I'm a Spring Awakening Superfan, but I Don't Think the L.A. Production Should Be on Broadway
Deaf West's Spring Awakening at the Wallis in Beverly Hills
I don't usually do it this way, but let's start with an introduction.
Hi. My name is Katie. I'm 23 years old, and I'm a Spring Awakening superfan. I saw the show on Broadway back in 2008 when I was visiting colleges, and I fell in love. It was a headlong rush, a whirlwind of learning everything I possibly could about the show, the cast, any tidbit I could find. I wrote a 3,500-word thesis about the show when I was in high school. I promoted the first national tour so much that the Kennedy Center named me "The Golden Guilty One" (in reference to the show's song, "The Guilty Ones"). I assistant directed and was in a production at my college, and I have not just the original Broadway cast recording and Live From the SoHo Apple Store EP but also the original Brazilian cast recording of the show saved on my hard drive. I have actually struck fear into the heart of at least one cast member. And I have, quite literally, lost count of how many times I've seen the show, but I know it's somewhere north of 15.
Two of those performances were of the Deaf West production, first in October at Inner City Arts downtown and then again in May at the Wallis in Beverly Hills. There are a lot of things I really liked about the show. I love the concept, and I am 100 percent for making theater more inclusive, especially to audiences with disabilities. I thought the incorporation of sign language was done very well, and added a new layer to a story I thought I knew inside and out.
That said, the production is set to open on Broadway on Sept. 27 — and I don't think it should.
I’m sure tickets will sell like gangbusters. Spring Awakening is a much bigger household name now than it was when it closed, largely thanks to the success of original star Lea Michele and Glee. But just because a show seems commercially viable doesn't mean that it should be on Broadway.
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There are a few reasons for this. First of all, it's too soon. Not in an off-color–joke kind of way but in a "This is how Broadway revivals are spaced out through history” kind of way. The show hasn't had enough time to grow out of the shadow of the original production yet; Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in 2006 and closed in January 2009, six and a half years ago, which is barely anything when it comes to Broadway revivals. By reviving so soon, Spring Awakening is getting dangerously close to Les Miz territory. (That show is on its second Broadway revival since closing in 2003, which is entirely absurd.) Even the most recent Cabaret revival waited almost a full decade before remounting the production that played Broadway in 1998 — and they didn't even change the star. Speaking of which, if you're casting the same actors to play children who were in the show when it originally opened on Broadway almost a decade ago, it might be too soon to revive the show.
Sure, you can argue that this production is radically different from the last one, but sign language aside, it really isn't. The ASL is a great addition, but it feels like it's adding on to original director Michael Mayer's vision of the show, not burning it to the ground and starting over. Almost everything about this production feels like a replication of the original — the blocking, choreography, set design, even acting choices don't come across as being so different from what Mayer directed. There are a few wonderful moments between the deaf actors that bring a fresh, new perspective to the text, but they're vastly outnumbered by moments that are derivative or emotionally ungrounded.
That brings us to the direction of the show: It's lacking. Michael Arden took a fantastic concept and worked with some very talented people to implement it, but there are huge holes in the logic. Take, for example, the "voices" of the deaf actors (the hearing actors who sing and speak the lines of the characters played by deaf actors). What, exactly, is the relationship between the "voices" and the characters? I've seen the show twice and spent far too much time thinking about it, and I can't figure it out. Sometimes — and this is the choice that makes the most sense — the "voices" are the characters' rock-star alter egos, the people they wish they could be, imaginary friends who live in the characters' minds. That's a smart way to do it, and it complements the contrast between the show's 1890s setting and its pop/rock score.
But that's not always the relationship; sometimes they're more like imaginary friends, the person to whom you can tell your deepest secrets. Again, that's a fine choice, though it conflicts a bit with the rock-star choice. And if the "voices" are imaginary, then why do they occasionally become corporeal, able to physically hand the characters items? And what's the deal with Thea, whose "voice" is her flesh-and-blood sister? Yes, suspension of disbelief is an integral part of theater, especially musical theater, but the logic of the choices needs to be consistent throughout.
While we're on the subject of the show's direction, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the finale, but the less I say about it, the better. Suffice it to say, it appears to be both a weird ripoff of the finale of the recent Cabaret revival and a choice that makes absolutely no sense.
I'd be more on board with the production transferring to Broadway if it improved between the production at Inner City Arts (a 99-seat venue where ticket prices were capped at $34) and the Wallis. But, a few casting choices aside, it actually got worse when it transferred to a 500-seat venue and started charging $100 for tickets, with Arden adding gratuitous imagery, and not fixing moments that didn't work the first time around.
Daniel Durant and Krysta Rodriguez as Moritz and Ilse
Take, for example, the blocking in the song "My Junk." It's scripted that Hanschen (played by Andy Mientus) is masturbating during the song, but for some inexplicable reason, Arden decided to heighten that already borderline-obscene moment by having the female ensemble caress Hanschen and jerk him off. It's crass, and it also undercuts the dichotomy set up in the song, and the show as a whole: With the exception of Ilse, the girls are sheltered and sing/think about innocent things, since they haven't been exposed to sex education, while the boys employ more charged imagery and are more in touch with their sexuality.
I have no reason to believe that transferring to a Broadway house with 1,000 seats (10 times the capacity of the original venue) and charging Broadway ticket prices, which are typically $160 or so for halfway decent seats, will make the show better. The combination of a less intimate venue and a bigger budget didn’t improve the show the first time.
Bringing this production to Broadway also undercuts the value of regional theater. I've seen plenty of productions of Spring Awakening (this production included) that, intentionally or not, mimic the most recent Broadway production, and that's not an epidemic that's specific to this musical. But the point of regional theater (in most cases) isn't to mount replica or knockoff productions of Broadway shows. The thing that's so wonderful about regional theater is that it can be an experimental breeding ground, a chance to apply radical concepts to familiar shows and see if it works.
I love seeing unexpected takes on familiar stories, and that's something that's unique to theater: different groups of people performing the same show over and over again in different places, bringing something new to it each time. And that freedom to explore a show comes with distance from the "definitive" production, which tends to be the Broadway production. The more present a definitive production is in people's minds, the more you're likely to see productions that are knockoffs of that production. By bringing this production to Broadway, it will become the production everyone is imitating, consciously or unconsciously, for years to come.
And do we really want to be seeing knockoffs of a knockoff for the next decade? I sure as hell don't.
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