|AWAKENING TO POSSIBILITY
by Harvey Perr
now playing on Broadway
at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre
The musical is arguably the popular art form that Americans can most claim as their very own private property. The plethora of revivals of the most honored examples of that tradition attest to that fact. But the legend has gone the sloppy way of indolence and indifference in recent years. What we have sorely needed is a work that reinvents the musical; that demands we shift our consideration of what a musical is; that finds a language which places itself in the times in which we live.
“Spring Awakening,” in its incarnation at the Atlantic Theater Company last summer, at least breathed fresh air into the species and, even if we were more stunned by its potential than its achievement, we sensed that something was stirring; that the combination of a fresh score, a young cast bursting with talent and energy, and swift and intelligent staging, was reason enough to consider it last season’s best new musical. In its move to Broadway, it is now this season’s best musical, but it is infinitely more than that too. It has become, in the transference, a revolutionary work for the American musical theatre, a work that redefines what a musical can be, that brings us right up to the present moment and leads us toward the future. It does what “Oklahoma!” once did; what “West Side Story” did. It awakens us to possibility.
And the artists involved, who could have pumped up the adolescent sexuality to make it more palatable to Broadway audiences, have instead refined, distilled, and brought to almost tragic dimensions its subtlest values. And, if the production’s tightness has resulted in a loss of remembered spontaneity, it glows with a new depth and maturity, and, above all, an integrity that has become all too rare in contemporary theatre.
There is first of all Duncan Sheik’s startling and haunting score. Without a trace of Sondheim, without the ersatz rock of shows like “Rent,” without a devotion to nostalgic pastiche, Sheik has found a vivid and totally theatrical voice rooted in rock but abloom with fresh expressiveness. Steven Sater, in his book, is faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Frank Wedekind’s classic play of sexual yearning among the stiffly raised, frustratingly repressed teenagers of late 19th century Germany. And yet, in his lyrics, he finds the absolutely right balance between Wedekind’s formality and Sheik’s musical adventurousness. And with these basic elements in place, Michael Mayer, the director, has brought an articulation of gesture, which informs us that, while the emotional angst belongs to another time, it is also timeless and universal. And his method shows up almost immediately in that brilliant moment when our hero, Melchior, upright and uptight in his constrained costume, suddenly takes from his inside pocket a microphone and starts to sing. In a split second, we move from one era to our own, and the creative connections come into place. It is as if underneath our learned implosive behavior, there is an explosion ready to happen. And isn’t that what rock and roll is really about?
And that is what Wedekind’s play has always been about. The young people here, aching with unspoken desires, try to find some balance between the disciplined world they must adjust to and the unruly feelings which keep them from finding a comfortable place within those disciplines. On one side, there are the teachers, rigid and unyielding, and the parents, concerned but fearful of any moral transgression, all of whom are played with many variations on the human scale by Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, representing both order and the gripping condescension that walks hand in hand with order, in an almost perfectly balanced mix of satire and humanist understanding (another master stroke of Mayer’s directorial approach). And on the other side, burning with innocent emotion and yet perilously close to either madness or becoming just slightly less corseted versions of their own parents, there are the teenagers themselves. There isn’t a single weakly defined character among them, and better still, there is not a weak member of the ensemble, so that each of them etches himself or herself into our memory. Naturally, the focus must be on the three or four characters who represent most sharply the range of confusions that beset them.
John Gallagher, Jr.’s shock-headed Moritz is all nerve ends and jangling despair. Jonathan B. Wright‘s Hanschen, who understands that, at that moment in time (and a refreshing insight it is), homosexuality was a valid option, is pure limpid assurance. Jonathan Groff‘s tender-hearted Melchior finds great strength even in his uncertainty. Lea Michele’s warm and frightened Wendla is heartbreak on the hoof. They are all acted and sung with a power and beauty –and humor- that makes one ache with compassion for them. Bill T. Jones’s choreography is nuanced movement that erupts with the swell of tension in the splendid dance that accompanies “Totally Fucked.” And Kevin Adams’s lighting gorgeously illuminates the behavioral ups and downs of the characters, muted one moment and blazing with color the next.
“Spring Awakening” fuses all the elements – practical and magical – that go into the creation of a work of theatrical art. No serious theater-goer can afford to miss it; however, it is recommended to everyone else as well.