by Charles Isherwood on December 11, 2006
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.
Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; music by Duncan Sheik; based on the play by Frank Wedekind; directed by Michael Mayer; choreography by Bill T. Jones; music director, Kimberly Grigsby; sets by Christine Jones; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Mr. Sheik; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo, additional arrangements by Simon Hale; music coordinator, Michael Keller; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Heather Cousens; associate producers, Joan Cullman Productions and Patricia Flicker Addiss; technical supervisor, Neil A. Mazzella; general manager, Abbie M. Strassler. Presented by Ira Pittelman, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, the Atlantic Theater Company, Jeffrey Sine, Freddy DeMann, Max Cooper, Mort Swinsky, Cindy and Jay Gutterman, Joe McGinnis, Judith Ann Abrams, ZenDog Productions, Jennifer Manocherian, Ted Snowdon, Harold Thau, Terry Schnuck, Cold Spring Productions, Amanda Dubois, Elizabeth Eynon Wetherell, Jennifer Maloney, Tamara Tunie, Joe Cilibrasi, StyleFour Productions, CarJac Productions and Aron Bergson Productions. At the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
WITH: Skylar Astin (Georg), Lilli Cooper (Martha), Christine Estabrook (the Adult Women), John Gallagher Jr. (Moritz), Gideon Glick (Ernst), Jonathan Groff (Melchior), Brian Charles Johnson (Otto), Lea Michele (Wendla), Lauren Pritchard (Ilse), Stephen Spinella (the Adult Men), Phoebe Strole (Anna), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen) and Remy Zaken (Thea).