Angsty ‘Spring Awakening’ debuts

“Spring Awakening,” a rock musical best known for its hit songs “The B* * * * of Living” and “Totally F* * *ed” opens at the Off-Broadway Performance Space on Thursday, Oct. 18.

The 2007 musical, written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, is set in 19th century Germany, and, like the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind on which it is based, centers on a group of teenagers struggling to understand their emerging sexualities in a world where adults are distant and oppressively uncommunicative on the subject. The cast and crew of the production at Yale have found the show’s newness and unorthodox nature to be sources of inspiration as well as challenges.

The production at Yale was spearheaded by producer Ethan Karetsky ’14 and director Samantha Pillsbury ’15, who began planning the show together during reading period last semester.

“We asked ourselves, ‘if we could do any show, what show would we do?’” Pillsbury said. “And we kept coming back to Spring Awakening.”

The team faced an obstacle familiar to anyone who has attempted to stage a full-scale musical, particularly such a recent one, on a Creative and Performing Arts Award (CPA): Simply obtaining the rights means spending a significant portion of the uniform $1,400 grant, forcing producers to find alternative sources of funding, Karetsky said.

“The CPA Award is an incredible resource to student theater, but it is not always sufficient for larger-scale shows, particularly musicals,” he said.

Finding a space large enough to handle the show’s intensity of emotion proved to be another key hurdle early on in the production, Pillsbury said.

She and Karetsky applied for the use of the Off-Broadway over the summer, so that set construction could begin in time for the show’s opening this week.

“All the yelling and jumping and anger can’t be contained in a small space,” Pillsbury said.

In focusing on characters still in high school, Spring Awakening provides its cast with an unusual opportunity, since most musicals students participate in require them to act like adults, said Anna Miller ’14, who will play the role of Ilse.

“We’re playing kids just figuring out how to be adults. Getting to replay that part of your life is definitely something different from what musical theater usually lets you do,” she explained.

In fact, all of the singing roles in the show are reserved for the young characters, while only two actors, one male and one female, will fill all of the adult roles. Portraying all of the adult figures as interchangeable adds to the “us vs. them mentality of the show,” Miller added.

The way Spring Awakening handles its musical numbers also reflects the adolescent characters’ inability to express themselves to those around them. Unlike other musicals, in which “people sing when words aren’t enough,” the characters in Spring Awakening sing “because they’re saying something that they don’t want anyone else to hear,” Pillsbury said.

The elements that have made the show among the most censored in theater history — including its blunt discussion of teenage sexuality, suicide, abortion and sexual abuse — are far from outmoded today.

Even with its long history, Spring Awakening is still extremely new when it comes to being performed off of the professional stage, Miller said. The rights to the musical were released just a year ago, making Yale’s staging part of the first wave of non-Broadway productions taking place at high schools and college campuses across the country.

Miller said the relative modernity of the musical contributes to the excitement of working on the production, since there are few conventions surrounding its interpretation.

“There are fewer versions of it out there; people haven’t had time to do too many new things with it,” Miller said.

Spring Awakening will use Off-Broadway in an atypical way, rearranging the traditional theater setup to create “a much more open, edgier space, with a much [rawer] feel to it,” Karetsky said. While the seating in Off-Broadway is typically clustered at one end of the stage, the audience at Spring Awakening will view the action from every angle.

“We wanted to show off the versatility of [Off-Broadway] … to tear it down and build it up anew,” Karetsky said.

Miller said this black-box setup will alter the dynamic of the show.

“It’s a completely different experience based on where you’re sitting,” Miller explained, adding that being visible from every direction will be new for many of the actors as well.

The production will draw on visual elements from both the original play and the musical production, putting a different “spin” on both, said Emily Monjaraz ’14, the show’s costume and set designer. Natural and forest imagery play a very dominant role in Wedekind’s play, while the Broadway musical is “a lot more about the classroom.” Monjaraz has tried to marry the two, setting the scene amidst a forest chalked onto blackboards and including a wire hanger tree as a set piece.

The buzz around Spring Awakening is palpable. The performances for Friday and Saturday nights sold out within two hours, and the entire show in another three.

“There are a lot of feelings about it,” Monjaraz said. “It’s something people are still really pumped up about.”

Spring Awakening has won eight Tony Awards including “Best Musical.”

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