An Actorly Spring Awakening at Towson

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An Actorly Spring Awakening at Towson

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com on April 28, 2013

When I first saw Spring Awakening in 2007, I walked out of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York almost quivering. I knew I had just seen something so exciting and innovative it deserved the overused characterization of important. I fell asleep in my hotel room with the freshly-purchased CD playing on my laptop. I could hardly play anything else for a few days. Though it won the Tony for Best Musical, the show did not actually stick around Broadway that long – about 900 performances. That was followed by a national tour or two.

During that spell in which the show was a strictly professional production, a strange situation prevailed. Spring Awakening is all about youth, and the cast is overwhelmingly comprised of youngsters. But the audiences skewed old, because people my age tend to be the ones with the cash to buy tickets to professional performances. But about a year ago, the show started being made available to non-professional companies, and over the last year there have been at least four different productions in Maryland alone. Spring Awakening has come to the masses. Finally youth can afford to see a show so profoundly about them.

Finally The Right Audience

I wondered what that concatenation of subject and audience would look like.  Last night, courtesy of the Towson University theater program, I found out. This was an undergraduate house, clearly, and they were rapt and engaged. Yet it was a knowing engagement. By that, I do not mean that the kids came in knowing the tunes and humming along, in fact it was obvious from the laughs and the gasps when funny or shocking things occurred that a large part of the contingent on hand had no idea what was coming. Nor do I mean that there were intense conversations about the show during the break, because so far as I could see there weren’t. What I mean is, the viewers got it, they understood it on both intellectual and instinctive levels, agreed and approved; in a sense, that accounts for the absence of intense lobby conversations during the break. But the raucous curtain calls demonstrated the engagement and approval of the audience. And the identification.

Different Issues

But having used the word identification, I must immediately report as well that to my mind the program notes may not have got the significance of the play for young viewers quite right. Those notes, some of the most extensive and interesting dramaturgy I’ve come across in any college production (and they rate a tip of the hat for that) nonetheless seem to argue rather too strenuously for the contemporariness of the issues. In one of the essays, director Joseph Ritsch heroically makes this case, speaking of the continued fights in this era for gay equality and the availability of contraception, and of the continuing risk of HIV infection for young Americans, and the high rate of suicide among gay teens. But these are mostly issues parallel to the ones the German youth of 1891 faced in the source material, Franz Wedekind’s play Spring’s Awakening, and in the modern musical; they are not the same. For instance, the suicide in the show does not seem to be about sexual orientation, but instead is a reaction to unmet social and familial pressures to succeed academically. We still struggle with sexual abuse of children by predatory adults, but it’s no longer a secret that it occurs, and it’s not an issue as to which there are two sides within the realm of respectable opinion. Crucially, the kids in the audience are the children or grandchildren of the generation that fought and won the Sexual Revolution. Only a few of them, but surely not many, grew up in households that expected them to have no sex lives, which seems to be what Wedekind and his successors depict the parents and teachers in the play as doing. And what Wedekind clearly saw as an underlying issue, the struggle to humanize a bourgeois society, to the extent it is not deemed passé altogether, is in a very different phase.

In short, the world of Spring Awakening is more different from the one last night’s audience inhabits than it is similar, and I don’t think the grip the show exerted on the audience was owing to a similarity of issues. Rather, I think it owed to the similarity of experience and the music.

Same Experience

And again, by similarity of experience, I am not talking about being up against the brutal parental repression or shame. For instance, Wendla, the young heroine, becomes pregnant; we still have a lot of debates about unwed teen motherhood, but there aren’t many young women these days being hustled by their mothers into unsafe back alley abortions (as happens to Wendla) because their mothers are so afraid of being ostracized. Shame about a daughter’s premarital sexuality and pregnancy might have been issues once but are not generally for this generation. Rather, I am speaking of the experience of being young and discovering sex. It is that simple, and on that level, Spring Awakening works profoundly well.

And here, at last, is the opportunity to discuss this particular production. These young performers give the distinct impression of having been much more thoroughly trained as actors than as singers. This is especially true for the two leads, Wendla (Bridget Linsenmeyer) and Melchior (Nick Fruit). As singers, they each showed distinct problems with controlling their pitch, and not merely at the upper end of the register. But as actors they were superb, especially Linsenmeyer. Wendla’s path into sexuality is a spanking fixation, and the beginning of the sexual encounters between Wendla and Melchior begins with her asking Melchior to beat her with a stick, a sensitive and scary thing to do, as indeed is almost any sexual overture for those without prior experience, but a request of this sort even more so than most. I have now seen a number of Wendlas making that request, but none venturing into it so feelingly, persistently, and bravely as Linsenmeyer’s Wendla. And Melchior’s reaction, first confused and then suddenly not merely confused but also turned on, seems grippingly real. Likewise, when Wendla’s friend Martha (Ines Nassara) sings of THE DARK I KNOW WELL, namely sexual abuse by her father, aided and abetted by her mother, though all the notes are hit correctly, the song is more acted than sung, and very convincingly. (Although someone had better tell young actresses that even after Anne Hathaway, you don’t have to sob through every song.)

Of course none of this works without tremendous honesty, which Wedekind’s play and Steven Sater’s book both exhibit. Wedekind, of course, showed the greater audacity: masturbation, homosexuality, rape, pregnancy, and abortion among teenagers were things that one simply did not write about then. All of these things are acceptable to write about in Sater’s era (masturbation jokes seem to be a staple of sitcoms, for example). Still, Wedekind and Sater don’t merely go there; they get it right. And in this actorly version, that comes through especially.

Joyously Angry

And, lest it be forgotten, this show is not just about sex, but about another universal a young audience will recognize and respond to: the rebellion of youth against age. Here, (as has been the case since the days of Plautus and Molière) realism is not always called for but comedy is. All the adults are portrayed by two actors, here Billy McHattie and Jenna K. Rossman, and most of the roles are portrayed in broadly comic, ogreish strokes. As schoolmaster and assistant, for example, they actually break out into villainish bwa-ha-has as they contemplate their villainy toward Moritz (Montel Butler), the youngster who in due course will take his own life because of their oppression. And on the other side of the coin, the resulting anger and disgust of the youngsters at their elders is given enormous play, especially in the showstopper, TOTALLY FUCKED, which in this production was actually the curtain call number, to the great enjoyment of the audience, which clapped along. There never has been a song in any musical I can think of that has been such a joyous expression of anger and contempt.

And this brings me back to the music, which is the other reason the show is so right for youngsters. You can call Duncan Sheik’s music rock (and other critics have done that), but I’m unhappy with that label. The orchestra does include a standard rock band combo (keyboards, drums, guitars, and bass), but also a string trio and a separate piano. Much of the score is deliberately discordant, owing far more to Leoš Janáček than to Buddy Holly. Still, the rock label was deliberately courted in the original production, which had many of the characters grabbing mics or even microphone stands, rock style, when delivering their songs. This production wisely eschews those props. But whatever you call the style, the songs are gripping, and wistful, and angry, and at times they break your heart.

Tweets

Lyrically speaking, the songs are also completely modern in idiom. No effort is made to keep them, either in phrasing or in frame of reference, applicable to early Industrial Revolution Germany. To the contrary, they are the stuff of contemporary Tweets: “May not be cool but it’s so where I live.” “Bobby Maler, he’s the best …/ Looks so nasty in those khakis.” Und so weiter. Musically irresistible songs, couched in Tweet idiom: what’s for a young audience not to like?

As I have already intimated, in this production, the singing tended not to be up to the quality of the acting, although certainly one exception was Shannon Graham as Ilse, the “throwaway child” who has taken to a precarious if exciting existence with a commune of artists (a sort of precursor of Mimi in either La Bohème or Rent); Graham does full justice to BLUE WIND. There were also technical glitches with the sound system, which threatened to slide into feedback at some points and left actors effectively speechless at others. And the choice was made here, unlike most productions, to take the orchestra off the stage, which robbed the interplay between musicians and singers of a slight degree of spontaneity, also made it easier for the musicians to drown out the singers at some points. So for those who were receiving their first exposure to Spring Awakening, it would be wise to take in a different production to get the full sound of the show. But the ensemble numbers generally went off beautifully.

The Song That Must Be Right

And of course the acid test of any production of the show is the most important ensemble number, THE SONG OF PURPLE SUMMER, the stunner of an anthem that ends the show. I’ve always felt that that song, a celebration of the inevitable triumph of the natural order over the sadness that life can engender, should really have capped a different show. (This is a show about the beginning of the spring of life, not its summer; the sadness of life has been pretty overpowering, what with the deaths of Wendla and Moritz; and if this is a way of saying that Melchior will succeed in carrying on the life force and the hope of his fallen friends, it’s an unearned reassurance, since all we’ve seen leading up to it is Melchior resolving to do so.) But it’s pointless to carp, as this melange of undecipherably lovely chords and heartfelt relief would be the perfect end to any evening of musical theater, even West Side Story. Illogical as is its placement here, I look forward to it every time. And this one went off without a hitch.

Spring Awakening is not for the faint of heart – I’m speaking of the hearts of those who produce it. The show turns out to be a heavy lift. Towson may not have pulled off a technically perfect rendition, but the superior acting made the imperfections matter less, and the palpable gratitude of the audience was clearly earned. And we can all rejoice that this show is finally reaching its most appropriate audiences.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for artwork

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