A sad, haunting lyric drifts through "Spring Awakening," a remarkable rock musical that has transferred from off-Broadway to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre with all its potent, gutsy theatricality intact.
"O, I'm gonna be wounded. O, I'm gonna be your wound," sing the anguished young men and women in this tragic tale of spirit and sensuality denied. The world of provincial late 19th century Germany is the setting for Frank Wedekind's classic drama.
The play caused quite a fuss when it was first produced a century ago. But then, plot points include premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, autoerotism, sadomasochism and incest. Even today, they are likely to cause a stir.
That hasn't deterred adapter and lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik. What they have done here is upend traditional musical theater. They separate story from song, rigidly dividing the saga of these troubled teens as they confront their budding sexuality in a world that wants to keep it hidden. Propriety and appearances are what count, after all.
Sater pretty much follows the Wedekind play, but when the story stops for a tune, the actors pull out microphones or set up a mike stand, and the O'Neill stage explodes in a kind of rock concert, circa 1890.
Despite the division, the show, directed with driving force by Michael Mayer, has astonishing unity, a clarity of purpose. The songs comment on the action, which Mayer pushes with blazing speed. Although production values have been enhanced, the setting, designed by Christine Jones, is still minimal. A small band sits on the nearly empty stage as do the actors when they are not performing. The performers mingle among several rows of theatergoers also seated on the sides of the playing area.
Sheik, a singer-songwriter best known for the 1996 hit "Barely Breathing," writes rhythmic, driving melodies that neatly capture the frenetic uncertainty of the characters. Yet there is a quiet, introspective quality to some of his more mournful songs. Sater's intelligent lyrics display a sense of poetry without feeling precious.
"Spring Awakening" focuses on a trio of individuals, most prominently Melchoir, played by Jonathan Groff, a leading man in-the-making. Blessed with a fine singing voice and serious acting chops, Groff portrays the rebel, determined to buck the system and, unfortunately, to suffer the consequences.
The lovely Lea Michele is Wendla, a vulnerable young woman curious about life and unable to feel anything - even pain. The third member of this prominent threesome is Moritz, a quivery student tormented by thoughts of sex and his failure to live up to his father's expectations. A dynamic John Gallagher Jr. portrays him with an unnerving frenzy, a hyperactivity that underscores the young man's desperation.
There are also fine cameos by Lilli Cooper as a girl trapped in an incestuous relationship with her father and Jonathan B. Wright as a youthful seducer determined to have his way with another student.
One notable difference from the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company production is the recasting of all the adult roles, which are played by only two actors. Those tasks have been given to Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, and they manage to pull them off fine. Estabrook, in particular, finds the right note of authority, never allowing her sternness to descend into caricature.
There is little overt choreography in "Spring Awakening," but Bill T. Jones has devised some striking movement for the cast, particularly in the one big production number with an unprintable title - at least in family publications.
For all its turbulence and focus on teenage angst, the show concludes on a note of uplift, "The Song of Purple Summer," a plea for tolerance and understanding. The number celebrates the potential of young people and all their possibilities. Exactly the right ending for a musical as adventurous as "Spring Awakening."
The good is rare enough in the theater, but the excellent is . . . well, just excellent. And so it was at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre last night when the gritty, groundbreaking "Spring Awakening" gave an unexpected jolt of sudden genius to wake up the hidebound Broadway musical.
The electricity is generated by a terrific tribe of young actors working with an authentic pop-rock score by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik that punches its story home.
But in the final count, the night is made heart-rending and magical by themes common to all - youth and dependency, just the weird human chemistry of growing up.
Based on Frank Wedekind's late 19th-century German play, banned for many years, "Spring Awakening" is edgy even now in its brutally honest, unromanticized depiction of human sexuality and those disturbing rites of spring called puberty.
Sater and Sheik have taken Wedekind's basic text, a series of linked dramatic vignettes, and given these adolescents from more than a century ago a fresh, 21st-century voice.
It's a dazzling concept - having these kids dressed, all flounces and breeches, as if they had stepped out of some late Victorian painting, suddenly producing hand-mikes and rocking and rolling with a sensibility that instantly bridges the gap between Wedekind and us.
The story focuses on three main characters: the bewildered Wendla (Lea Michele), the tragically geeky Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), and the bright nonconformist Melchior (Jonathan Groff).
Hormones race through these young bodies with fever-chart intensity, making strange demands on mind and spirit. They're faced with 19th-century institutional repression that is all but incomprehensible today.
Now its scenes of brutality, child abuse, masturbation, sadism, near rape, botched abortion and suicide - it must be the first Broadway cast album with a "Parental Advisory" warning - have a historic distance given immediacy by the music. Scored for a rock band with keyboards, bass, guitars, violins and percussion, it's first-rate - and the first Broadway score in a long while that owes nothing to Sondheim.
Michael Mayer has staged "Spring Awakening" with a cool efficiency, but more interesting is the inventive vitality of the choreography by Bill T. Jones, a major dance figure making his first visit to Broadway.
Susan Hilferty's costumes are period-perfect, while the clever scenic design by Christine Jones reflects the stage of off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, where "Spring Awakening" first awoke last season.
The major change since then is with the actors who play all the adult roles, now beautifully given by Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella, as stylish as they are versatile as 19th-century bourgeoisie.
The young actors - each and every one - take the text and music, making individual creations that etch in the memory.
This is a must-see musical, and not the least for the way it's performed.
Think of the Broadway musical, its past, present or future, and any number of phrases may spring to mind, depending on your affection for this embattled but persistent form of popular entertainment.
The great American art form. Karaoke nightmare. Bring the kids, leave the I.Q. at home. Another op’nin, another revival.
Probably nobody thinks: pure sex.
That might just change. A straight shot of eroticism steamed open last night at the Eugene O’Neill Theater under the innocuous name of “Spring Awakening,” and Broadway, with its often puerile sophistication and its sterile romanticism, may never be the same.
In “Spring Awakening,” with a ravishing rock score by the playwright Steven Sater and the singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, flesh makes only a single, charged appearance. And for all its frankness about the quest for carnal knowledge, it is blessedly free of the sniggering vulgarity that infects too many depictions of sexuality onstage and on screen.
But in exploring the tortured inner lives of a handful of adolescents in 19th-century Germany, this brave new musical, haunting and electrifying by turns, restores the mystery, the thrill and quite a bit of the terror to that shattering transformation that stirs in all our souls sometime around the age of 13, well before most of us have the intellectual apparatus in place to analyze its impact. “Spring Awakening” makes sex strange again, no mean feat in our mechanically prurient age, in which celebrity sex videos are traded on the Internet like baseball cards.
Wait a minute. Nineteenth-century Germany? Was sex even invented back then? Officially no. When the Frank Wedekind play on which the musical is firmly based was self-published by the author in 1891, Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” was still almost a decade away, and the subject of adolescent sexuality was so controversial that it was 15 years before the play was produced, even in a heavily censored form.
The smartest decision made by the creators of this adaptation was to retain the original setting in provincial Germany, to resist a facile attempt at updating the material. It wouldn’t have worked. The painful public silence on the subject of sex that warps the characters’ minds and in some cases destroys their lives would make no sense in a contemporary context. But the yawning gap between the force of desire and the possibilities for its release is not exactly an antique phenomenon.
Adolescents today may not have to sheath their hormones in itchy woolen uniforms, but the emotional essence of the story still transmits an ache that few will fail to recognize. “Spring Awakening” lingers almost painfully on those passages in youth when the discovery of sex temporarily disorders everything: relationships to family, friends and the piano teacher; the feel of your body; even the fabric of the world itself, which suddenly seems to shimmer before you like a mirage, alive with danger and promise.
This agonizing state may not sound like something you want to return to, but “Spring Awakening” has been created with such care and craft that the voyage back is a deeply rewarding one. Michael Mayer’s seamless direction works hand in hand with the inventive but unshowy choreography of Bill T. Jones to give potent physical expression to the turbulent impulses of adolescents living splintered lives. Outwardly, in narrative scenes written by Mr. Sater in a formal language appropriate to the era, they are obedient schoolchildren kept on short leashes by their stern parents and watchful teachers. But under their girlish frocks and constricting uniforms, the souls of incipient rock stars squirm and throb, bursting forth whenever a riff from a guitar signals the unquenchable force of their flourishing ids.
“Spring Awakening” has changed in small ways and improved in large ones since it opened last summer Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company. It has moved further away from the Wedekind play, but only scholars are likely to care that a key plot turn, a sex scene with the central female character, the pubescent Wendla Bergman (Lea Michele), has been thoroughly softened from confused ambiguity into a consensual act.
Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook now play the roles of various adults, from sympathetic to snarlingly repressive. If their Boris-and-Natasha act as a pair of conniving schoolmasters is a little overripe, they are effective as the less villainous members of the parental class.
The set designer, Christine Jones, steadfastly recreates the atmosphere of the Atlantic Theater, once a church, which gave an aptly transgressive perfume to the proceedings. Kevin Adams’s gorgeous lighting has now become a key player in the mix, giving visual punctuation to the transitions between rock-concert romping and storytelling.
Most significant, the performances of the actors in the central roles of the anguished teenagers — Ms. Michele as the inquisitive Wendla; John Gallagher Jr. as Moritz Stiefel, the goof in mortal fear of failing grades and the mysterious blue legs that haunt his dreams; and Jonathan Groff as the free-thinking heartthrob Melchior Gabor — have become deeper and sharper.
Mr. Gallagher’s lean face twists into a tortured exclamation point beneath the frenzied shock of hair that seems to symbolize Moritz’s inner confusion. Failing at school and at life, Moritz hollers forth his frustration with an affecting scrape in his voice, in driving songs that ride on cutting electric guitar riffs and often explode into communal rants that fill the stage with schoolboys burning off energy in physical abandon. (The supporting performances have improved too, with Jonathan B. Wright’s gay seducer Hanschen now stealing all of his scenes with a delicious air of weary loucheness.)
Moritz turns to his friend Melchior for illumination on the subject of those disturbing nocturnal images that keep getting in the way of his Latin lessons, but Melchior’s informal textbook only sends his friend’s imagination careering down new erotic paths. Meanwhile Melchior’s fertile mind has followed his hormones down the road to freedom, and he’s ready to question every tenet of the social contract, and embrace every “ism” he can find, from social- to nihil-.
Imbued by Mr. Groff with a nice mix of ardency and thoughtfulness, Melchior most of all aches to embrace Wendla, whose own yearnings sometimes take disturbing form. Strangely excited by a schoolmate’s confession that her father beats her, she begs Melchior to take a wooden switch to her.
As that daring sequence suggests, Mr. Sater, who wrote the book and lyrics, remains faithful to the play’s awareness that the discovery of sex can carry in its heady wake both salvation and destruction, particularly when it is coupled with ignorance. Mr. Sheik’s music, spare in its simple orchestrations, lush in the lapping reach of its seductive choruses, embodies the shadowy air of longing that infuses the show, the excitement shading into fear, the joy that comes with a chaser of despair. The singing throughout is impassioned and affecting, giving powerful voice to the blend of melancholy and hope in the songs.
For the characters’ confusions are ultimately not sexual but existential too. Sex is a central expression of life’s mystery, and a metaphor for it too. But the awakening really taking place in “Spring Awakening” is to something larger than the insistent needs of the flesh. Mr. Sater and Mr. Sheik’s angst-riddled teenagers are growing into a new awareness of “the bitch of living” itself. And the beauty of living too.
"Spring Awakening" did not merely open at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre last night. The action was more like ripping open, more like breaking out, more like tearing into the pretend pop and reused plots that pass for new musicals on Broadway today.
When this primal scream of turbulent puberty had its premiere Off-Broadway last summer at the Atlantic Theater Company, market indicators hoped for a youth magnet on the commercial coattails of "Rent" or "The Who's Tommy." In fact, this daring and exhilarating entertainment doesn't look like anything - nor do Duncan Sheik's songs sound like anything - invited yet to live in the same esthetic or economic world of "American Idol" screamers and ironic-comedy spoofs.
Can such furious, serious fun exist on kill-for-a-ticket Broadway? Better question: can Broadway move ahead without acknowledging and embracing it?
More drama-with-music than conventional musical, "Spring Awakening" takes place in the repressed provincial Germany described so scandalously by pioneering pre-Expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891. Lyricist and author Steven Sater maintains the oppressive era in this story of teens in a town beyond the reach of sex education, much less of Freud.
So, yes, the time is late 19th century, but the stirrings - incest, masturbation, suicide, abortion - are always timelessly modern. In Michael Mayer's lean and juicy production, a ripening young beauty named Wendla (Lea Michele) begs her mother to debunk the stork theory of conception. Standing on a wooden chair, bare thighs exposed between her chaste linen underwear and high woolen stockings, she foreshadows disaster by singing, angelically, "Mama who bore me / mama who gave me / no way to handle things / who made me so bad."
Have hand microphones ever been so theatrically used - almost as characters - to expose internal monologues? Wendla stays in her parents' idea of reality, while speaking. So do her equally confused girlfriends and the boys in their sex-segregated school. But when they sing - wham, when they sing – they reach into their shapeless dresses and into their rough woolen school uniforms, pull out their hand mikes and burst out from a world that cannot begin to contain the sexual energy.
The juxtaposition of style is a shock, no matter how many times Mayer uses the device. Singer-songwriter Sheik (best known for his hit song "Barely Breathing") has written brief, trenchant songs that refuse to rise to phony climaxes and are unafraid to be hushed. Sater's lyrics creep into the psyche as the youngsters sing, in contrasting contexts, "Oh, I'm gonna be wounded" while somehow also knowing, "You're gonna be my bruise."
Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella (both new since the Off-Broadway run) portray all the cruel, hypocritical and merely ignorant adults in bold, clear outlines.
But the story belongs to the young actors - some of whom, like the gifted Michele, have been with the show throughout its seven-year development. The performers don't even look as childlike as they did last summer - a fact of nature that may put theatergoers at ease but which takes some of the edge off the dangerous adventure.
Except for a terribly disappointing "Let-the-sunshine-in-we-love-you-tomorrow" anthem of hopeful redemption at the end, the production has not betrayed its dark soul for Broadway consumption. Choreographer Bill T. Jones, the modern-dance master in his terrific Broadway debut, brings out both the creepy and romantic eroticism. When not stomping in formless frustration and climbing walls, the young people touch their bodies in a ritualized series of intimate explorations, as if they are trying to feel where they end and the world begins.
Jonathan Groff has an unforced authority as Melchoir, the cutest, smartest, most sensitive golden boy whose intelligence and innocence turn him into an exile. John Gallagher, Jr. has a tender, geeky pathos as Moritz, the misfit with punk-fantasy hair, who ultimately embodies the destruction of sexual and class intolerance.
Jonathan B. Wright has a delightful, leering sensual self-assurance as the gay classmate, whose masturbation scene (under a sheet) is wittily synched in split screen with the boy (Skylar Astin) having a libidinous fantasy during his piano lesson. Lilli Cooper has a stirring, understated agony as the abused child, while Lauren Pritchard seems just a bit too pleased with the results of having been thrown out of her parents' house.
The large open set - part classroom, part abyss - includes a sensitively amplified onstage band and some bleachers for theatergoers. Costumes, designed by Susan Hilferty, find the humanity beneath the formality. Lights, by Kevin Adams, hang low, one by one, as if radiant stars just might share the same space with the charged-up anguish below.
Beautiful, messy, exhilarating, awkward, vital: They're all adjectives you might use to describe first love.
So it's fitting that you could also readily apply them to Spring Awakening, the imperfect but transcendent new musical that opened Sunday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1891 drama tracing the sexual and moral oppression of teenagers — and its disastrous impact on budding thinkers and lovers — arrives on Broadway after an acclaimed run at the Atlantic Theater Company. More than one critic compared it to Rent, a reference that would seem logical given Spring's focus on rebellious youth and Sheik's background as a pop singer/songwriter.
But Spring is at once a less polished and more resonant work. Where Rent creator Jonathan Larson both embraced the bombast of rock-era theater and aspired to a more conventional sophistication, Sheik approaches the stage with the fresh eyes and open mind of an artist accustomed to an entirely different tradition.
In doing so, Spring's composer manages to deliver lovely, graceful pop melodies that work in a theatrical context — that is, to propel a story and elucidate its characters.
Sheik's score is actually a more authentic example of musical theater than the spectacle-driven scenery showcases and movie-based wink-fests currently lighting up Times Square. You would have to look to another recent off-Broadway transfer, Grey Gardens, or back to The Light in the Piazza to find its contemporary peer in sincerity and potency.
Spring is not without its own affectations, which can seem more glaring than they did in the cozier Atlantic venue. Director Michael Mayer's determination to fill a less intimate space can strain some of Sater's delicate, earnest dialogue. New cast member Christine Estabrook gives a few histrionic line readings in an assortment of adult female roles, while original principal John Gallagher Jr. can overreach as the tortured misfit Moritz.
Luckily, the romantic leads retain all their charm. Lea Michele oozes sweet vulnerability as Wendla, the doomed ingénue. As Melchior, her precocious suitor, Jonathan Groff wields an easy, irresistible intensity that made me wonder where this guy was when I was in high school.
The tender supporting cast is similarly appealing and convincing. There are a few hams in the bunch; but in the musical numbers — where the characters shake off their 19th-century trappings to romp and stomp with post-punk dynamism — we witness not the preening of Broadway babies but the exuberance of young performers yearning, like Wedekind's adolescents, for self-expression.
By reveling in that need, Spring Awakening offers a trip unlike any other you're likely to experience this season.
For anyone weary of pedestrian screen-to-stage adaptations or cut-and-paste jukebox assemblies, the arrival on Broadway of a truly original new musical like "Spring Awakening" is exhilarating. Seven years after it was first workshopped, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's artful reinterpretation of the 1891 German Expressionist drama has deepened considerably. The show's long evolution and further fine-tuning since its hit run at Off Broadway's Atlantic Theater early this summer have amplified its resonance, adding texture and poignancy. It captures the dangerous anxiety of youth standing on the precipice of adulthood with transfixing honesty.
It's hard to do adolescent angst without a degree of phoniness, but integrity and a refusal to condescend are arguably the primary achievements of Michael Mayer's striking production. Where "Rent" now seems hampered by bad-ass, living-on-the-edge posturing, "Spring Awakening" has an authenticity that connects the show directly to the generation being depicted. Getting that generation -- not a prime theatergoing demographic -- to pay Broadway prices will be the major marketing challenge.
Sater's book and lyrics seem to capture from within the uniquely teenage feeling that every emotion is the most tempestuous, frightening, passionate or exciting one ever experienced. Factor in Sheik's melodic alt-rock score, which shifts easefully between dreamy and driving modes, Mayer's highly physical direction, choreographer Bill T. Jones' convulsive movement and some of the richest, most full-bodied ensemble singing heard on Broadway in a long time, and you have a show that bristles with rawness, vitality and urgency.
What makes the musical so distinctive is its audacious balancing act between period drama and contemporary edge. The smart central conceit is to remain largely faithful in book scenes to Frank Wedekind's original text and its starchy language. However, musical numbers reveal inner voices that are distinctly modern. It's disconcerting at first when 19th-century European schoolkids whip out hand mics from under their jackets and start belting out rock songs. But it's a savvy, energizing device to explore the incongruity between appearances ruled by convention and expectation and the characters' churning, angry secret selves.
Wedekind's play remains startlingly frank in dealing with sexual initiation, masturbation, teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality and incest, subject matter that has enduring currency.
Despite the natural shift into a more poetic idiom that adaptation into a musical entails, Sater has maintained, even heightened, the original text's stinging candor, as has Mayer's bold staging. And while Sater's lyrics tend at times to stray toward purple, prosaic vagueness, they fit the scenario. Who can afford to indulge in gooey self-expression if not romantic 14-year-olds?
Since the shift from the Atlantic, Mayer has ratcheted up the comedy in the opening scenes, particularly from doomed problem pupil Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.) and the various adult authority figures (Christine Estabrook, Stephen Spinella), recast for Broadway. The choice grates at first but it allows the drama to build in different directions, gathering layers of melancholy that crescendo into piercing sorrow in the second act before segueing into an ending that slides gracefully from tragedy to hope and possibility. The show now seems both more haunting and more uplifting.
The young cast all have grown more fully into their roles, ably led by Jonathan Groff as self-possessed progressive radical Melchior, Lea Michele as vulnerable, questioning Wendla and Gallagher as confused Moritz.
The peripheral characters have new depth, too, especially the boys. The perilously unbalanced romance between timid, fragile Ernst (Gideon Glick) and arrogant Hanschen (Jonathan B. Wright) treads a delicate line between comedy and pathos. On the distaff side, Lilli Cooper's Martha and Lauren Pritchard's Ilse, both damaged in different ways, make profound impressions. They also get one of the show's most lacerating songs, "The Dark I Know Well," detailing the abuse they have suffered with visceral rocker-chick attitude.
While they veer toward arch caricature as the monstrous schoolteachers, Estabrook and Spinella both improve on their predecessors in the roles. They each have penetrating moments, Estabrook as Melchior's liberal-minded mother cornered into acting against her son, and Spinella as Moritz's strict father during an intensely moving funeral scene paired with the beautiful song "Left Behind."
Designer Christine Jones has negotiated the move into a larger space with superb results, the rear brick wall littered with bric-a-brac denoting male and female emblems. A centerstage section is cleverly adapted to sink into an open grave or be elevated in the play's pivotal scene to become the hayloft .
The captivating experiment that started at the Atlantic of having lateral banks of onstage audience seating has been repeated, now with four additional singers sitting among them for extra vocal robustness. (The crystalline sound allows for serious volume without impeding comprehension of the lyrics.) The construction of downstage steps over the orchestra pit eliminates further distance between audience and players, enhancing the show's immediacy.
Of the production's many arresting attributes, perhaps the most gorgeous is Kevin Adam's lighting, a hypnotic, messy jumble of neon tubes and geometric shapes, hanging bulbs, sharp-edged beams and twinkling colors. A cascade of cerulean lights during "The Mirror-Blue Night" is magical.
This strange, beguiling show is by no means flawless, but with subtle, nurturing changes, the creative team and cast have fashioned an already seductive work into something even more lovely and lyrical.