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I have seen the future of musical theatre, and its name is Spring Awakening.
At the end of a birthday weekend in New York, my wife took me to a play. I was delighted when I discovered it was Spring Awakening, mostly because I’d never read the play (Wedekind’s play, which the musical is based on), but had heard so much about it. I had heard something about this incarnation too, heard Duncan Sheik on NPR talking about it a little, but that was all. I knew the director Michael Mayer briefly in my NYC struggling actor days. I was struggling, he was about to take off. I have always admired his direction, and saw his traveling production of Perestroika in Philly.
We sat in the balcony, second row, right in the middle. The Eugene O’Neill, curiously, is probably the Broadway theatre I’ve seen the most shows in, probably because it’s where a lot of straight shows get produced. As Broadway theaters go, it’s simple and unpretentious. You see, I’m not a musical theatre kind of guy. I like West Side Story, Guys and Dolls . . . and that’s about it. Even the “rock operas” have always left me a little dry. They seem dated even before they really are.
I knew something was up as soon as I looked at the stage: bare brick theatre walls covered with an odd assortment of objects, including a blackboard which listed all the songs to be sung. I felt the ghost of Brecht nearby. And seats on stage for some audience. And bare light bulbs hanging down. It all felt soothing, as if I didn’t have to pretend there was something else going on here but a piece of theatre.
Then before the house lights went down, the cast marched smartly on stage and took positions sitting with the on stage audience. What a remarkable statement: we are all in this together. We are not separate. Then, house lights dim and the young woman playing Wendla comes on stage dressed in a slip, stands on chair, touches herself and sings “My Mother Who Bore Me”.
Usually when I start crying at a play I kind of know why. A powerful performance, amazing poetry or maybe the play just connects with an especially vulnerable place inside me. But I began crying almost instantly as Wendla sang and I had no idea why. The crying moved from embarrassed sniffled to choking sobs when the extraordinary girls in the extraordinary cast began stomping around singing the up tempo version of the same song. On and off throughout the first act, I was a soggy, joyful mess. By the time we came to the astounding scene which is the song “I Believe”, when the cast of boys and girls (because that’s what they are) gently rocks the young couple making awkward, gorgeous, frantic teenage love, I was making those choking noises you make when you’re trying not to attract attention to yourself while crying. This state of things was made more intense by my awareness that Susan, my wife, was having the same reaction to it I was.
At intermission we turned to each other, red eyed and speechless. She handed me a crumpled up paper napkin. I wiped my face.
The second act had the same effect on me, punctuated by rock concert whistles and hooting after “Totally Fucked”. I was startled and delighted by the “back up singers” in the on-stage audience, dressed in modern clothes, that stood with mikes and sang along from their seats on stage. I was moved by the way the male and females characters seemed to support each other musically, as they do in the story. I was shocked – shocked – at the abortion story line. And it takes a lot to shock me.
I am not a guy who stands up when I applaud much. I have an old fashioned relation to standing ovations, bred through a life in the theatre and the sense that mass culture has lost the honor imparted upon performers when an audience stands up when applauding. But I leapt to my feet and clapped wildly for these bright young actors, these wonderful musicians and this brilliant new play.
So what’s up with this?
Partly, it’s that the music was in style I connected and thrilled to. Partly, it was that when the actors sang, the songs were distinct performances and no attempt was made to make the transition from speaking to singing seamless (a wasted effort always, if you ask me). So I engaged with the songs as songs that had their own value and integrity, and which lifted the story from the outside-in. Mostly, it was that the cast was composed of people the same age as the characters, which are, coincidentally, the same age as the people I teach most often. So I felt like I was watching my best students up there. And the play they were performing was so brave, tackling topics so sensitive (teenagers, sex, suicide, abortion), that I was on the receiving end of the perfect storm of theatre: performance, music, story all conspired to crack me open and purge me. I think I was crying because a part of me was saying, yes, it can be like this, when it’s all working together, it can transform me. Mostly, it’s that the whole package is simply fucking amazing.
I think this was the musical theatre experience I always wanted and never had. And I am convinced that this production has defined a template for all future musical theatre. I never saw Rent, and I suppose it could be argued that it was that show which created the template. Okay, maybe. But in any case, we are finally finding our way to a musical theatre which takes the best of modern popular music and uses it to its own advantage. It’s worth noting that Duncan Sheik was a part of the creative team from the very beginning. He was not a “pop star” brought in to dress something up. His particular genius informed the very foundation of this production.
And it must be said, I was ready to have this experience. For whatever reason, on that day, in that place, I was ready to be cracked open. Another day, a different age, who knows. But Spring Awakening met my wife and me this past Sunday and together we went on an incredible journey. I can’t speak for the artists on stage, but I know that afterwards, my wife and I were changed people.
And if you don’t believe me, read the New York Times review of the new cast.
Here are the productions I have seen that have transformed me (I’m probably leaving a few out as I write in haste before teaching):
Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Brook’s production, 1969 (I was eight and I still remember it)
Buried Child, Body Politic Theatre, Chicago, 1980
Balm in Gilead, Circle Rep, NYC, 1983 (?)
Master Harold . . . and the boys, Yale Rep, 1985
Two Trains Running, Yale Rep, 1987
Angels In America, Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992 (?)
The Well Being, Traverse Theatre, E’Burg Fringe, 1995
My Mother Said I Never Should, People’s Light, 1998 (?)
Recent Tragic Events, 1812 Productions, 2005
Spring Awakening, Eugene O’Neill Theater 2008
Thanks, all of you, for reminding me why I do this. Spring Awakening Tuesday, September 16, 2008