As with so many cutting-edge works in the theater, lyricist-librettist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik’s musical “Spring Awakening” — the most startling and exciting rock tuner to hit the boards since “Rent” — is a passion project that nearly slipped through the legit cracks. Five years ago, the Roundabout Theater Co. canceled the show’s world premiere in the money-tight aftermath of 9/11. As the WTC rubble was cleared away, theatergoers flocked to “Mamma Mia!” and producers believed that no one was in the mood to see Franz Wedekind’s 1891 play about teenage love, suicide, incest and abortion set to rock music.
Fortunately, a Lincoln Center concert version in 2004 resparked interest in the project, and earlier this year, the Atlantic Theater Company served up a well-reviewed full production under the direction of Michael Mayer. Now “Spring Awakening” is set to open at the Eugene O’Neill Theater later this season. For Broadway audiences, “Spring Awakening” may shock more for its upending of musical-theater conventions than its controversial subject matter. What’s more, its story of troubled youth will have special appeal to the theater’s forgotten audience, the 18-30 crowd, and looks to push the Broadway musical into the 21st century.
“It was relevant for Steven and me, dealing with this material from another century, that we give it a modern treatment,” says alt rocker Sheik. Make that ultra-modern: When sexually repressed boys and girls from old Bavaria stop talking onstage, they blithely reach into their school uniforms for hand mikes to start singing raucous fare like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.”
The Grammy-nominated Sheik has found the theater world far more collaborative than the recording studio. “My tendency is to live in these sad, beautiful, slow-moving kind of harmonic clouds that happen over the course of a scene,” he recalls. “But Mayer forced me to ramp it up, make it happen, so it doesn’t just float along.”
Sheik says he was influenced by “Dancer in the Dark,” “in terms of how Bjork used music in that film. The music becomes the fantasy world, and the musical numbers exist within the minds of the protagonists,” he says.
Although critics praised the musical for being faithful to Wedekind’s play, Sater actually created several additional scenes and gave the hero’s journey a much stronger arc.
“The show has been transformed by the needs of musical theater and my growing understanding of what the structure of musical theater needs to be,” says Sater, whose aim is no less than to “expand the boundaries of music and theater.”
Next up, a new musical based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Nightingale,” which Sater describes as “a metaphor for the music industry.” Also on tap is “Nero,” a play with music. “I want it to open in New York City while Bush is still in office.”