New Yorkers starved for new musicals this season have had to make do with the insipidness of “Little Women,” the pop pap of “Good Vibrations” and the treacly shrillness of “Brooklyn” on Broadway, while Off Broadway hasn’t yielded a significant tuner since “Avenue Q.” The latter situation might change if the strong word of mouth coming from previews of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” holds true. But in the meantime, it’s worth heralding “Spring Awakening,” a beguilingly dark musical tragedy begging to be produced, that was given a stirring concert staging Wednesday as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.
Adapted by Steven Sater and alt-rock tunesmith Duncan Sheik from German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play “The Awakening of Spring,” this unsettlingly beautiful work might be the most dynamic pairing of musical theater with a contemporary rock song score since “Rent.”
Originally scheduled to be staged by Roundabout in spring 2003 after some highly praised workshop presentations, the production fell apart due to cutbacks. Producer Tom Hulce and director Michael Mayer, who collaborated with Sater and Sheik on the soundtrack of Mayer’s film “A Home at the End of the World,” are shopping for investors to reignite momentum behind the show.
While it’s easy to imagine the blossoming of an enraptured cult following around “Spring Awakening,” it’s just as easy to see why producers might be cautious.
Given the puritanical hysteria engendered by sexuality in entertainment right now, this frank depiction of a group of 14-year-old schoolchildren in repressive 19th-century provincial Germany, and their budding fascination with sex and death, is bound to ruffle feathers. With unflinching candor and persuasive emotional rawness, Sater and Sheik’s songs deal with masturbation, sexual initiation, homosexuality, abortion and teen suicide, along with less volatile issues such as academic pressure and parental expectation.
What makes the treatment so distinctive is its arresting grasp of the heady urgency of adolescent self-discovery, the burning intensity of teen friendships and the innate suspicion of the uncomprehending adult world. Sure, the material veers toward the emotionally overwrought at times, but isn’t that entirely germane to any examination of the teen years’ hormonal tempest and destabilizing passions?
The soaring, velvet melancholy of Sheik’s music — here ranging from the galvanic, driving sounds of the despair anthem “Totally Fucked” to the more mellow, reflective mode that has earned him comparison to late Welsh singer-songwriter Nick Drake — proves the perfect musical idiom to articulate the story’s teen angst in songs that explore the characters’ feelings. Sater’s lyrics are both direct and poetic, capturing not only the thrill of first love and sexual discovery but also the tremendous fear they elicit via simple but disturbing lines: “O, I’m gonna be wounded. O, I’m gonna be your wound. O, I’m gonna bruise you. O, you’re gonna be my bruise.”
There are a number of powerful, haunting songs in the consistently seductive score, among them “The Dark I Know Well,” sung by a girl molested by her father with her mother’s complicity; “Don’t Do Sadness,” the calm farewell of a suicidal boy; “Left Behind,” in which Wedekind’s masked stranger — a constant overseer of the action here — penetrates the unfeeling shell of the dead boy’s father; and “The Song of Purple Summer,” the show’s resonant closing number, both sorrowful and uplifting.
Some of the musical’s interaction between teens will be too confronting for mainstream auds, suggesting Off Broadway might be the best route to take: Sex between main characters Melchior and Wendla in the woods is preceded by violence as she eggs him on to beat her with a switch, saying, “I’ve never been beaten my entire life. I’ve never felt.”
A girl being dragged unwillingly by her mother to a back-street butcher for a fatal abortion might be harrowing enough for some, but it’s made doubly so by unfolding at the same time her lover is being graphically abused in a boys’ reformatory in a scene worthy of hardcore HBO prison drama “Oz.”
Even the two gay boys’ discovery of each other is played, not in the usual tenderhearted vein of the standard musical, but with an edge that suggests the imbalance in the relationship and the inevitable hurt. “I love you, Hanschen. As I’ve never loved anyone,” says the more nervous of the two. “And so you should,” replies the cocky object of his affection, who sees himself as a cat skimming the cream off life. The kids depicted here are both knowing and unworldly, fragile and resilient.
Bolstered by the robust structure of Wedekind’s play, Sater’s book displays insight into the cruelty and pain of adolescence as well as the hypocrisy and false piety of adults. “There’s not only the moral corruption of our youth, but the creeping sensuality of these liberal-minded times,” says a school administration figure, responding to the student’s suicide by seeking to place blame rather than look for causes.
While the setting remains 1891 Germany, the present-day connection would be evident even without the modern references, the contemporary outfits worn by the young leads in act two or the increasing incorporation of synth sounds into the more acoustic earlier numbers.
Director Mayer steers the concert staging with a firm hand, drawing surprisingly textured perfs from the 13 talented kids in the ensemble, most of them close to the age they’re portraying. Especially notable are John Gallagher Jr. as troubled Moritz; Ben Walker, a handsome, confident presence as Melchior, who shows far more soul than his status as the popular boy would imply; and the sweet-voiced Lea Michele, a star in the making as Wendla.
Kate Burton and Frank Wood embody the chilly remove of the mostly nonsinging adult authority figures, while Michael Cerveris’ smooth vocals give dimension to the abstract role of the stranger, which functions well enough in this scaled-down version but might benefit from being a less explicative figure in a full staging.
While the lyrics could at times have been clearer in the Lincoln Center perf, the musical worked well with the five-piece band, which here included Sheik on guitars. The choral arrangements were especially pretty, aided by music director Kimberly Grigsby’s spirited guidance as she rocked out barefoot to keep the ensemble’s energy high.