Since its 2006 Broadway premiere, the multiple Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening has been seen by Los Angeles audiences as a full-scale, big-budget National Tour and more recently as a highly successful 99-seat production in the heart of Hollywood. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s groundbreaking musical now returns to L.A., this time in concert form, the latest offering of glory|struck productions and one that follows glory|struck’s concert stagings of bare: A Pop Opera and Glory Days.

We were fortunate recently to get the chance to chat with Topher Rhys, one of Spring Awakening In Concert’s producers and stars, about glory|struck’s exciting upcoming project.

 Spring Awakening Cast

So Topher, what first inspired you to stage Spring Awakening in concert form?

The idea of Spring Awakening came to my producing partner Jamie Lee Barnard and I one sunny afternoon last year. Both of us are huge fans of the recent trend in Los Angeles to present art nontraditionally—whether it be utilizing Downtown L.A. warehouses as a venue or using a cinema soundtrack as the basis for cabaret in an east-side bar—and we wanted our next project to really follow that lead.

We were discussing theater on the roof of my four-story walk up in Los Feliz, tanning, drinking beer and jamming to Jack Johnson, and there was something that clicked within that moment that felt universally young and very LA, something that inspired us to bring theater back to our concert-loving roots—youthful, energetic, guitar-driven and loud.

So how does this relate to Spring Awakening In Concert?

As a concert-styled presentation, we want our Spring Awakening to feel like something you’d see in an East Village bar as opposed to a stodgier uptown space, evoking the same energy we all had at our first rock show—ears ringing, cheeks red, beer in hand, and so damn happy.

Can you talk a bit about your mission at glory|struck productions?

Our mission is to not only create material that is unique, fresh and musically intriguing, but to also align it with a social cause. With last year’s Glory Days and our 2009 presentation of bare: A Pop Opera, we were introducing the material to a Los Angeles audience using a stripped-down workshop format to tell the story and to align the shows’ message with It Gets Better and The Trevor Project, respectively.

How does Spring Awakening In Concert differ from those previous concert stagings?

Spring Awakening is a much larger scope, which is very exciting! While a concert in name and style, we are presenting the show in its entirety, including some beautiful staging as directed by Kate Sullivan Gibbens and some fresh takes on some of these beloved tunes, musically directed by Michael Christopher Luebke. We’re playing the Hayworth, a gorgeous 200 seat DTLA venue, with thirteen local artists, singers, and songwriters lending their voices to these characters. On top of that we have assembled some great musicians plucked from some killer L.A.-based rock groups.

You mentioned that your previous concerts had benefitted It Gets Better and The Trevor Project. What about Spring Awakening?

What’s most exciting about Spring Awakening is how beautifully the themes of this show coincide with the Love is Louder campaign. Started by The Jed Foundation, MTV, and Brittany Snow, Love is Louder was founded to support anyone feeling mistreated, misunderstood or alone.

What is it that will distinguish Spring Awakening In Concert from the many other Spring Awakenings before it?

As a concert, we’re able to open up the material to a more universal format and one that focuses heavily on the music and the talent at the microphones. These are still kids from 1892 dealing with their sexuality and identity, but unlike the Broadway incarnation, which contrasts the world of the spoken to the world of the song, our “Guilty Ones” exist purely on a plane that is loud and rock-and-roll and thriving.

That does sound pretty different!

 Kelley Jakle

It will be a completely fresh take. Our musical director has approached each song carefully, adding in the flavor needed to make our sound unique to anything fans have heard before. Even from the moment the lights go down, Kelley Jakle’s opening to “Mama Who Bore Me” is completely different than any Wendla has sung in the past, and by the time we hit the gritty guitar riffs of “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise),” arranged to be a heavy rock song similar to Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” we transition completely into a different kind of experience.

Anything else that sets this Spring Awakening apart from previous productions?

I’m proud to say that there is no mimicry. I think a lot of groups that touch this show treat the material as a holy work and just try to replicate [original director] Michael Mayer’s vision. We are honoring the integrity of that work, but Kate Sullivan Gibbens has breathed new life into the staging because that’s what we deserve here in Los Angeles, something new, eye-opening, exciting … and not recycled.

So much of Spring Awakening’s teen angst is usually expressed in dance. Will there be any dancing in this concert staging?

There is movement, yes. As a rock concert, we can eliminate a lot of the stomping and choreography that are often borrowed from the Broadway production. But no musician would dare take the stage without a little bit of swagger.

Since this is a concert staging of Spring Awakening, having the strongest possible vocal talents must be of primary importance to you. How did you go about finding your leads and featured players?

Jamie and I have a background in motion pictures and TV, so we approached casting as we do in those industries, by making offers. We had very clear and distinct visions for these characters, their vocal types, and the sort of artist we’d want to fill the roles. So we scouted talent and found what we believe to be the best compilation of young artists, singers, and songwriters in Los Angeles.

Which casting choices came easiest to you?

 Kelley Jakle & Jonah Platt

Some pieces really fell into place. For Wendla, we had always had our eye on Kelley Jakle of NBC’S The Sing Off and the upcoming musical motion picture Pitch Perfect, and Jonah Platt was our first choice as Melchior. Others, like recording artists Anthony Starble or Olivia Noelle, were just incredible finds through our hands-on dive-bar, hipster musician research.

Were any of the roles particularly difficult to cast?

 Anthony Starble & Nathan Parrett

No question, the most difficult part to fill was Hanschen. He’s the character known for his icy arrogance, comfortable in his skin and sexuality, and we really wanted a performer that was true to that character to the core. After weeks of searching and nail biting, almost overnight, we stumbled upon Nathan Parrett, best known from the past season of NBC’s The Voice. He’s a perfect—okay, he’s not that icy or arrogant—and his performance as Hanschen is one for the books.

What about your creative team, including director Kate Sullivan Gibbens and musical director Michael Christopher Luebke? How did they come on board?

 Michael Christopher Luebke

I had met Kate a few years ago through Nathan Gardner, who’s helping us produce this show while touring with the company of Memphis. Kate is a UCLA playwriting MFA who most recently collaborated with Dustin Lance Black as research and co-writer for 8, the dramatization of the California Proposition 8 Trial which premiered as a staged reading on Broadway last fall followed by a star-studded reading in Los Angeles. There’s a lyric in the song “My Junk” (“I go up to my room, turn the stereo on, shoot up some you in the you of some song”) that is paramount to our presentation of this material. In other words, each song should be as if these kids are up in their bedroom, blaring their tunes and drowning out the world in the only way they know how: blaa blaa blaa blaa… After meeting with Kate, she said “I feel like these songs should play out as if each character is blasting their music in their ears from their iPods.” We hired her immediately.

Sounds positively serendipitous! And Michael?

Michael Luebke, or “Lube” as we call him, was actually our cellist from our 2009 workshop of bare: A Pop Opera. I was eager to work with him again in a producer capacity and am thrilled this is the project we get to share together. And let me tell you, he is a jack of all trades. Not only can he play every instrument imaginable—literally everything—but he is also the man responsible for recording, producing and arranging the Spring Awakening acoustic demos we have released on iTunes and YouTube.

As someone with an MBA in Marketing, how do you balance two such different fields of endeavor as business and performance?

It’s actually a very natural balance. I’m lucky to have the ability to work in an industry where I’m able to attend to both my artistic endeavors and business sense as a producer. It’s a very creative field, and knowing both sides of the coin is thrilling. Much of my background growing up as an artist was music—instruments and vocals—and theater was an interest that was born out of that love for music, and producing was a career that stemmed from that love for the art.

So this eventually led to glory|struck?

When I was finishing my MBA at Loyola Marymount, I wrote the business model for glory|struck and have been on the go ever since as both an artist and content creator. And every so often, there comes along great material like Spring Awakening that, no matter how busy your work day may be, if given the opportunity to be involved in any capacity you take it.

 Topher Rhys as Moritz

You’re going to be playing Moritz, the role that won John Gallagher Jr. the Tony award. What appeals to you most about Moritz and how do you go about making him your own creation?

My favorite song is “Vienna” by The Fray and the lyric “there’s really no way to reach me, ‘cause I’m already gone” resonates with me profoundly. To me that is Moritz … and what draws me to him. No matter how much he tries to understand, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot connect with those around him. He finds himself continuing to fall away until he’s lost completely. And it’s sad, but I’ve known people very close to me who are or were the same way, so it’s emotionally affirming to be able to step out onto that stage and tell a version of their story.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in bringing Spring Awakening In Concert to L.A.?

The biggest challenge has been as a producer, coordinating the agenda for over a dozen very talented, very busy, and actively working musicians and artists.

And the biggest reward?

The biggest reward has been, as an artist, seeing the media we create, our acoustic singles or our Love is Louder portfolio, so well received on the Internet. Fans of this show across the world are able to feel just as involved as our audience members we have here in Los Angeles. We have people flying in from across the country to see us. It’s incredible.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Spring Awakening In Concert?

That love is louder than sadness … or scars … or lies. And above all I just hope they have a good time. After all, it’s sex and rock and roll.

Spring Awakening In Concert opens July 20 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, through July 29.  Fridays and Saturdays at 9:00.  Sundays at 8:00.

Kelley Jakle | Wendla
Jonah Platt | Melchior
Topher Rhys | Moritz
Caitlin Ary | Ilse
Nathan Parrett | Hanschen
Olivia Noelle | Martha
Payson Lewis | Georg
Anthony Starble | Ernst
Jamie Lee Barnard | Anna
Jilli Marine | Thea
Michael Christopher Luebke | Otto
Alissa-Nicole Koblentz | Adult Women
Paul T. Brindley | Adult Men

Full cast photo:  Nicole Priest Photography
All other photos: Armen Asadorian


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