The Broadway smash Spring Awakening which launched the careers of Glee’s Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff arrives at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, angst intact.
Awakening is an odd little show: audience members get to sit onstage almost on top of the actors, the music is pop/rock a la Rent, but the action takes place a century ago. Part over-the-top mugginess/part earnest teenage pleading/part serious exploration of a sexual coming-of-age, the show is a strange hybrid that either appeals to you or it doesn’t.
Having seen it in its original Broadway form with its original cast, I enjoyed the show but wasn’t in awe as I was when I saw Rent, for example. The performers were amazing for sure, and I found the story interesting as it explored some dark sexual subject matter. And while it takes place in the distant past, what the show does well is illustrate how teenagers deal with the same confusion and yearning today as they did then.
The story takes place in a school where boys and girls are educated separately. Our focal points for the guys are Moritz (Coby Getzug), an underachiever with a loser complex, and Melchior (Christopher Wood), the sure-of-himself hero that will later start to fear the anger that lurks inside him. For the girls, we focus on Wendla (Elizabeth Judd), the innocent of the group who will eventually be deflowered even though she doesn’t even know that’s what has happened.
Between the group of boys and girls, the issues of abuse, masochism, masturbation, losing one’s virginity, abortion, homosexuality and “free love” all are explored in varying degrees. All set to a rocking soundtrack by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.
Based on the original play by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening is clearly a cleverly conceived piece of theater, but what a show like this comes down to are the songs. And while they are all performed with passion and gusto, by night’s end, they all start to sound the same. They seem (for someone not schooled in music) to be caged in a certain box of notes where I wanted the songs to leap out and fly free. Not necessarily to make it more Broadway, but to give the songs life. They seem to be suppressed in a way that made it all sound repetitive.
A terrible (but totally gay) example is if you compare the score to Kelly Clarkson’s underperforming album, December. Critics and fans alike found it lacking something and if you listen to it, you want her choruses to explode out of the confines of the range she’s chosen. It’s like none of the songs were ever able to soar, which is the way I felt with most of the music in Awakening.
To be fair, the Pantages tour stop is well-produced and the actors are pitch-perfect, especially Judd’s Wendla and Getzug’s Moritz. Christopher Wood’s Melchior is terrific, but he had a few pitch problems at the beginning of the performance. He also doesn’t have the magnetism that Jonathan Groff did, but for those uninitiated, it won’t matter.
When it’s all said and done, it’s the story that will appeal to people. And it’s a subject rarely explored intelligently. Most of what we get are dumb teen comedies about coming of age and a teenager’s “first time.” What’s interesting is that this rite of passage is different for gay people. When most of our friends were having crushes they spoke openly about and were dealing with having sexual thoughts and desires for the first time, the gays were still closeted and hiding in the shadows with shame for the natural stirrings they were having. Basically what heterosexuals go through as teenagers regarding sex and dating happen about 10 years later for gay people. Although with homosexuality being more openly embraced, this is (thankfully) changing.
What’s interesting about the straight experience is that they are surrounded by straight “agenda” as it were: Books, movies, shows, commercials, school classrooms, church, etc. It’s all straight. I remember when I had just come out and was buying gay-themed books and magazines, my mom asked me, “Why do you feel the need to surround yourself with things that are gay?” And I responded by explaining that I had to make the effort to do that, when she didn’t have to even try. Everything surrounding her was hetero-focused. And for most gay teens, learning about sexuality in all its forms, is something they do on their own.
Sure, there’s the basics: how do gay people (men or women) have sex? For the most part, we all just kind of figured it out by instinct. We knew what we found attractive and things we wanted to do and explore. It was natural. But there are other aspects of sexuality that we had to discover, just like the kids in Spring Awakening. When Melchior is asked to whip Wendl (at her request so she could “feel something”) he loses himself in the act and fears what this is about for him. He was already aware of sex, but this became an aspect of his personality and his sexuality that he was confused by.
In that sense, both gays and straights are the same. There are many aspects to sexuality and the sex act itself that people want to explore. And for the most part, for gays and straights, they are the same. They learn what feels good for them specifically, and then onto other aspects like voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishes, etc. And while many are ashamed to discuss them (like Melchior), I find in the gay community we just aren’t all that resistant to talking about it. For sure, in a small town with no gays, a gay person might be reluctant to talk about or explore these things, and for someone who is generally closed off, they might not be so willing to talk about it. But in my experience, for a gay person living in an accepting community, their view of sex is actually healthier than most.
I mean, talking about masturbation with a friend or even an acquaintance isn’t that unusual. How many times have I asked a friend what they are doing and they say something like “I gotta JO and go to bed.” It’s like saying “I need to take a Lunesta and hit the sack.” Which is pretty refreshing.
Because, with the shame and fear people have about something so normal and natural, disaster can ensue. And if/when you see Spring Awakening, you’ll see the tragic outcome of repressed sexuality. So why not take a little note from the gays? Stop freaking out. No one’s stabbing anyone! It’s just sex!
Spring Awakening continues at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Feb. 13. For tickets go to BroadwayLA.org, Ticketmaster.com or call 800-982-ARTS. Photo by Phil Martin.