Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Younger than springtime

I finally saw Spring Awakening, and I'm embarrassed it took me this long -- so embarrassed that I almost didn't bother to review it, because this just calls attention to my delinquency. [Update: I should add that I didn't read, or at least re-read, any of the long-ago-published professional reviews until I finished writing this one, so as not to be influenced... and now I'm resisting the urge to edit this to keep it from looking like I intentionally aped Isherwood. Lots of similarities, but you'll have to take my word for it.] I think I can justify putting it off, to some extent... a musical about teen sexual angst, based on a late-19th-century German play, with a rock score written by the "Barely Breathing" guy? Where the cast is mostly teens and the characters reportedly use hand mics? I mean, positive notices notwithstanding, are you in a hurry to spend $100 on that? But many people -- people I respect, and people who were just as skeptical as I of this whole concept -- told me, "No, really, you need to see it," and so I'm sorry to say I didn't take their advice until this weekend. Because my goodness, were they ever right.

A big factor in my skepticism was the thought of Duncan Sheik writing for musical theatre, and a big factor in Spring Awakening's success is that it doesn't try too hard to make rock music function as theatre music. I was prepared for the songs to be decent, or at least enjoyable -- the last time I was in Bed, Bath & Beyond, I had to stop shopping for kitchen utensils to sing along with the chorus of "Barely Breathing" on the in-store music station before I could focus again on the task at hand. And there's hardly anything to that song (have you listened to the verse?). So I went in with some respect for Duncan Sheik as a songwriter. But pop songs and theatre songs have different goals; speaking very generally, pop songs are chiefly about atmosphere and attitude, while theatre songs are about character and plot. The songs in Spring Awakening fall somewhere in the middle -- they're not purely repetitive pop, like some catchy hit singles I might mention, but they're not great musical theatre, either. The music is top-drawer for its genre -- I believe the score contains many examples of what the kids these days are calling "emo" -- performed very well by a cast full of nascent rock vocalists and an onstage band with just the right instrument balance. The lyrics are well-written and evocative, but only slightly more purposeful than what you'd find in a non-theatrical pop song. Not one song has the careful three-act structure and dramatic movement of a Sondheim lyric, or the character-building insight and specificity of a Jason Robert Brown lyric, or the scene-setting clarity and coy tension of an Oscar Hammerstein lyric. But the composers had the good sense not to allow their work to tip over into that ludicrous genre known as rock opera, which is why Spring Awakening is so much cooler than Rent and its ilk. And the fact that the creative team has built such a fulfilling theatrical experience out of such undramatic materials is enough to make me recommend the show.

Above all, Spring Awakening is very well staged. The direction, the set and lighting design, the costumes and the performances all combine to put over the concept (19th-century German teens sing 21st-century rock music about universal adolescent Sturm und Drang) more effectively than I could have imagined. (Please note that you cannot get a sense of this from the "music video" and other clips available on the show's official website, which make the staging look stiff and dorky, so you're best not watching if you're on the fence about seeing the show.) The comparison that came to my mind as I watched -- and I don't think it's too hyperbolic -- is to West Side Story. Thematically there are plenty of similarities; both shows recognize the dramatic potential in teen angst and disillusionment, and both are ambitious but ultimately a bit too shallow in their exploration of the subject. And in both cases, the creators use music and movement to tell a story in a new and exciting way. I've only read about what it was like to see West Side Story when it first showed up on Broadway, but the exhiliaration people describe -- that feeling that fresh air has been let in to the musical theatre -- sounds a lot like what I felt watching Spring Awakening. And both shows leave me with the sense that the work is more important than great.

This show depends less on storytelling through dance than West Side Story did, but Bill T. Jones's choreography (which you might more accurately call "musical staging") is a major part of the recipe for success. The conceit of rock & roll as timeless metaphor for teen angst needs no explanation, thanks to the intelligence of the direction and staging; the show simply communicates, the way theatre should. At its best, Jones's choreography captures the exuberance of the young cast members to the extent that it's impossible to tell where his influence stops and their instinct takes over. This is valuable because the show's failure to explore the issues it raises is compensated for somewhat by the fact that the cast is made up of teens and very young adults whose commitment to the material is total and unwavering. It may not, in reality, be very deep, but they all seem to think it is -- and after all, isn't that just like teenagers? Only once did I find the movement interfering with the storytelling, and that came at a most vulnerable moment -- toward the end of the first act, Melchior climbs onto a swing-like suspended platform, the better to express his inner turmoil, and suddenly breaks into a choreographed routine that makes him look like a backup dancer in an early-90s music video. This combination strives to be solemn, but the effect is mainly silly, and unfortunately it resurfaces as a full-blown motif in Act Two. The stage fills with teenagers, earnestly vogueing, and what so recently felt timeless now feels oddly dated.

By that point my enthusiasm was starting to flag anyway. Because the songs, though powerful, are seldom specific to the situation or characters, the plot unfolds around them instead of through them. And since the ratio of dialogue to music is very low, the plot doesn't have much time to take shape, and the characters don't have many opportunities to differentiate themselves. If Spring Awakening were tightened to an intermissionless 90 minutes, its impressionistic approach would pack a stronger punch, but as intermission ended, I realized I'd learned too little about the characters so far to be moved by what happened to them in the melodramatic second act.

The muted emotional impact of the story can't be blamed on the cast of enormously capable young people (and 2 old pros). The teens were truly a joy to watch, and I know without looking that there are chatrooms full of kids comparing their favorites. (My personal favorite was Remy Zaken; she made me want to get up there and dance with her.) Occasionally their unfettered teen spirit threatens to overwhelm the show; John Gallagher Jr. plays Moritz like a cross between Seinfeld's Kramer and the Cure's Robert Smith (though he may not have been so over-the-top back when the show was in previews; I have a feeling the performance has gotten bigger and twitchier over the course of these many months). [Update: Or not, since I see Charles Isherwood said pretty much the same thing almost a year ago.] I'd say he's breaking character, but in fairness to him, he doesn't have a lot to work with when it comes to building a character, and it's hard for me to point to anything in the script or songs that his performance violates. I found it slightly distracting, but I wasn't sure what I was distracted from. (But speaking of people who need to take it down a notch or two, I would like to give a note, if I may, to ensemble member and understudy Gerard Canonico: I don't know what you're like when you go on for one of the principals, but when you're just in your onstage seat supplying backgound vocals, you need to chill out and stop working so hard to steal focus from the people center stage. Your enthusiasm is commendable, but upstaging the stars is not.) Even Stephen Spinella's typically masterful character work isn't enough to sharpen the fuzzy edges of the material, in his case because he's playing so many characters it's hard to tell who he's supposed to be at any given time. The adult characters are very nearly as one-dimensional as those in West Side Story, a decision that has thematic heft but leaves them with not much dramatic impact, even when it's needed. (I can't be touched by Stephen Spinella's graveside breakdown if I'm busy figuring out which of the many male adult characters he's playing in that moment.) Even the young cast members do a fair amount of doubling, and the distinctions between the characters tend to get lost in the haze of angst.

So, by the end of Act Two, I was tired of trying to follow, or care about, the plot, and my mind was free to ask questions like: Why don't any of these songs have endings? They all just stop. And that final number ("The Song of Purple Summer," which for multiple reasons reminded me of the rousing finale of The Color Purple) -- did I mishear that chorus, or were they singing about horses? I'd also grown tired of craning my neck to see the stage around the head of the woman in front of me, because for some reason the orchestra seats at the Eugene O'Neill aren't staggered at all, so I was smack behind her (and I assume the person behind me had the same problem with my head). I know that's not the fault of the show, but since restricted-view seats are a bit of a theme around here, I wanted to bring it up.

The show may not have moved me as deeply as it should have, but it excited me, and it's obviously exciting other people -- including many young people -- even more. I'm glad they're coming back again and again. And I'd like to think they go home between their visits and have fruitful discussions, possibly even with their three-dimensional parents, about the issues the show raises. Whether or not that happens, and whether or not the show succeeds at consciousness-raising, it should succeed at inspiring musical theatre's creators -- and, perhaps more importantly, producers -- to take risks in finding new and authentic ways to tell their stories. That's the kind of spring I'd like to see.

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