Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spring Awakening: The musical I know well

Yesterday I wrote about how many times I've seen Spring Awakening. The show, about teenagers coming of age in late 19th century Germany, follows about two dozen characters with a focus on a girl, Wendla Bergman, and two boys, Melchior Gabor and Moritz Stiefel. As we follow their stories, we find out about the terrible ramifications of a restrictive society run by overly protective parents and authoritarian educators who won't allow children to express themselves, much less learn about what their thoughts and choices might entail.

This show is one of the most influential and important musicals in my life (and in the world, if I have any say). It addresses important issues from teenage sexuality to pregnancy to abuse, all within two amazing music-filled hours and it was all written by a man who died nearly 100 years ago. Yet somehow it is still incredibly relevant and powerful today. In 2006,  Spring Awakening won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, but a century ago the original play written by Frank Wedekind, a German playwright, came close to being taken off the stage, banned from general audiences.

Ironically, the enemies within the play were represented directly by those who attempted to silence Wedekind's work in its early days. The show is primarily about the blindness of humanity and the unwillingness to address human facts and problems. In the third song of the show, Melchior Gabor sings "All they say is trust in what is written. Wars are made and somehow that is wisdom. Thought is suspect and money is their idol and nothing is okay unless it's scripted in their Bible."

The same temperance and feigned purity that Wedekind suggested is the cause for all that is wrong in society is what kept his play from being heard by a mass audience until the new millennium. And until recently, because of rules and laws governing the stage and the presentation of official versus non-equity performances of plays, Spring Awakening had only one well-known stage interpretation.

But after seeing my school's version of this play which I've already seen over half a dozen times, I think I am apt to make judgments as to why Spring Awakening is so successful in its original incarnation, and perhaps what value I spotted within this new version.

The problem off-stage

The first thing that struck me about this new interpretation of Spring Awakening was that two of the most integral players of the show were kept completely off-stage throughout the performance (as well as primarily in the dark). The Adult Man and Adult Woman take on several roles in the show, from mothers and fathers of various characters to voices on the educational hierarchy at the school that the students attend. Because these two very important players were not making physical appearances in the story, dimensions of the play were lost.

In an early scene where Wendla and her mother are having a conversation about "where babies come from," the mother speaks in a stern voice to Wendla about "loving her husband with her whole heart." But not for a moment does she provide comfort to Wendla or express to the audience the awkwardness of the "birds and the bees" talk.

In the original production, Wendla rests her head upon her mother's lap (which her mother covers with her skirt so she can pretend not to be talking to her young daughter), and the scene is made more comedic as a result. But this newer interpretation lost the strength of comedy as well as drama.

Additionally, later scenes show Moritz's strained interactions with his father and professor (who yell at him repeatedly), but in this version we never see these interactions become personal and visceral. We never become involved because all the interactions seem hypothetical and impersonal.

And most disappointing was, when Moritz dies in the second act, his father does not attend the funeral (since he is still off-stage). The original version of the play gives his father more compassion and sympathy as a character as he kneels down at Moritz's grave and weeps from his own guilt.

Keep a straight face

In initial Spring Awakening adaptations, stage seats were set up on either side where fans and actors sat and co-mingled during the performance. Actors would go from being a direct part of the action to sitting next to a member of the audience, and the most notable thing about their performance was their ability to remain stoic throughout an entire show when they were not called upon to be part of a scene.

But in the version I saw today, the actors seemed to have been encouraged to react from off-stage to what was occurring on-stage. They grimaced and gasped along with the audience in response to the storyline.

I cannot wrap my head around the value of this. Was it supposed to cue an emotional reaction in the audience? Was it supposed to help us understand how to feel? Because all it did was provide some confusion as to who was actually involved in certain scenes in the show.

Most notably, during Moritz's suicide, several actors surrounding the stage shuddered and made dejected faces. But I understood that when a gunshot sounded and a character died that it was the natural response to be sad. The stoicism in the original run of Spring Awakening showed character restraint and objectivity during certain scenes. Instead of confusing boundaries of presence and non-presence, it firmly divided characters based on their witnessing scenes.

With actor reactions from off-stage, not only was I distracted by their movements and expressions, but I was bothered by the fact that this seemed to undermine the story - it took away from the singularity of certain scenes where individuals were supposed to shine out from the ensemble.


I may have not been utterly ecstatic by the omission of a physical presence for the Adult Man and Adult Woman. And I may have been annoyed by the overt expressions of actors when they were no part of a scene. But there were small decisions that made all the difference to my interpretation of this new Spring Awakening.

Though Wendla's outrageous anger and screaming at times felt forced and eardrum-piercing, it was pleasing to hear her character become less of a puppet. She was strong-willed with personal conviction and anger at society just like Melchior. Their kindred spirit relationship, no matter how annoying at times, made more sense in this adaptation. Instead of her voice emanating calm and quiet desperation, it sang of horrors and terrors and dissatisfaction.

And messages ran strong through the whole show.

In the very end of this interpretation of Spring Awakening, rather than just setting up the actors to sing "The Song of Purple Summer" in a long single-file line (which is a powerful scene in its own right), there was a portion of the song during which the actors walked around and removed part of the stage floor which covered patches of grass. They showed that where there had been plain green turf, there were now beds of flowers.

Symbolism ran rampant in this version of a show that is already rich in deeper verbal and emotional meaning. But it was executed so well that it made Spring Awakening feel even more real despite occasional falters from the original that were cause for concern.

Ultimately, this musical was not the worst adaptation in history. It stuck true to the script, to the themes, to the characters and to the music. It took liberties, but none that made it unpalatable. And while (with my extensive experience with Spring Awakening), I end up making terribly thorough a scientific analysis about what minutia made one version better over the other, the real comment to make is how even when there are subtle changes to this show, it's still one of the best ever to grace the Broadway stage. But regardless of the stage, any chance to see it is worth the opportunity.

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