‘Spring Awakening’ Creative Duo Has Six More Musicals in Development

At the Off-Broadway premiere of “Alice by Heart,” a new musical from “Spring Awakening” creators Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik and inspired by “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” conversations with the cast and creatives revealed the impact of their work on a generation of theater-makers, including their young stars — and what the pair learned from them in return.

So why Wonderland, and why now? “I struggled with great illness when I was a child, and then I had an accident that sort of crippled my young adulthood,” Sater told Variety after the performance at MCC Theater. “Books were my way through. Books were what gave me strength. Nietzsche talks about how without imagination we would die of reality — and I feel like we’re living in a country that’s dying of reality, or denial of what the actual truth is. It seemed so important to affirm the power of the imagination. So rather than merely adapting ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ we wrote a show about what a book can mean to you.”

The show’s own meaning has shifted since it was first conceived nearly a decade ago, and Sater sees the actors themselves as key to that evolution. “You have Wes Taylor being the Mad Hatter, and he brings out a whole side of this character that you had never imagined, or Colton [Ryan] shows up and approaches the Rabbit in a whole different way than you’d thought,” he said. “So, you learn, and then you adjust to them. When we were writing ‘Spring Awakening,’ I re-wrote Melchior entirely for Jonathan Groff. This was a different process than that, but it was profoundly collaborative – they’re all artists. We want to pull on what’s great in all of us.”

For Ryan, who stars as Alice’s best friend Alfred (and, in Wonderland, as the White Rabbit), that approach was a dream come true. “They really wanted us to give back to them, and that was the coolest thing of all – that your heroes are like, ‘Hey, you have a voice too,’” he explained. “‘Spring Awakening’ happened when I was in the sixth grade. My friends and I were jamming out every day,” he said, grinning and breaking into a verse from “My Junk” for emphasis. “I definitely never thought this would happen. And when I was 10 years old – I mean, I didn’t even know new musicals existed. I just thought you got ‘Oklahoma!’ and that was done, right? Like, oh, here’s this gift – thank you, higher musical theater power! So, them actually asking, ‘How do you think this would go?’ is still a new world to me, and it’s been a thrill.”

The show brought “The Real O’Neals” star Noah Galvin back to theater for the same reason. “I’ve been a part of every reading and workshop and every developmental step of this process up until now. Having worked in the theater since I was 10 years old, I’ve never gotten to develop something from reading to fruition,” he said –- until now. And the fact that it came from the creators of “Spring Awakening” didn’t hurt: “I was at the second-to-last performance of ‘Spring Awakening’ because I was a fangirl. It feels very full circle that I now get to be chilling with [Sater and Sheik] and drinking and dancing with them.”

Noah Galvin'Alice By Heart' Broadway Play Opening Night, After Party, New York, USA - 26 Feb 2019
CREDIT: Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shut

Sheik himself revealed that there’s more to come from the duo. Getting “Alice” off the ground was a “long, arduous process,” he said, but “Steven and I have never stopped working over the course of that decade – we have literally six musicals in development.”

For Jessie Nelson, who co-wrote and directed the show, collaborating with Sater has been just as fruitful. They first found each other before their respective Broadway breakouts, and “realized that we loved writing together. He’s become one of my dearest friends.”

Tonally, “Alice by Heart” is a far cry from “Waitress,” but Nelson’s experience with that book informed her approach to the new “Wonderland”-inspired musical, too. When translating a work for the stage, she said, “You’re really collaborating with the original writer. Adrienne Shelly [who wrote the 2007 film ‘Waitress’] had passed away, so it was very important to me to write something that I thought would respect what she had created. And Lewis Carroll — my god! To get to play off of that text, there’s nothing like it. I mean, he must’ve been on mushrooms when he wrote it — it’s so far out and brilliant. You really have to honor the original material and hold it close to your heart.”

Molly Gordon, who stars as Alice, has found the transition from screen to stage similarly challenging and rewarding. “This is so new to me, and I’m very lucky that all of these people like Grace [McLean] have done much more than I have and they can teach me, because publicly messing up – I mean, I mess up every day of my life,” she admitted, laughing. “But messing up on stage is very different. I laugh all the time in takes, and then you get to redo it. It’s been very eye-opening and a freeing experience to just learn to let go.”

That willingness to embrace uncertainty is an essential part of the show itself. As Colton Ryan put it when he described the thrill of “jumping in” with Sater, Sheik, Nelson, and the rest of the cast, “All bets are off – this is Wonderland, baby.”

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