broadway musical. And not since Rent have I heard audience members hoot and cheer after their favorite songs. I was surprisingly refreshed not only by the makeup of the audience when I saw Spring Awakening this past week, but also by the musical itself. Directed by Michael Mayer, with music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the cast and crew of Spring Awakening transform the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind into a riveting story of teenage awakening set to a rock & roll score.
Possibly because of its adherence to the original play’s 1890’s German setting, the musical presents a determinedly modern view of the classic coming of age story. Indeed, what is now hailed as Wedekind’s masterpiece was so controversial for so long that it was banned from the stage and not performed in its entirely in English for nearly a century. Fueled by a gang of fresh young actors, many making their Broadway debut, Spring Awakening explores themes of puberty common to all youths in an uncompromisingly honest and occasionally brutally graphic tour de force. It’s really quite astonishing to witness one of these young actors pull out a microphone from underneath the shirt of his period-perfect 1890’s school uniform and start rocking out, jumping all over the stage.
Spring Awakening also confronts with the same honesty and explicitness the dangers of culturally-enforced silence on the subject of sexual awakening. It’s even more startling to watch and begin to comprehend its scenes of child abuse, aggression and cruelty, masturbation, near rape, failed abortion, and suicide. Yet Spring Awakening approaches these subjects with a combination of forthrightness and tact that have turned it into what is best termed a cult classic.
The story focuses on three main characters. Wendla (Lea Michele), clouded in ignorance because of her mother’s inability to educate her about the female body even when prompted by Wendla, finds herself curiously drawn to Melchior (Jonathan Groff). Melchior, one of his school’s brightest pupils, uses his intelligence to educate himself about his body’s transformation. Aided by his studies, when Melchior meets Wendla one afternoon in the woods by accident, he is ready to help them fully explore their shared desire. Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), distraught by his unrelenting thoughts, must reconcile his longings before he fails out of school, or worse.
Yet Spring Awakening is about more than just the anguish of going through puberty during an age of repression. Wendla, Melchior, and Moritz’s stories transcend generations. Their trials speak to the confusion and terror that haunts us all starting sometime during our junior high years. Through their songs, these three and all the other youngsters speak directly to the audience, asking them to recall those years. While you may resist at first, Spring Awakening carefully guides you on this journey, and, ultimately, you are grateful for and delighted by the voyage.
It is so refreshing to see a musical this innovative and ground-breaking succeed on Broadway. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins a Tony for Best New Musical this year. Regardless, Spring Awakening is not to be missed. If you happen to be in New York City, your student ID will get you $25 student rush tickets up to one hour before the show at the Eugene O’Neill Theater box office. On account of the show’s appeal to younger audiences, the theater holds many student rush seats. If you really want to be part of the action, you can buy one of the dozen or so seats on stage for a few extra dollars.