Rape. Abortion. Child Abuse. Suicide. It’s not exactly the usual recipe for musical comedy success. However the 2006 Musical Adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s ‘Spring Awakening’ has been a resounding triumph upon every shore that it lands.
With an inspired alternate rock score by Duncan Sheik and a cutting-edge book by Steven Sater, ‘Spring Awakening ’ was heralded a revelatory success, racking up eight wins from an unprecedented eleven Tony Award nominations including Best Musical, Direction, Book and Score in a competitive year against such other proven shows as Mary Poppins, Grey Gardens and A Chorus Line. Several professional Australian Productions followed. Within five years of its original off-Broadway production, ‘Spring Awakening’ won eight Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, four Olivier awards, a Grammy award and has since been performed on Broadway, West End, and in countless continents world-wide including a professional season in Sydney in 2010 with the Sydney Theatre Company. Since its release for performance by amateur groups there has been a plethora of performances of this coming-of-age rock musical including Victorian performances in Ballarat, Geelong and several performances in Melbourne. So it might be a surprise to learn that such immediate global success with such a vast audience was in direct opposition to the reception of the original text.
‘Spring Awakening’ was the first play of German Playwright Franz Wedekind, a German satirist who is widely regarded as being a pivotal player in the creation of both German Expressionism and the growth of Epic Theatre. After years working for Maggi Soup and then as a Circus Administrator, Wedekind caused a scandal with his play “Frühlings Erwachen” (Spring Awakening), as he attacked the bourgeois society of the time with what was seen to be a play of a pornographic, illicit and downright disgraceful nature. A daring individual whose political satire landed him a nine-month stint in jail, Wedekind’s original manuscript was refuted due to its scenes of homoeroticism, group male masturbation, teenage sado-machism, rape, suicide and the gruesome details of failed abortion. Due to such themes Wedekind’s debut play was not produced until 1906, twenty-six years after it was first written. In fact, Wedekind had to start his own repertory company for his play to even reach an audience in Germany. It was first staged in English in 1917 in New York City, though was doomed to have a short-lived season as the city’s ‘Commissioner of Licenses’, whose job it was to personally vet each script before performance, deemed it to be of pornographic nature and hence unsuitable for the eyes of society. While Wedekind was able to get a Supreme Court Injunction against the closure, the damage had been done, the public was scared off and as such it was doomed to have a season of just one show.
While the audience which the playwright aimed to criticize were disinterested in the show, the poignancy of the issues Wedekind attacked have been proven relevant both in retrospect and to a modern day audience. The story of Spring Awakening paints a darkly satirical picture of teen angst, confused sexuality and innocence lost, all themes that are as relevant to the adolescents of 1890 as our current day. It is this sense of accessibility that helps constantly revive this masterful work in both its musical and original form. This may be due to the fact that much of the original text was said to be autobiographical in nature.
Of the original script Wedekind said, “I started to write without any sort of plan, merely aiming to set down whatever appealed to me. The plan emerged after the third scene and was compiled from my own personal experiences or the experiences of my classmates”. While there is no factual record of this in any of Wedekind’s diary entries, the reality of the themes he tackled are backed up by historical record of the time. For instance; throughout the late Nineteenth Century there was a marked increase in suicide among school children, one of the most shocking elements of both the play and the musical. In addition to this controversial theme, the play investigates the sexual education of adolescents.
One documented aim of Wedekind’s in writing his first play was to provide a sexual enlightenment to a group of adolescents who had been repressed by the authoritarian parental style of the day. This was made difficult by the frank sexuality and sexual experimentation depicted in Spring Awakening, as it immediately positioned it as an extremely controversial work and led to decades-long censorship. It can be argued that Wedekind was so confronting in his use of sexuality to provoke thought rather than shock viewers, however it was this explosive sexuality that hid his show from the audience he desired. This distinct lack of sexual education of the time can be seen in the rise in prevalence of abortion in teens throughout the late 19th century. Newspapers of the times were littered with advertisements for ‘female physicians’ specializing in ‘renovating pills for suppression or irregularity’. Tragically, the crudeness of such operations often had devastating effects, as dramatized by the tragic loss of Wendla Bergman in Spring Awakening.
It is these same themes that horrified Spring Awakening’s original audiences that now entice and intrigue our modern day crowds. While a greater level of understanding is held by a modern audience, both the characters and our contemporary theatre patrons are still sharing a mutual awakening as a result of the musical version of Wedekind’s text. Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater’s re-imagining of the scandalous play resonates through its hard hitting folkrock score and intimate settings. Not as much a sexual education as an historical reminder, Spring Awakening the musical clearly demonstrates the dangers of putting issues such as blossoming sexuality, homosexuality, suicide, and religion to the wayside while pursuing puritanical Victorian-era morality. Displacing the time period allows an audience to better judge and learn from the experiences of the lost teens and their parochial superiors. However it’s not all doom and gloom, as lighter moments are found in the musical version, particularly within Hanschen and Georg’s hidden fantasies or in Ilsa’s free bohemian joy.
However one clear determining factor in Spring Awakening’s blossoming popularity and accessibility is its score. Duncan Sheik created an inspired rock score ranging from pop-punk outbursts of frustration with ‘The Bitch of Living’, to the mellow folk infused seduction of ‘The Word of your Body’. The contemporary style of the music helps resonate to a younger ‘MTV Generation’ in a way music theatre had arguably failed to do since the 1996 premiere of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent. The contemporary score details the adolescent nature of the characters’ struggles and is a pivotal part of the success of this now Broadway smash hit. A key player in the rise of the rock musical on Broadway, Spring Awakening has helped reignite the popularity of the rock genre on the Big White Way, taking over where Rent left of as the first rock musical to win a Tony Award since 1996. Since its 2007 season Broadway has been overtaken by the popularity of such musicals as Passing Strange, Next to Normal , American Idiot, Spiderman Turn off the Dark and Rock of Ages, as a new age of musical dominance is dawning. John Pareles of The New York Times recently stated that "rock has been transformed from nemesis to novelty to mainstay. … Broadway productions can’t match the visceral impact – starting with volume – of a rock concert”. It is this visceral impact of the music of Spring Awakening that has made it such a success in all aspects of our theatre communities, in particular the up and coming theatre performers graduating each year from the plethora of music theatre courses around Australia.
It is interesting to note that that of two of the most important musicals to talk to younger generations of the last two decades, Rent and Spring Awakening, both draw from texts written in the nineteenth century. Where Jonathan Larson’s reimagining of La Boheme was entirely updated to the 1990s of New York City, Spring Awakening remains trapped in the 1890s. This provides a dynamic and intriguing clash between the classic visual design of the show and its hard-hitting contemporary music. The style of the music perfectly encapsulates the angst and lust of the characters, while the visual design – simple in palate yet period in style – reminds us that these are not by any means new problems being discussed, since they predate even the original text, which is now over one hundred and twenty years old.
The journey of Spring Awakening is by no means over yet, as there is an upcoming film adaptation of the Tony Award winning musical. Lyricist Steven Sater told playbill.com that production for the film, rumoured to be directed by McG (Terminator Salvation, Charlie’s Angels), could begin production in Europe soon, since "We need a lot of exteriors. We're going to shoot this on location either in Germany, Hungary… Budapest or Prague." Sater has penned the screenplay for the film and helped write a new song with original composer Duncan Sheik. "While it remains a faithful translation of the stage play, I've been able to do things story-wise that I really wasn't able to do on stage," Sater said. "I think people will be genuinely excited about the way we're handling the movie." There has been much interest in the production with Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone Films announcing they will be producing the film. Music theatre fans around the globe will anticipate this next release in what has been a smorgasbord of movie-musicals released of late, including Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Sweeney Todd.
So while rape, abortion and child abuse may seem like a weird musical concoction, take a chance on Spring Awakening. Whether it be at your local library, an amateur production or even possibly a movie cinema near you, give this classic text the chance and find out what is stirring this spring.