A truism about artful expression is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So on one level, the musical Spring Awakening is expressing the obvious — that yes, of course, teenagers a century ago and far away in Germany went through the anguish of sexual awakening just as they do today closer to home.
'I'M GONNA BE YOUR WOUND' Christy Altomare and Kyle Riabko in Spring Awakening.
Based on the 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, the rock extravaganza, at Providence Performing Arts Center through April 26, promotes the cliché of adolescent pain to serious grown-up status. With music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, this 2006 Broadway hit gives good theatrical weight the old-fashioned way, through compelling characterizations.
The original German audiences were shocked by its frank depictions of matters sexual and otherwise verboten, from rape, abortion, and masturbation to suicide. If that weren't disturbing enough, this adaptation adds incest.
The template for a rock musical reprise of a period warhorse is, of course, Rent, which employed the youthful underclass population of La Bohème. The teenagers in Spring Awakening aren't artists, however, and their lot in life isn't cushioned by sexual abandon but is stifled by the sexual repression of their time.
That theme is underscored at the outset, as young Wendla (Christy Altomare) is told by her mother that her sister has finally been visited by the stork. When she asks for non-avian details about how her sister got pregnant, her mother is embarrassed and upset. A comic tone is struck ("She must loooove her husband with her whole heart") that persists through the musical, leavening the seriousness.
The principal male character is Melchior (Kyle Riabko), handsome, wily, and lacking strong moral principles. The girls swoon over his reputation as an independent bad boy, specifically that "he doesn't believe in anything." For his troubled friend Moritz (Blake Bashoff), he writes a 10-page sex education essay, complete with illustrations, that includes tremblingly informative Latin lessons (viz, labia majora). Poor Moritz. When Ilse (Steffi D.), a friend he has known from childhood, sweetly tries to get closer to him, implying romantic possibilities, he nervously spurns her and is instantly anguished: "Oh, my God — all I had to do was say yes!" Poignant stuff.
The acting all around is on the money. All the adult men and women, from parents to teachers, are played by two actors (Henry Stram and Angela Reed), a fitting touch since all the authority figures are stamped from the same repressive mold. The young characters tend to stay in the background until they step forward for their defining scenes. The flippantly gay Hanschen (Andy Mientus) eventually gets to seduce a classmate who hitherto dreamed of a rural parsonage and "a rosy-cheeked wife." Martha (Sarah Hunt) seems typical, just one of the ensemble, until she displays bruises from her brutal, bed-visiting father.
Speaking of bruises, they are featured in a song that sets this musical apart as a romance far from any sounds of music in Germanic hills. Reprised by Hanschen and his new lover, "The Word of Your Body" is first sung by Wendla and Melchior. It heralds love as blunt trauma: "O, I'm gonna be wounded/O, I'm gonna be your wound/O, I'm going to bruise you/O, you're gonna be my bruise." These songs overwhelm us with conviction. Some are gentle, but most have a hopping-mad punk energy that captures the emotional and thematic highpoints of the play.
You can trust any musical with a song titled "Totally Fucked" if it's not there just for shock value; this one is Melchior's straight-from-the-middle-finger yelp of frustration aimed at the power-mad adults. Moritz's "The Bitch of Living" isn't the whine its title sounds like — it's an anthem of defiant, albeit masturbatory, frustration, as affirmative as his "(I) Don't Do Sadness."
Like a film adapted from an introspective novel, this musical can't help but breeze through the complexities of the play. But these powerful songs transcend that disadvantage, providing solid steppingstones along the way.
Spring Awakening won eight of its 11 Tony nominations, including best musical, book, and score. Its original cast recording also won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Oh so well-deserved.