Call me a pompous old fuddy-duddy, if you will. I am not particularly impressed by the national touring production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, playing currently at the Winspear Opera House as part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Lexus Broadway Series. More teen angst?
Sexual awakening erupts again in the theatre with a profusion of uncontrollable urges and lovesick ballads; parents who “just don’t understand” confound and repress the innocent young; girls in their twenties run around the stage in short, skimpy nighties, pretending to be in their teens and 20-something men also acting like teen-aged boys fret with “boners” and such. The lead characters just HAVE to get it on together. How exactly is this ‘new and fresh’? Just off the top of my head, I’m thinking Pippin and Grease, West Side Story, all of which featured sensual contact and “groovy” music, much of it memorable. Somehow the lyrics and orchestration didn’t clash with the time periods these shows are set in and still made their points quite clearly. There’s poetry in the lyrics. Themes? Love is eternal; youth need to explore it. Sex happens, naughty, naughty. Sometimes it results in babies. Backroom abortions don’t work.
The whole world loves Spring Awakening, but not me. Here’s some of what it won in 2007. It received eleven 2007 Tony Award nominations; it won eight, including for best musical, direction, book, score and featured actor. The show also won four Drama Desk Awards, while its London production won four Olivier Awards. In 2008 it also won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
So what displeases me? To start with, I don’t think the alternative rock/ballad style music fit the play as set in 1890’s Germany. At all. This musical is based on an often banned and/or censored play written in 1891 by pre-expressionist German playwright and satirist Frank Wedekind: Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy. Considered a ground-breaking work for its time, or any time, it decried the socially and sexually repressive mores of fin-de-siecle Germany. It has upset many, many people with its portrayal of homoeroticism, masturbation, incest, rape (in the musical it appears consensual), bondage (an entire song “The Word of Your Body” pays homage), suicide, and abortion. It’s a profoundly upsetting play, given its subject matter. All of this is addressed, in vivid terms, by the musical. I found it confusing, distracting and off-putting to see the characters attired in 19th century clothes, in 19th century settings, whipping hand held mikes out of their coat pockets to scream, jive and gyrate around to modern agitated rock music or to croon new-age-y pop ballads. The disparity kept me constantly aware I was watching a ritualized spectacle presumably intended to “coddle the masses”; so no matter how clever the choreography or blocking or dynamite lighting effects or cool elevated platforms looked, I never found reason to believe in the plight of any character. With so much energy focused on creating rock and roll hyper-fantasy, there were no character arcs to follow as the characters functioned as little more than metaphor. What the children went through was horrifying; how it was portrayed felt like a YouTube cartoon video. I left the theatre in despair, admiring the production values, disliking the performance intensely. I expect good theatre to provide a fresh, transforming experience, to illuminate some aspect of life, to show me intriguing revelations through thematic and character development. With a musical, I expect its music to drive the ambience of the show, at the very least, to reflect and compliment the moods and themes expressed. Not this.
My companion du soir, who enjoyed the production more than I, purchased the Grammy-winning CD and left it with me. For several days I’ve played it in my car, to consider the lyrics, which were largely unintelligible from the stage. (What’s with the Winspear sound? The couple seated to our immediate left departed at intermission, unable to understand the words. Then two people took their seats, saying they came down from one of the balconies where they could understand nothing….) The orchestrations, while hardly memorable, were sweet, haunting and energizing. I wanted to know what thoughts they expressed, as the show had won basically every available honor for “Best New Musical” as well as the Tony for “Best Book” in 2007. An ounce of curing redemption could be worth a pound of dismay. Here are two examples of the lyrics:
The Word of Your Body
O, I’m gonna be your wound.
O, I’m gonna bruise you.
O, you’re gonna be my bruise.
Yeah, you’re f***ed, all right – and all for spite.
You can kiss your sorry ass good-bye.
Totally f***ed. Will they mess you up?
Well, you know they’re gonna try.
Blaa blaa blaa blaa blaa blaa blaa blaa
blaa blaa blaa blaa
Those are the sort of lyrics that seem to please the critics worldwide and win all the major respected awards going today? If that appeals to you, have at it. Call me a pompous old fuddy-duddy, if you will.
Oh yes, here is the New York Times review of Spring Awakening from 2006:
I’m holding out for genuine art, and I’m sprung wide awake.
Spring Awakening, the 8-time Tony Award® winning Broadway musical, will play the AT&T Performing Arts Center Winspear Opera House in Dallas from Tuesday, March 23, 2010 through Sunday, April 4, 2010 for a strictly limited run of only 16 performances. Spring Awakening is part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Lexus Broadway Series.
Tickets can be purchased at www.attpac.org, by phone at 214.880.0202, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Box Office at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street (Monday through Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm; Sunday 11 am – 4 pm), or at the remote Box Office at Park Place Lexus Plano at 1025 Preston Road. Ticket prices range from $25.00 to $150.00.
PHOTO: “Blue Wind”
Steffi D in the Spring Awakening national tour.
Photo by Paul Kolnik 2009