That the playwright, actor, cabaret performer, and satirist Frank Wedekind ran afoul of the authorities in Wilhelmine, Germany is hardly surprising. A sexual athlete who seems to have kept his fascination with homosexuality and sadism quelled through abundant consultations with prostitutes and by marriage to a much younger and amorously demanding wife, Wedekind found his most fruitful therapy where many have found it before and since: the theatre. Thus Wedekind’s first major play, Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) of 1891, grapples with the hormones, emotions and urges of teenagers as they run up against the repressive structures of church, school, and family. In the play Wedekind depicts: teen sex; teen pregnancy and abortion; masturbation; group masturbation; homosexuality; and teen suicide.
Censors deployed the same repressive apparatus of state that was the extension of the mechanics of control Wedekind confronted in the play itself. Little wonder, then, that the play was premiered some fifteen years after its composition. That first performance of 1906 irace in debauched Berlin rather than staid Munich, where Wedekind spent most of his career, one cut short at the age of 53 in 1918. The playwright’s death came not in the trenches of from World War I but in the aftermath of a botched hernia operation that he had insisted on having soon after an appendectomy, so as to get back out on the boards. Drama was his addiction, and in the end he overdosed on it.
When staged in the century-and-some since it was written, Spring Awakening has often been bowdlerized: a fatal irony for this profound and restive work.
Mystics and Romantics—of which Wedekind was decidedly not one—might suggest that the peculiar and powerful astrology of his artistic course was fixed in the stars when he was conceived in San Francisco, nine months before his birth in Hanover, Germany. Wedekind travelled on his American passport until the outbreak of World War I, but rather than welcome his work, most of his one-time American compatriots were offended by it. The 1917 production of Spring Awakening mounted in New York was allowed but a single matinee performance for a restricted audience only after a court injunction thwarted the city’s attempt to repulse the invading German play on moral grounds. The next American production happened at last in 1955 in the same-sex haven of Provincetown.
Given the play’s history, not to mention its setting in a nineteenth-century Germany seemingly irrelevant to most modern Americans willing to shell out hundreds for a ticket to a Broadway show, the project of transforming Wedekind’s drama into an American musical by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater is as unlikely as it is impressive. The pair workshopped their creation through the 1990s, until the eventual premiere of the musical in 2006.
The dark desires and social violence of Wedekind’s adolescent drama was a long way from the usual Broadway fare, even if you suspect that pederasty lurks in the off-stage shadows of durable hits like Oliver! and Annie. Since at least the 1990s and Rent, taboos have been big business on the Great White Way, thus helping the public to acquire a taste for the gripping and grotesque drama of Spring Awakening. But such economic viability doesn’t make the Sheik-Sater creation any less brave. This is quality stuff and, as much as industry hype can ever be a valid measure of artistic merit, it was certainly right that Spring Awakening raked in eight of the 2007 Tony Awards, including that for Best Musical. A Spring Awakening film is in the works, though seemingly faltering, and a major Broadway revival is planned for this fall.
Amidst these Spring re-Awakenings a production of the musical is now in the midst of a two-week run at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, whose summer slate of plays is well stocked with national and local talent, testament to the large numbers of excellent actors willing to bring their highly-trained talents to provincial theatres across this country. Each season the Hangar’s offerings include a musical, which can draw much of its personnel from the outstanding musical theatre program at Ithaca College. Given the proximity of this talent pool, Spring Awakening, with its dozen roles for young men and women playing still younger teens, is a wise programming choice. In this production locals mingled with visitors, and all gave fine individual performances. Together, the ensemble’s energy ensured that the sum of these parts was greater than the tragic whole.
The central aesthetic premise of this re-imagining of Wedekind’s play in musical form is that rock ‘n roll is the music of rage. These expressions of discontent stand in volatile contrast to the stilted nature of the character’s nineteenth-century speech patterns, even when uttered by teenagers beset by the urges that adult authority refuses to discuss or to recognize. The bewildered effusions of these adolescent songs, ranging from the volcanic to the uncannily serene, are where the character’s true struggles take shape.
We open therefore with young and innocent Wendla begging her austere mother to tell her how babies are made. After much pleading from the daughter, mom can only say that they result from love. This corseted nonsense spawns the initially tender reflections of the opening song, Wendla’s “Mama Who Bore Me,” she who, as the lyric continues in modernized diction backed by folksy broken chords from the guitar : “gave me / No way to handle things / Who made me so sad.”
After these poised reflections, sung with pure intonation and disarming honesty by the excellent Kelsey Lake, Wendla’s girlish cohort transforms the text to an angry manifesto above only a lashing percussion—like sonic corporal punishment—heightening the a cappella anger of their generational distemper. The girls draw microphones from beneath their still-chaste skirts or from stashes in the minimal set, and sing into them as if they were weapons, all the while stamping out their choreographed fury.
Similarly, the doomed Moritz, a brilliant student plagued by sexual fantasies, has as his first song “The Bitch of Living,” a teen rant spurred on by incessant quasi-punk chords and abetted by the chants of his schoolmates in their gray suits, short trousers, and cravats. These young scholars also break out the mikes, singing while taking out their physical aggressions on the chairs arrayed in the classroom in front of invisible desks. Moritz, played with a compelling urgency by Ithaca College senior Johnny Shea, even has an unruly coif that evokes Sid Vicious; like his song and his suit, this hairdo clashes with the historical milieu in which the character is trapped and which will ultimately destroy him.
Sheik and Sater expertly exploit the raging disparity between music and historical moment and in so doing capture the impotent fury of Wedekind’s brutalized characters. This strategy is an altogether different one than the previous incarnation of Wedekind’s work as a piece of musical theatre—that of Alban Berg, whose scandalous opera Lulu of the mid-1930s was based on two of Wedekind’s plays. Berg’s lush and lurid phantasmagoria first made it the U. S.A in 1963, not to New York but to the opera in Santa Fe, like the Provincetown of Spring Awakening, a place that has long been more welcoming to honest and painful depictions of human sexuality on stage. In Lulu there is also a pervasive dissonance between the nineteenth-century goings-on, however debauched, and Berg’s cerebral yet highly expressive musical procedures, their dismantling of Romantic compositional practices so perfectly calibrated to the centrifugal forces ripping apart society and the title character’s psyche.
Spring Awakening goes for much easier and accessible modes of musical discontent. But therein lies the problem: the music never really achieves the temperature required. We’re still on Broadway and all must be contained, packaged, presentable. Moritz’s rage aria, “I don’t do sadness,” with its willful harmonic lunge downward, is sung at a mike stand into which he, adopting the body language of a punk anti-hero, unleashes turbulent bursts of sonic ash and smoke. But all this never really erupts into a convincing frenzy. Though Moritz’s takes his life soon after this song, the lack of real destructive energy is itself a touch sad. If I’d had the means, I would have donated a dozen guitars for the shows’ run in Ithaca—one instrument to be wrecked by Moritz each night.
This almost imperceptible whiff of carefulness becomes an unbearable stink in the final chorus. Here for the first time the two adults join in the singing, leaving behind the warnings and retributions of their previous spoken roles to join the younger generation in choral strains of hope and understanding in a distant and rosy future—perhaps on 21st-century Broadway. This wrecking-ball of a happy end has these white letters painted on it: “The Song of Purple Summer.” Its impact is devastating: “The butterfly sings / And opens purple summer ‘/ With the flutter of its wings. ” These images are made still more maudlin by the absurd absolution of rose petals falling from above.
Yes, there is a long tradition of the lieto fine—the obligatory happy ending—in opera. It is also true that in Wedekind’s original play a final copy-cat suicide, urged on a classmate by Moritz’s ghost, is averted, and this provides some sense of optimism in a more enlightened future. But only the American musical can be so cloyingly efficient in demolishing its own dramatic architecture, built up in the case of Spring Awakening over the course of an otherwise provocative and courageous piece of theatre. From his boxed seat in the Waldfriedhof in Munich, Wedekind’s skeleton scratches its skull in disbelief with one hand and fingers its pelvis in defiance with the other.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org