Spring Awakening: Performance Notes

“Spring Awakening”

Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; music by Duncan Sheik

Based on the play "Frühlings Erwachen" by Frank Wedekind

Directed by Gary Griffin


It has ever been thus: teenage years fraught with self-discovery, anxiety, hormones, sex—and sometimes tragedy. Pit this against a repressive moral code and hypocrisy of bourgeois parents, clergy and teachers, add a pulsing rock beat, and you’ve got “Spring Awakening,” a show that packs a powerful punch!

The musical is based on Frank Wedekind’s late 19th-century play “Frühlings
Erwachen” (subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy”). A seminal work in the history of modern German drama, it was critical and contemptuous of contemporary prudish society and considered highly controversial and scandalous. Banned and censored for reasons of alleged obscenity, the drama was published by Wedekind at his own expense in 1891. It finally had its German premiere in 1906 in a production led by the renowned German director Max Reinhardt and its first English- language one in the United States in 1917.

There is much in both the source-play and the eight Tony Award-winning 2006 off-Broadway adaptation (book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik) that makes it appropriate for mature audiences only—teen sex, rape, masturbation, homosexuality, violence, abortion and suicide—certainly taboo topics in the late 19th century and even today. Musical numbers like “The Bitch of Living,” “The Word of Your Body,” and “Totally F***ed” get to the heart of the matter.

Though the unlikely setting for “Spring Awakening” is a provincial town in 1890s Germany, it’s still a little startling (to say the least!) when a classroom of school boys in short pants (bored with their mind-numbing Latin lesson) pull hand mics out of their jackets and belt out their adolescent angst. This bold musical blows in like a tornado channeling what it means to be neither child nor adult in a scary or sometimes funny—but spot-on—way.

The central characters, Melchior, Moritz and Wendla, are trying to come to grips with two clashing worlds: the confining, repressive society around them and their own world of sexual awakening, curiosity, confusion, and pain.

“The adolescents in “Spring Awakening” are trying to understand and survive what they’re feeling—the hell they’re negotiating,” says Griffin. “And in any good musical, when the characters’ feelings are so heightened that they can no longer speak, there is no other way to express what’s in their minds and hearts except through song.” Sheik’s music—along with Sater’s poetic lyrics—come from a contemporary place where the vehicle for expression is rock ’n’ roll. Griffin adds, “it’s the music of our youth that gives voice to the character’s inner struggles.”

Because the actors in UNCSA’s staging are quite close in age to the characters of “Spring Awakening,” Griffin encouraged the actors to explore risks and build their authority as storytellers through investigation of their roles. Similarly, choreographer Krisha Marcano encouraged the actors to create “moves” that would translate the characters’ anxiety, frustrations and confusion into expressive dance.

Director Griffin hopes that “audience members will discover a personal connection to “Spring Awakening” and perhaps be reminded of what it was like to be a teenager—however painful or exciting or confusing it might have been.” As for a takeaway from this powerful play? “I hope you’ll see that the most challenging, most difficult, most obnoxious or quietest person in the room is the one who is hurting the most.” And, he adds: “As the director, I hope you feel rewarded for your time spent it in the world of “Spring Awakening”; be moved or provoked or changed in some way.”

November 04, 2019