Monday, 8 November 2010

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening: A New Musical (London, 2009)

I seem to be in a minority of one, but I don’t ‘get’ this show.

I have the sense that the authors have taken two historically determined phenomena and yoked them by violence together. On one hand there’s Wedekind’s original play, a daring presentation of coming-of-age in late 19th century Germany, where adults conspire to keep adolescents in ignorance of their own sexual awakening. On the other we’re treated to a rock concert, using a musical language which has developed since the late 1950s alongside the invention of the ‘teenager’ and the unfolding of the ‘permissive society’, a language which expresses the knowingness of our sex-saturated culture.

Duncan Sheik (composer) has said that what he dislikes about conventional musicals is that ‘one minute the characters are talking, the next minute they’re singing; and a moment later, they’re talking again’. So he and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) conceived their songs as ‘interior monologues’, voicing ‘the thoughts and feelings of each character’s private landscape’. Fine. But why, then, in their ‘private landscapes’ do these repressed Wilhelmine Germans become 21st century Americans, vaulting round the stage like American Idol auditionees, emoting in the language of MTV, complete with anachronistic references to stereos and telephones? The answer, I presume, is that they are meant to embody the timeless tribulations of adolescence. Yet ever and again the structure militates against that.

We have a scene of Prussian authoritarianism in the schoolroom where boys chant Latin and are beaten by their masters for minor infractions, something so remote from the atmosphere of a modern American high school that the gorge rises when the boys whip microphones out of their high-collared jackets and launch into a heavy-rock anthem, ‘The Bitch Of Living’ – ‘this is so not life at all' . Are they historically determined figures or are they timeless avatars of adolescence? The authors seem unsure. In one interview composer Sheik has said that ‘these are children who ultimately are going to be parents of Nazis.’ Meanwhile lyricist Sater tells another interviewer that rock music is ‘the place where kids for generations have found release from unformed anguish’. Well, guys, correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall rock music playing a decisive role in the rise of Nazism.

Or take the opening scene. In the play, Wedekind constructs this very carefully to introduce his theme of adult hypocrisy. We have what at first sight looks like a ‘modern’ situation. A daughter is arguing with her mother over the length of her dress – the girl wants it short, the mother says it’s too short. So far, so 1966 (et seq). But, unlike her mini-skirted descendant, Wendla isn’t laying claim to some ‘teenage’ fashion; she isn’t carving out a special peer identity to distinguish herself from the parent generation. She wants to remain a child and doesn’t want to be an adult if it means wearing long dresses. The mother tells her daughter it’s time to adopt adult clothes but, as we learn in a later scene where she deflects questions about pregnancy, isn’t prepared to arm Wendla with the information she will need to function as an adult. This dialogue is truncated in the musical script and we move into Wendla’s ‘private landscape’ where she sings ‘Mama who bore me’, even though the text will establish that the girl has no idea where babies come from.

Still, what do I know? The night I saw the show (at the Lyric Hammersmith) the audience was packed with young people who seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. The young principals were excellent and the choreography (by Bill T Jones) is stupendous. Heck, I even liked some of the songs. I’m sure Spring Awakening could make great musical theatre. All Wedekind’s plays leave room for music. With his anti-naturalist style, there are always jagged edges that could be smoothed, gaps between scenes and styles that could fill with music. But probably not this music. Now I’m off to google Christina Paulhofer’s production of Franziska (Staatsschauspielhaus, Hannover, 2003) – rewritten by Thea Dorn as ‘an elaborate pop theatre spectacle of mixed styles’. Wish me luck.

(Photo by permission of Delfont Mackintosh.)

First published on the Frank Wedekind MySpace page.

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