In the Grip of Spring FeverDate: 2 February 2009
It’s already been declared one of Broadway’s hottest rock musicals, and now Spring Awakening is opening in London with a British cast of young unknowns led by the creative team behind the original production. Michael Coveney catches a rehearsal to find out more about this story of teenage sexual awakening.
In a light-filled rehearsal room near High Street Kensington, the voluble, live-wire American director Michael Mayer is running a scene in a classroom where the boys are analysing a passage of Virgil in Latin. One boy has made an error and another stands up for him. The master wields a cane. The Latin chant segues into a defiant rock song.
Welcome to the time-warped world of Spring Awakening, a sensational new rock musical that scooped eight Tony Awards on Broadway last year and arrives on the London stage – having been mysteriously rejected by the National Theatre – at the Lyric Hammersmith this month. Mayer says that the National, when offered the show – which is based on a close translation of Frank Wedekind’s seminal 1891 German Expressionist play, seen at the NT in a version by Edward Bond in 1974 – considered it: a) not stage-worthy and b) too commercial. Wrong on both counts if “commercial” is a derogatory term here.
Third great rock musical
Spring Awakening is the third great American rock musical after Hair and Rent to give voice to a generation in the music they understand, and it’s better crafted than either of its predecessors. The signal emblem of the production is that of a perturbed boy with spiky hair in buttoned-up tunic and knickerbockers reaching into his inside pocket and pulling out a hand microphone.
Wedekind wrote his play from the viewpoint of the adolescents themselves, so the pounding, beautiful indie-rock score of Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) takes the stand-off between kids and grown-ups into a new dimension. But Spring Awakening is not just about schooldays: it’s about adolescent sex, unwanted pregnancy, parental disapproval, masturbation (the musical stage has its first-ever hand-job song for a hand-mic boy), repression, friendship, misery and teenage suicide. It’s the dark side of Grease. And it kicks.
Mayer – a bustling, curly-haired and versatile young veteran who has twice re-staged (very well) his own Broadway productions in London before: Jason Priestley and Edie Falco in Warren Leight’s Side Man in 2000 and Amanda Holden in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2005 – looks cool and collected in sweater, jeans and plimsolls on the rehearsal room floor. The area is arranged as the gym class where the entire show – with rock band, actors sitting around and the scenes themselves – takes place. He goads and chivvies his young charges, all unknowns, principals mixed in with understudies. He’s given the morning off to the two senior actors – Richard Cordery and Sian Thomas – who play all the adult roles.
Chasing the right cast
Tousle-haired Aneurin Barnard as Melchior, the errant Virgil parser, improvises a little snaffle, snore and “spring awake” that Mayer greets with a cry of “pure genius” before encouraging him not to overdo it. He’s shepherding these young actors through a minefield of behavioural gestures and nervous giggles that will erupt in big emotional turmoil later on. And he’s been choosing this cast for over a year. The two other leads are Charlotte Wakefield as Wendla, who is made pregnant by Melchior, and Iwan Rheon as the doomed Moritz, unable to cope with his own sexual awakening.
This particular scene doesn’t exist in the original play. It’s an invention by book writer Sater, who not only reads German and Italian but also Latin and Ancient Greek. Later, Sater tells me over the telephone from Los Angeles that he felt it was important to have a scene where the vulnerable boy really stood up for his friend. The songs, initially conceived as interior monologues, now break out into full theatrical numbers. And as for love, Sater knows a bit about that, too. He’s currently writing lyrics for his idol, Burt Bacharach.
“The process has been about not looking for young musical theatre performers,” continues Mayer on a break as we huddle over hot coffees on a cold afternoon. “A lot of those kids are too polished and sing in a way that would be really good for Hairspray but not for this, which demands something raw and unfinished in kids who are not yet people but confident enough to have their own voice. And they all have to look right together.”
So Mayer’s been back and forth with his musical director Kimberly Grigsby and his lead producer Tom Hulce (yes, that Tom Hulce who played Mozart in the Amadeus movie) seeing hundreds through auditions, running workshops, mixing and matching groups, all the time advised by British casting director Pippa Ailion, and seeking the right venue. “The Lyric is perfect: I love the modern context for a Victorian theatre; it’s a perfect reverse metaphor for the show, the new springing out of the old!”
A long & difficult sell
The British mission, though complicated, has been a stroll in the park compared to the history of getting the show done in the first place. “This was an unprecedentedly long and difficult sell,” Mayer explains. “There was a lot of resistance to how graphic it is. But that’s what the play’s about, and to be coy would be nonsensical. Our goal was never to be on Broadway. The Tonys were a miracle! We were just trying to do a little art piece. But even then, no one got it. Until Tom came along, and that led to us going to the Lincoln Center.”
Sater and Sheik – who pursue separate careers in film, theatre and the recording industry – met ten years ago. With Mayer, they hatched the plan of a musical Spring Awakening on a five-day workshop at La Jolla Playhouse in California. They ended up with ten scenes and eight songs. But Sater pinpoints the Columbine High School massacre of April 1999 as the real trigger. “When the horror died down, the issues of bullying and depression in the school initiated a nationwide debate about the pressures on teenagers that Spring Awakening raised 90 years earlier. All those years of the Bush government didn’t do much for people’s morale in education, or anywhere much.”
The show was stalled by other work commitments, then dropped from the Roundabout season in New York in 2002 during misery and cutbacks after 9/11. The Lincoln Center concert reading was three years later, followed by a final workshop at the little downtown Atlantic Theatre and an opening there. Critical acclaim led to an uptown move to the Eugene O’Neill on Broadway in December 2006. It closed there just a few weeks ago. Another production is touring cities in the US and a film version is also in development.
From shocker to mainstream
So, a century after its world premiere directed by Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1906, Wedekind’s shocker went mainstream. The first performance in Britain was at the Royal Court in 1963 as a club performance with Nicol Williamson in the cast (it was, of course, banned by the Lord Chamberlain), graduating to the main Court stage with Peter Gill as an assistant director.
Following the example of the Berliner Ensemble in the early 1970s, the RSC cast actors of exactly the right age in Tim Supple’s 1995 dream-like production of a superb new translation by Ted Hughes. The play blossomed with adolescent yearning, buoyed along by snippets of Mahler and tied into the rest of Wedekind’s extraordinary output by presenting young Ilse (played at the Lyric by Lucy Barker) as a Lulu before her time, reeking of brothels and artists’ studios.
Despite the play’s track record, it remains fairly unknown. But Mayer isn’t proselytising for Wedekind. “I didn’t think the play was the most interesting element of our experiment as much as the idea of messing around with the notion of how a musical can work. And that’s had a big impact. This is theatre music only because it happens in a theatre. And with that concept of the hand mic just coming out of the period costume, we went to town.”
Spring Awakening receives its UK premiere on 3 February 2009 (previews from 23 January) at the Lyric Hammersmith, where its limited season continues until 28 February. An abridged version of this article appears in the February issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out tomorrow in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!