Now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway
As I watched Spring Awakening with growing impatience, I wondered: Would I have enjoyed this more, say, ten years ago when I was seventeen, angst-ridden, melodramatic, and overwhelmed by the enormity of the world around me? My inclination is to say no, I was just as unforgiving of flat, clichéd characters and self-important, overwrought plotting then as I am now, but perhaps I am wrong. Maybe I am so old as to start grumbling about kids these days. Damn.
But really, honest to god, there is a lot to grumble about in Spring Awakening. The music, particularly the orchestration, is beautiful, and the young performers are clearly quite talented, but the writing—wildly overripe and ludicrously underdeveloped—just made me cringe.
Spring Awakening is based upon an early work of nineteenth-century German playwright Frank Wedekind. I have no idea how closely this contemporary musical hews to Wedekind’s drama, but it definitely feels like the tortured hyperromanticism of nineteenth-century Germany, which, at its worst, lionizes adolescent angst, romanticizes suicide and death, and indulges in self-satisfied, stagnant disenchantment.
Steven Sater’s adaptation of the play preserves the setting—a provincial German town of the 1800s—and follows about a dozen bourgeois teenagers, among them a Brilliant, Philosophy-Reading Rebel (stereotype #1); a Naive, Vulnerable Waif (stereotype #2); a Boy Who Can’t Live Up to His Father’s Expectations (stereotype #3); a Girl Whose Father Abuses Her (stereotype #4); and other neatly pigeonholed adolescents. Of course, when dealing with older works, one has to be careful about labeling stereotypes—sometimes those stereotypes didn’t exist when it first came into being—so let me elaborate on this point. The problem is not that Melchoir is a Brilliant, Philosophy-Reading Rebel, but that such a pithy phrase encompasses him completely, from the beginning of the musical to the end. He doesn’t grow, he doesn’t change, he doesn’t learn anything (why should he, as he’s already an authority on everything)—he’s boring.
I suspect that Spring Awakening might have worked better, might have achieved some kind of depth, if it had focused on a few characters instead of careening madly among so many, glibly equating all their anxieties, be they sexual or theological or familial, into a facile, parents-(and-teachers-and-priests)- just-don’t-understand glop. Messy and unfocused, Sater’s book drops some characters and then thrusts others forward without giving us much indication of who they are. Every scene possesses the same panting earnestness—except, strangely, a scene of homosexual seduction, played for laughs with a series of leering double entrendres. The contrast and its implications are jarring.
But for every line that made me wince, there was a musical moment that made me beam. Composer Duncan Sheik, best known for the quiet mid-’90s pop hit “Barely Breathing,” has written a passionate score, the kind that manages to sound both emotionally raw and aesthetically polished. So many Broadway ballads are interchangeable, but those in Spring Awakening, particularly the opening “Mother Who Bore Me,” feel newly conceived and fervid. The up-tempo numbers, too, are convincingly contemporary, not embarrassing pseudo-rock. Driving rhythms and striking ornamentations make songs such as “Don’t Do Sadness” and “The Bitch of Living” fiery and exciting.
Much of the credit for that must go to Annmarie Milazzo, who arranged the vocals, and Simon Hale, who arranged the instruments, featuring cello, violin, and viola in addition to guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. In quieter moments Hale nearly always avoids creating a mush of strings and synth with tenderly spare instrumentation, and when Sheik cranks up the volume and the tempo, Hale follows suit with deliciously crunchy guitar chords.
The young singers, almost all of whom are in their late teens or early to mid-twenties, varied in vocal power. A few went thin or slightly flat on their high notes, but each one sang with fearless intensity and touching expressivity. If they couldn’t quite sell some of the more trite, blundering turns of phrase, it wasn’t for lack of commitment to the music. Indeed, the sheer earnestness, the sense that these performers were throwing every shred of their soul into the performance, made the music compelling, even when the musical itself was not.
I don’t think it’s a bad musical, exactly, and I agree with its message that trying to keep teenagers ignorant of their own sexuality is reckless and cruel. But even though I’m part of the choir to which it’s preaching, I resented the ham-handed, simplistic sermon. If Sater’s book had shared the delicacy of Sheik’s music, I might have felt differently, but as it was, I spent much of the musical wanting to shout, “Grow the hell up! Or at least grow a real personality.”