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A sexual ‘Awakening’ focuses on mature subjects

Fri., Jan. 14, 2011

In case you were thinking of attending “Spring Awakening” under the impression that it’s a light and frothy musical comedy, check out these quotes:

• “A straight shot of eroticism” – Charles Isherwood in his 2006 New York Times review.

• “ ‘Spring Awakening’ deals with mature themes, and these include moments of brutality and sexual situations … abortion and religion are crucial to the plot.” – from the show’s public relations packet.

• “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F——-” – two of the show’s song titles.

• “(For) a handful of people in the audience, it makes them uncomfortable or it’s just too much” – Elizabeth Judd.

Judd ought to know; she plays the lead role of Wendla in the national touring production which arrives for a one-night stand Wednesday.

However, far more significant is Judd’s assessment of how this Tony-winning musical has affected the show’s many, many fans and devotees.

“We have kids who come to us and tell us things about themselves, things that are very personal, about how the show has helped them or helped them with their parents,” she said by phone from the road.

“It’s pretty inspiring and it’s definitely the reason we love to do the show.”

“Spring Awakening” has become a phenomenon – and a more unlikely phenomenon is hard to imagine.

It’s based on an 1891 German play by a relatively unknown playwright, Frank Wedekind, about the traumas of adolescence, a play that was banned for decades. The characters speak in the formal, classical speech of the era.

And it’s paired with an indie rock soundtrack by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

It doesn’t sound like much of a formula for Broadway success, but “Spring Awakening” went on to win eight Tony Awards, including best musical, best score and best book in 2007.

Its power lies in its themes – teen angst, sexual awakening, religion and homosexuality – and also in its inspired way of handling those themes.

The characters are in 1891 Germany, but as soon as the music starts up and they begin to sing, they assume the manner and speech of contemporary American teens.

It’s a direct and powerful way to make the point that times may change, but teen angst is eternal.

“It’s exhilarating,” said Judd.

She said it’s part of what makes “Spring Awakening” impossible to compare to any other musical. Some have compared it to “Rent,” but Judd doesn’t buy that.

“It’s kind of revolutionary and it talks about things that aren’t talked about, but other than that, I would say they’re pretty different,” she said. “… ‘Spring Awakening’ is really on it’s own and the people who come to see it, say ‘I’ve never seen a musical like that.’ ”

The style of music certainly sets it apart. Judd compares it to the music you might hear on indie rock radio, with some songs with a rock feel, and others more folk or pop.

Her big number in the show is titled “Mama Who Bore Me,” which begins as a slow, folk-type song. Then, in reprise, it becomes a big rock power ballad.

The show is accompanied by a six-piece band, directed by Spokane native Kasey RT Graham. The band is not hidden in a pit. It’s right up there on stage.

“People come up and say, ‘Gosh, when you are singing that, I want to get up there, I know that feeling,’ ” said Judd. “That’s so cool. I love that.”

The producers recommend “Spring Awakening” for those 15 and older, although they recognize that, when it comes to teens, emotional maturity – and tastes and standards – can vary widely.

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