Spring Awakening: Broadway Reborn

Misunderstood teenagers + (aloof parents x other cold authority figures) + doomed lovers. Do the math, and the answer is: 1957. The year of West Side Story, right?

Two nights ago, I felt like it was indeed 50 years ago as I watched a similarly groundbreaking musical, Spring Awakening.

It has won eight Tony Awards, for best musical, score, book, performance by a featured actor, direction, choreography, orchestrations, and lighting design. Did it deserve them? Absolutely. Two nights later, I'm still buzzing.

Some various thoughts:

(1) There are other interesting similarities to West Side Story. Just as the book of that musical was a modern retelling of an old work (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), the book of Spring Awakening - by Steven Sater, who also wrote the lyrics - is based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind. The story is still set in a provincial German town in the 1890s, but the language and the tone are utterly of the moment. And just as the music of WSS was written by someone who made his name in another field before bringing a modern sound to Broadway (classical conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein), the music of SA - which truly brings rock to Broadway - is by journeyman singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik.

(2) Duncan Sheik! Who'da thought that this guy could write the freshest Broadway music in years? Sheik has been around for a decade, and although his discography is respectable - Duncan Sheik (1996), Humming (1998), Phantom Moon (2001), Daylight (2002), and White Limousine (2006) - it certainly hasn't set the world on fire. Matter of fact, when Rhino released Brighter/Later: A Duncan Sheik Anthology in 2006, covering the first four albums, I figured that those two discs were good enough for my collection and gave away the first four albums. (Think rock critics have unlimited shelf space? Think again!) Now I kinda wish I had them back. That said, although Brighter/Later has hints of Sheik's Awakening to come, there's nothing that approaches the sheer melodic and harmonic beauty of a track like the musical's finale, "The Song of Purple Summer." Nor anything that rocks out like "The Bitch of Living" or "Totally Fucked."

(3) Yes, "Fucked." Well, if Playbill can print it, then so can Bitstream! (Alas, the back cover of Decca Broadway's original-cast recording censors both that and "bitch." Such is the legacy of Tipper Gore.) But that's not all you get onstage at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. You also get frank teen sex, including (brief) nudity and (not-so-brief) masturbation. "Shocking"! And entirely appropriate to the story. No doubt Eugune O'Neill would approve. (Note to parents, though: When you buy tickets via the musical's Web site, there's a caution that the production "may be inappropriate for ages 13 and under," and I would agree with that.)

(4) Michael Mayer's direction and Bill T. Jones's choreography are dynamic and passionate - and all the more remarkable because the stage set is basically bare. And Kevin Adams works wonders with his lighting, a seemingly random assortment of bulbs, tubes, and spots that helps to transform each scene.

(5) John Gallagher, Jr. - as the troubled/tortured Moritz - certainly earned that Tony for featured actor. I only wish Jonathan Groff had won, too, for leading actor as Melchior (instead of David Hyde Pierce in Curtains). And these two should have been nominated: leading actress Lea Michele as Wendla and, especially, featured actress Lauren Pritchard as Ilse, whose "Blue Wind" is mesmerizing.

(6) If you saw the Tony Awards telecast, did you see that one of SA's producers is Tom Hulce? Yes, that Tom Hulce - the onetime star of the film Amadeus. He's, um, larger now, but he's still unmistakably Tom.

(7) According to Sater's liner notes in the booklet for the original-cast CD, Spring Awakening was conceived "as both a piece of musical theater and a pop/rock album." And it succeeds as both. If anything, the CD rocks even more than the Broadway production. Only thing wrong: The lyrics in the CD booklet don't identify which character is singing what. An inexplicable oversight.

(8) But back to Duncan Sheik. He not only wrote the killer music and the deft orchestrations (read: band arrangements) but also produced the CD and played guitar on it, too. All together, it's the crowning achievement of his career - so far. He says he hopes to continue working on Broadway. To which I can only say: Yes, please! With works like Spring, maybe he can help wake up the Great White Way. -Ken Richardson