By Andy Smith
A few years ago, someone had the audacity to point out the painfully obvious: the reason that the majority of today’s musicals fail to satisfy is that the best people aren’t creating them.
The composing/songwriting talent that 80 years ago would have been working on Broadway is writing pop music. Until the 1960s (simultaneous with the emergence of the Beatles, probably) show tunes actually had a shot at making the top 40, and up until the 1950s, covers of songs from Broadway musicals dominated the airwaves. Show tunes were America’s pop music (not a subgenre) and the top artists covered them.
This is a roundabout way of getting to the topic of Spring Awakening , the sensational new folk/pop musical now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It’s a perilous long shot that combines the mature, but accessible music of Duncan Sheik, the book/lyrics of playwright Steven Sater ( Asylum ) and the high-risk concept of grafting a modern American musical sensibility onto a play set in provincial Germany of the 1890s.
This risky investment pays off.
Conformity and Adolescent Angst
Much of the action takes place in the unnamed town’s school for boys, a Dickens-worthy hall of conformity—the kind of academic environment that favors rote memory over understanding, and discipline over all else. Melchior Gabor (Jonathan Groff), a future Mr. Perfect with a rebel streak, and his childhood friend Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr.), no doubt “Most Likely to Fail,” emerge as the work’s protagonists.
The village’s girls are led by Wendla (Lea Michele), a sensitive beauty who begs her mother for a bit of sex education and instead gets nonsense. Two talented performers—Tony winner Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook—take all the adults roles—those of unyielding teachers and mostly unresponsive parents.
Early on, the teens manage to protect their hopes and natural exuberance from provincial society’s crushing conformity and sexual repression. By the second act, however, sexual ignorance takes its toll on Wendla, while academic bureaucracy begins to grind down Moritz and Melchior. A Mamma Mia! ending isn’t in store, but Spring Awakening— still timely in many ways more than 100 years after the play it’s based on premiered—does leave its audience with a few glimmers of hope.
All the young performers have wonderful singing voices and grasp the emotional significance of Sater’s lyrics. Groff—who created the role of Melchior Gabor at The Atlantic Theatre Company’s acclaimed off-Broadway production—finds all the intelligence, nobility and flaws written into his precocious hero. Michelle has a strong, attractive voice and, unlike most of the other performers, has already built a solid Broadway resume ( Ragtime, Fiddler on the Roof ). If anything, some of this training works against her, and, with time, she’ll probably drop the more “actressy” bits from her performance.
Best known as nasty neighbor Martha Huber on Desperate Housewives , Estabrook (The Sisters Rosensweig ) finds humor, where possible, in her roles, especially the ridiculously strict schoolmistress, a riff on Lotte Lenya and Mindy Sterling’s Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers’ films . Spinella (Angels in America, Our Town ) takes fewer liberties, playing all Wedekind’s authority figures as martinets or frightened conformists.
The standout is Rabbit Hole’ s Gallagher as Moritz, a poster-boy for adolescent angst crushed by rigid parents and his school’s unrelenting academic standards.
Bill T. Jones’ choreography looks spontaneous, catching the natural exuberance of horny, anxious teens bursting out of their skins. Though the performers move constantly during the musical numbers, the choreography helps maintain the work’s focus on character and music.
A one-hit wonder on the top 40 charts (for 1996’s “Barely Breathing” off his debut album), Grammy nominee Sheik has always shown greater depth than most pop artists, including an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music, exemplified by his love of the brilliant, challenging art-rock poet David Sylvain (one-time front man for Japan). Although he’s produced several moderately successful albums, Sheik’s lyrics haven’t always matched the high standard set by his textured, sometimes haunting music. With Sater, he’s found an ideal collaborator, and fans of this team can look forward to The Nightingale , a musical based on a Hans Christian Anderson work scheduled to debut in Fall 2007.
Pop Musicals: Still a Rarity
With works like Boy George’s Taboo (a West End hit before it was a Broadway flop) and The Pet Shop Boys’ Closer to Heaven , the Brits have managed to fuse pop music and musical theater better than Broadway, perhaps because they attach less shame to the term “pop.” The scarcity of strong musicals falling into this niche makes the excellence of Spring Awakening all the more pleasurable.
Although its language is no rougher than what you’ll hear in Rent or Avenue Q, Spring Awakening may be a tougher journey, especially for young teens. This sometimes downbeat adaptation of a controversial work incorporates a number of uncomfortable topics, including incest, masturbation, teen suicide and abortion.
Warnings aside, let’s hope that older teens (who already make up much of the audience), along with Generations X and Y will embrace Spring Awakening the way they did Rent ten years ago.
Spring Awakening: A New Musical is now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. For more information, visit