2007 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, “Spring Awakening”, came to the Fisher Theater in Detroit last night. The musical is based on a 1891 (yes, 1891) play of the same name by German playwright Frank Wedekind, with an exceptional soundtrack by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.
The first indication that this is not going to be traditional musical are the audience seating on the stage. Shortly before the show starts, the cast comes out and takes seats in among the onstage audience. Later during the show, we discover that even some of the “audience” are cast members as they participate in songs as chorus, apparently in an attempt to connect the 19th century setting of the show with the contemporary. Another break from tradition is the absence of an overture, which usually allows the audience to settle in and prepare their mindset. Instead, the show begins immediately with a young girl (Wendla) standing on a chair in her slip, examining her pubescent body in an unseen mirror, while singing the beautiful “Mama Who Bore Me”. This was the biggest disappointment of the Detroit production. The Broadway production starred Lea Michele (currently on television as Rachel Berry on Glee) as Wendla. Lea is perhaps the best singing talent on Broadway since Idina Menzel. Unfortunately, the young woman playing Wendla, while a fine singer in her own right, pales in comparison to Lea. While this is almost always true for the cast members of the road shows of Broadway productions, in this case it is the biggest gap in talent that I have encountered. This aside, the rest of the cast were uniformly strong and carried the show.
As the opening scene indicates, the theme of the show is a series of coming-of-age stories for a group of adolescents (teenagers in modern parlance) in a society where sexual expression is something to be repressed. The school system, in which the boys are enrolled, values rote learning and memorization above all, while original thought is punished. Naturally, our hero is a handsome free-thinker, Melchior Gabor, that chafes against the restraints put upon him by the bourgeois. He has knowledge of sexual reproduction and of course, that knowledge will come with a price, which is usually in these coming-of-age stories the death of innocence.
Innocence in this in this show is represented by the character of Moritz Stiefel. When we are introduced to Moritz, he is struggling to keep up with his studies because he is frightened by the dreams he is having. When he describes his dreams to Melchior, it turns out that he is having erotic dreams. Melchior agrees to write an essay for Moritz to explain to him about sex and the dreams he is having. However, this will turn out to have devastating consequences for Moritz as he is not as brilliant and admired as Melchior and thus less well equipped to escape from the bounds of conventional society.
The first act ends with sexual intercourse between Melchior and Wendla, and the entire play can thus be divided into “Before” and “After”. In the “after”, the consequences of “eating from the tree of knowledge” are revealed. Moritz, having been kicked out of his home for failing in school, encounters a childhood female friend, who has abandoned conventional society for the life of a bohemian. She tries to gently seduce Moritz, but in his confusion and fright, he refuses. Filled with shame and sadness, Moritz takes his own life. In what must have been a piece of symbolic staging, the place on the stage where Melchior and Wendla had sex becomes the tombstone for Moritz’s grave. Sex and death are always tied together.
There are more consequences to Melchior’s and Wendla’s passion, but I will not reveal everything.
Of course, this is a musical, so the songs are an intrinsic part of the show. Sater and Sheik get around the usual setup of having all the characters onstage stop what they are doing to break into song by having the songs be the interior monologues of the characters. Sheik, who has had pop music success in his background, has put together a true rock soundtrack. These are not hummable show tunes, but the rebelliousness of rock truly fits well with the setting of the play.
After seeing this show, I can understand why this won the Tony for Best Musical. If you get the chance, don’t pass it up.