In the wake of the 2008 presidential election top right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh and soon-to-be Fox commentator Sarah Palin set to work on initiative to weed out Republicans that were too moderate. Faced with the reality of a landslide defeat, they were determined to achieve power through a ideological coup within the Republican Party that would stamp out any right-winger whose wings did not measure up to their criteria.
Palin and Limbaugh operated under the belief that the best way to ensure the future of the party was to show the public a Republican party in total solidarity. Differing opinions could be seen as a sign of weakness; the reds needed to regain power by eliminating the need to ask questions. What’s the only way to maintain a regime like this? Eliminate dissent.
Frank Wedekind’s original play, on which the new musical version of Spring Awakening is based, also takes place in a society where moral and political control is taken by force. Though Wedekind’s play is technically slightly ahead of the highly political Epic Theater movement, which began in late 19th century Germany, but still employs many of the same devices to boldly attack the corruption of the status quo. The Epic theater movement was about making the audience aware that they were watching a play and furthermore, making the audience aware that the play was a blatant, zany criticism of current events ironically embedded in a historical plot.
Wedekind’s timeless subject matter is a mantra for progressive thought. Like the ambiguity of Shakespeare, the script is designed to be a flexible social tool, but composer Duncan Sheik and author Steven Sater focus more on a modernization of Wedekind’s structure, rather than specifying their dissent.
The end result is an exaggerated expressionist-style score. The songs are more like ballads of the psyche, much less literal than more traditional musical composition. Sheik and Slater are not trying to whisk you away from the pangs of living, but instead are trying to remind you that you hurt and drive you to aggression. If you’re not fired up at the end of this show, you weren’t paying attention.
The plot begins with the young Wendla Bergmann(Elizabeth Judd) asking her mother where babies come from, Wendla’s mother is terrified by the idea of her child losing her innocence and tells her daughter only that a man and women must be married and “love each other with all their hearts” to have a child. Later we find that the other children at Wendla’s school know little to nothing about sex either and develop varying odd behaviors as a result. Moritz Stiefel(Coby Getzug), is a nervous insomniac because he fears the sensual dreams that await him when he falls asleep. He seeks help from long-time friend Melchior Gabor(Christopher Wood), who has learned about sex through reading books. Eventually the children’s naiveté leads to awkward and damaging sexual and intellectual manifestations, when the brunt of this injustice falls down on Melchior, he is then resolved to do what he can to free the future generation from the damaging status quo.
The subject matter of Spring Awakening has long been controversial. Wedekind, who was notorious for scandalous drama, tells his story of sexual angst through teenage characters, using masturbation, rape, and child abuse to shed light on the flaws in bourgeoisie. Sheik and Sater dilute the most controversial scene in the play, which does change the relationship dynamic of the two main characters Wendla and Melchior and brings about a safer, more main-stream-friendly alternative. I’m not one for spoilers though, if you want to know what I’m referring to, you’ll have to read or see for yourself.
Wedekind’s choice to use children to tell this tale of totalitarian absurdity is poignant to the point of being jarring. And where the script doesn’t jar, the direction in Sheik and Sater’s deconstruction certainly does. The songs, which are inserted in abrupt chunks inside the original script, add new dimension to the piece. A quick light change or snatching of a hand-held microphone clearly defines the contrast between the characters’ realities and their suppressed fantasies. This device mixed with the musical style gives the piece a distinctly modern feel.
I found Sheik’s pop compositional style to be muddled and distracting, but Sater’s lyrics saved the message. The two did win a Tony for best musical score and a Grammy for best musical show album, so perhaps it is a matter of taste. I would encourage you to go and decide for yourself.