Frank Wedenkind’s original German play broke plenty of ground indeed with its depiction of on-and/or-offstage masturbation, child abuse, bondage, rape, abortion, and suicide among 14-year-olds just now awakening to their sexuality. No wonder Wedenkind’s late nineteenth-century shocker wasn’t staged on Broadway until 1916 and ended up closing after a single performance.
Spring Awakening (The Musical) follows Wedekind’s basic plot threads, though thankfully not too much to the letter, the original drama proving stilted in translation and often perplexing in its storytelling.
There are its two teen heroes, the handsome, popular, self-confident Melchior and his introverted, inhibited, wet-dream-plagued classmate Moritz, and its heroine, the all-too-innocent but no less sexually inquisitive girl-next-door Wendla. There are also Melchior and Moritz’s ever-horny classmates and Wendla’s equally randy girlfriends. A pair of older actors stand in for all the adults in these teens’ lives.
What made Spring Awakening work so brilliantly on Broadway was not just Sater’s streamlining of Wedekind’s melodramatic storylines. Singer-songwriter-pop star Sheik’s catchy alternative rock score, the likes of which has probably never before been heard on a Broadway stage, and Bill T. Jones’ brilliantly innovative choreography together turned Spring Awakening into a mainstream (and cult) international phenomenon.
The show begins quietly, with sexually burgeoning Wendla wondering if she’ll ever be told the truth about man-woman relations in “Mama Who Bore Me,” followed by a very funny sequence in which her highly embarrassed mother avoids the question entirely, an omission which proves ultimately disastrous. The song then takes on a rock beat as Wendla’s girlfriends join her in a reprise, leading us to Melchior and Moritz in Latin class, the former attempting to rescue the latter from the ire of their monster of a teacher when the burning need to express what’s going on inside their minds and bodies suddenly erupts into the first rock concert chords of “The Bitch Of Living.”
Other Spring Awakening showstoppers include “Totally Fucked,” whose stomps and back kicks and leaps and jumps not only helped win cutting-edge choreographer Jones the Tony, they depict in dance every adolescent urge just bursting to break free. Later, Act Two’s “Totally Fucked” has the entire cast contorting as if their sexual wants and their dissatisfaction with the world around them were ants crawling all over their bodies and driving them insane with desire, anger, and frustration.
Spring Awakening’s quieter moments feature some of Sheik and lyricist Sater’s most memorable compositions. The Pink Floyd-esque “Touch Me,” in which the youthful cast of characters express their desire for intimate physical contact; the anthem-like “I Believe,” which sets the stage for Melchior and Wendla’s lovemaking; and the exquisitely sad “Left Behind,” sung at a funeral for one of the teens are just three among many such songs.
Without these musical numbers, Spring Awakening would simply be an abbreviated version of the play I saw prior to the musical, albeit skillfully abridged by book-writer Sater. With them, it becomes something extraordinary, in which contemporary music makes the struggles of nineteenth-century adolescents seem every bit as relevant to today’s teens as the ones they face on a daily basis, as if twenty-first century souls were inhabiting these long-deceased youths. Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz may have been born in the 1870s, but their dilemmas (like the consequences of Wendla’s insufficient sexual education) still ring true in 2014.