Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Awakening

We took a spring break road trip to Huntington, West Virginia to see a performance of the touring musical Spring Awakening, and it was well worth the time, effort, and expense.  We knew the music, but it's always better to see a musical's songs performed in context and it turned out we were missing a good bit of the story by conjecturing what happened between songs.  The real show-stopper, of course, is the song Totally Fucked, which I had previously dismissed as trying to be shocking by using a needlessly vulgar word, but I was wrong.  At the moment the action of the play freezes and the male lead begins to sing, there's really no other word that would better describe his situation.  Here's a video of Jon Groff performing the song on Broadway, but the touring lead, Chris Wood, was even better, I thought, expressing more of his pent-up adolescent male rage and pain with leaps and jerks that added up to one of the most impressive physical performances I've ever seen on stage.

The story is loosely based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play entitled Spring Awakening: A Children's Tragedy. The translator, Jonathan Franzen, points out in a preface, that the play is "casually and thoroughly amoral" and objects to the way the musical has "maimed" it.  I think this is the argument of someone who loved the play first and so misses the point of the musical.  Franzen's criticism of a sub-plot in which one of Wendla's friends reveals that she has been sexually abused by her father particularly misses the point, which is that this is a musical making fun of parents who think they own their children. 

Wendla's accidental pregnancy is a reflection on her mother's attempt to shelter her by refusing to tell her the facts of life (and her eventual murder by back-street abortion doctor is a discouragingly timely comment on this week's abortion-outlawing effort in Ohio).  Moritz's failure at school is a failure for his father, who had bigger ambitions for him (the kind of parental ownership that hits closest to home for me, the feeling that if a child gets into a good college, graduates, and has a successful career, that the parents get some of the credit).  The sexual abuse of one girl is just another indicator that these parents think their children belong to them, with some pontificating about how "the Lord won't mind" on the side, the pontificating mostly unheard as "blah blah blah."

Parental ownership extends, as it does in our society today, to the schools, which are run like prisons, with children in uniforms, all learning the same thing with no room (or time) for interpretation, and with overly strict discipline.  I found the schoolboys' songs most effective, with their literally knee-jerk rhythms, as each one is another effort to express questions and viewpoints for which they get no answers, no guidance.  Hanschen's masturbation to Othello read out loud is a comical and quite effective salvo in the boys' battle against the "in loco parentis" tactics of their school/prison system (not merely a sex for sensationalism scene, as Franzen asserts).

There's always a reason for revivals, and this one is a punch in the face to a supposedly adult society in which adolescents are discouraged from thinking or acting for themselves, in which they are sheltered long past the point of reason, their vibrant physical promise squandered, their ideas born secretly and alone, and too often left to die.

It's another version of one of William Blake's Songs of Experience, The Garden of Love:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.


kittiesx3 said...

Ah parental ownership. Here's Elizabethology for you on that particular notion: when my sons succeed, I always say "hey, it's not MY fault!" And it's not original, I stole it from my brother Doug.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I first encountered the play version of Spring Awakening when I was working at an arts camp in college. My roommate, the high school drama teacher, decided to break with the camp tradition of performing nice polite pieces like Our Town or I Remember Mama and did Spring Awakening. It was a bit of a shocker to some and my roommate had to fight for it, but those kids were impressive and very into it. I thought the idea of turning it into a musical was kind of twisted when I first heard of it, but I've hear bits and pieces (mostly from Glee singers who used to be in the cast) and would like to see it when it's in Chicago. Also, that Blake poem is one that horrified me as a child. Such a child-like rhyme, such pretty imagery, such a depressing message.

FreshHell said...

I have never heard of the play or the musical'm glad you enjoyed it.

I think when I had my second child, who is so very different from the first, I realized how small my role in shaping them would be. Oh, sure, I love them and encourage and feed and nurture and clothe, blah blah blah, but I don't own their head or their internal drive.

Avid Reader said...

I'm really curious to see this one at some point. It definitely adresses some themes that aren't too common in musicals. Sounds fascinating though.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of this at all and I read this at first thinking oh, a musical and then -- wait, Franz Wedekind? Jonathan Franzen? Odes to masturbation? What? West Virginia? So now I am interested. And Blake is so like that -- what a nice and simple poem -- what? what?

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I like your reading of the play much more than I like Franzen's -- it resonates with how I understand the musical. I'm jealous you got to see it in person!

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, that's a good line.

Harriet, college age strikes me as the right age for performing the play, and 14-17 is the right age for the audience.

The musical has a broader appeal, which I find true for most musicals versus straight plays.

The same tour we saw--which was excellent-- will be in Chicago May 3-8 at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre with tickets at

One of the tour details I didn't mention is that one of the schoolboys has dyed his hair to enhance his resemblance to Draco Malfoy. Since they all have funny hair, we thought that was a good touch.

FreshHell, I think the primary caregiver has to acknowledge the individuality of the child to a greater extent than more distant figures like 19th-C fathers or schoolmasters. That can lead to other kinds of identification, though, like confusing what the adult wants with what she/he wants for the child.

Avid Reader, it does appeal to a younger audience than most big-budget shows.

Readersguide, as you and Harriet both point out, Blake poems can look simple when you first come across them. The painting for this one is all dark and thorny, though.

Kim, I'd be interested in how someone your age sees some of these issues. Chicago...May 3-8...