Reviewed by David Spencer
I freely admit, I was almost prepared to "farm out" the task of reviewing the Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening to another NYC based Aisle Sayer. I had so thoroughly discounted the thing off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre, I didn't see the point of sitting through it again, nor my capacity for going with an open mind. But most times press privileges get a critic a pair of seats, the grand lady in my life has dibs on musicals, she'd had to miss the summer run, and how could I refuse her desire to attend?
Among several banes of my existence, paradoxically, is that I'm far more open-minded than I want to be at times (true: makes it almost impossible to maintain a nice, juicy prejudice against a previously irritating artist when s/he suddenly pulls the unprecedented rabbit out of the hat; or to share the bonding biases of colleagues and friends who look to you for empathy), and watching the show in the company of a viewer who wanted only to see for herself was its own field leveler: in monitoring her interest and involvement, I wound up "rebooting" my own objectivity.
I caught immediately that some subtle work had been done; not the kind of broad strokes re-writing that is fodder for out-of-town anecdotes, but the kind of bolt-tightening that, if you're in the musicals game, you know is barely visible but makes a world of perceptual difference. And in Spring Awakening—the unlikely musical based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play about teenagers discovering sexual desire in the repressive society of the author's present-day Germany—narrative had been fine-tuned and more clearly focused...the score and book had been likewise shorn up: where previously there had been sprawl and confusion, there was now a clear line of development and proportion. (It also didn't hurt that the two actors who play the adults had been recast with actors better equipped to communicate differentiation among multiple roles.)
And because of that, I unexpectedly found myself liking it. A lot. Even admiring its passion.
Loving it? Couldn't quite get there. But more than willing to say, All right, yeah, this is a mandatory offering of the season.
You have to brush aside all the hype about Spring Awakening being an envelope-pushing trail-blazer; it is no such thing. The notion of having characters depart from "real-time" action to sing their thoughts—not in the traditional musical theatre way, but in the manner of "stepping outside the action" to editorialize—is not new; nor is the notion of having the song language embrace a different diction than the scene language (in this case, lyricist-librettist Steven Sater's book maintains the "feel" of Wedekind's original text, while his lyrics explode unabashedly into 21st century colloquialism, i.e. "We've all got our junk, and my junk is you."). The difference is, Sater and his collaborator, composer Duncan Sheik, have hit upon the alchemy of authors, subject matter, director (Michael Meyer, a hit-and-miss player in the musical theatre arena) and timing that allows a somewhat naively conceived novelty item to transcend the rules and define an identity apart.
This particular kind of identity is deceptive, because, as I say, it attracts critical accolades for innovation. A very prominent, multi-and-major-award winning musical dramatist (I'm sorry to be so "hinty" about his identity, but he spoke under circumstances that require my keeping him anonymous) offered the diplomatic opinion that "the show has been overpraised; and that really doesn't do them any favors." And as I thought about that statement, I realized it was slightly askew, for of course no show suffers from good reviews; what does suffer, though, are writers, directors and producers who then try to emulate the show, thinking it's at the forefront of a new wave. Sorry, no: for envelope-pushing, look to Grey Gardens, which bends the rules almost to the breaking point (and occasionally, knowingly, beyond) but never abandons the craft; which experiments exuberantly, but never without a full understanding of all the equipment in the lab. Spring Awakening, like Rent, like Hair, like all the other rock entries that have broken through to mainstream success, is unquantifiable and non-replicatable. Taken on its own terms, it breaks with tradition only because it has no comprehensive sense of the tradition it breaks from.
But you can't condemn it on those terms either. That's the concession you make to alchemy. In the end, the magic is smarter than the rules. And in the end, I think—I think—Spring Awakening gets away with it because it's less a musical than a folk opera, and I don't mean that as a glib way to rationalize it into a categorical box. I think it taps into something tribal; its very story is about the abandonment of logical sense to visceral urge; perhaps overt craft neatness is even its enemy.
Thus we won't even discuss theatrical songwriting principles, because in Spring Awakening, part of its idiosyncrasy (for a working show), is that they are muscled aside in favor of pop song vocabulary—less, I think, consciously than because it's the language the authors know. Subsequently, while Sater's lyrics are to the point thematically, and don't backslide over revelations we've already intuited, their dependence upon near and approximate rhyme rob them of wit (though there are shock value laughs, such as a teenager, cornered by adult authority figures, suddenly confessing to the audience that he knows he's "fucked"). Sheik's music, like all rock music that manages to work in a theatrical context, utilizes contemporary electronic instrumentation and arrangement patterns, but in its harmonic and melodic substance seems drawn from the more complex harmonies and high profile melody construction of rock from the late 60s. (It's astonishing to think that popular music of 40 years ago can still fuel the fires of what is supposed to be contemporary, but bear in mind that rock is almost always primal—its pastel shadings are limited, and over the years minimalism as an approach has only become more pronounced, as evidenced by the subgenre of rap. Thus when rock—at least in the theatre—requires tunefulness and emotional passions an actor can play, it almost always seems to revert to an older time.) But this too is fine, because it allows "rock" to be the show's legitimate musical vocabulary, yet also "timeless" in a way that won't let the score ever sound detrimentally dated. All in all, Sheik has evoked mood and character well and attractively.
The vitality of the predominantly young cast is infectious and that too is part of the alchemy: Spring Awakening, despite its setting, is about the raging hormones of adolescence colliding with the inability of adults to communicate candidly to their children about what's happening to them. In what era is that not universal, and what cast of young actors, most not much older than the roles being portrayed, would be unable to relate and commit to the themes? Tacitly, the show suggests that if you resist them you compound the problem. And so you don't.
Spring Awakening has widely divided audience opinion and critical response; and, as with me, has proven capable of being persuasive after some tinkering, the second time around. There is no way to predict whether it will speak to you or not. If it doesn't, well, at least you can talk with some authority in the aftermath, for having been there, and seen for yourself. But if it does, there's one more interesting factor to consider: Remember, it's a visceral folk opera more than a musical.
You're part of the alchemy too...