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Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik: Spring Awakening is about the isolation of being young – that speaks louder now

The pair reflect on 15 years of the hit musical

Spring Awakening company members
© Alessio Bolzoni, concept by Emilie Chen

I'm on Zoom, staring at half of Spring Awakening's writing team. "I'm sure Duncan will be here soon," London hotel-based writer and lyricist Steven Sater tells me, "but we can carry on."

We do – and I deep-dive headfirst into a lengthy chat about one of the most revered new musicals of the 21st century. Based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the piece had a gradual conception, with seven-years' worth of workshops, concert stagings and more before it finally premiered off-Broadway in 2006, making the leap to the Great White Way that same year.

It sailed onto UK shores a few years later, opening at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2009 with Broadway director Michael Mayer again at the helm, where it was described as "an absolute must-see and by far the best new musical in London for ages". Big words, but they were followed by big prizes – four Oliviers, though a cruelly short West End run. A WhatsOnStage Award-winning Manchester run also saw the show get some UK-based love.

But now a new production has found its feet in north London, with the Almeida's artistic director Rupert Goold calling the shots. Sater admits that Goold has been waiting for this moment for a while: "when the show had its press night at the Lyric Hammersmith, I was a few rows down from Rupert...and since then, we've been talking about doing it for years. We held the show back for him so we could work on it together. Then it got delayed – it was meant to run in May/June 2020."

The intimacy of the Almeida is a snug fit, Sater explains: "It takes me back to my memories working on the show at the Atlantic (the 199-seat Off-Broadway venue), I've loved the venue for years and years – I've seen multiple things there multiple times. I was up in the circle and it felt so spectacular – you're so close to the performers. There are changes to text here that I would never have made with anyone else.


So this isn't a Spring Awakening anyone will have heard before – with the inclusion of "There Once Was a Pirate", a number cut during the original workshops but now pushing out "The Guilty Ones" to open act two. Sater gets emotional as he explains: "It's a haunting lament, a choral number. We originally wrote the lyric as far back as 2000. Rupert loves the idea of these star-crossed lovers – Wendla and Melchior – there's something doomed yet redemptive about their love.

"'The Guilty Ones' is all about embracing your body, but we're looking at the show in a very different way here. While I've rewritten the lyrics a bit for it, but there's a metaphor about a pirate and the mate. All about a voyage, and a premonition. It's a full company number with some incredible choreography from Lynn Page." 

I say it reminded me a bit of the clips where McCartney and Lennon go back and salvage old material for their "Get Back" concerts. At that moment, Sheik appears – he's still in the US for his daughter's birthday, ahead of a flight to London. He said he loved The Beatles documentary – saying how odd it is that that was filmed the year before he was born.

Sheik reflects on the evolution of the show: "I have a long relationship with Rupert (the pair worked together on American Psycho) – I'm always blown away by his imagination and the deftness of his intellect."

We alight on Shakespeare – Spring Awakening's form quite naturally having something in common with the Bard's text. "The songs function as the subtext to the text. That was what Duncan and I had as one of our original ideas – these songs are interior monologues. It was always something of an intimate thing. We were more worried if it'd work on a larger scale. Though it seems to scale up alright!"

Duncan Sheik (Music) and Steven Sater (Book and Lyrics) at the 2009 opening of Spring Awakening at the Lyric Hammersmith
© Dan Wooller

The UK cast are a blend of new faces, making professional debuts, and rising stars – like Laurie Kynaston or Amara Okereke. Sater waxes lyrical: "This is a stunning cast, from all over the UK. I can't say enough about them. They bring their regions with them. They are almost all Gen Z – some were even having to finish their drama degrees over Zoom last summer. Spring Awakening is about the isolation of being young, being misunderstood – and after the last two years, that speaks even louder."

When Spring Awakening was first released, it was sensationally original – but with a whole generation (including cast members in the Almeida production) growing up now with the material, how does it feel to Sheik that the show might be sliding into orthodoxy? "That's fascinating – I've never really thought about it like that. In a way it's a bit annoying – you always want to be the new thing!" But to become something timeless and iconic, I point out, is pretty great at the same time.