Dave and I saw Spring Awakening at the Curran on Thursday. Dave liked it a lot; I liked it more than I was expecting to. The musical seems fairly true to the feverish spirit of the Wedekind play, which may or may not have been such a good thing, and the rock songs are fun and a surprisingly good match for the story of nineteenth-century teens angsting about sex all over the place.
But though the songs were pleasant and the choreography was interesting and the story was clearly told, I never felt any strong emotional connection with any of the characters, who seemed thin and conventional to me. The deck is heavily stacked in favor of the teens, who are all poignantly lost in various ways, and against the adults, none of whom cares much about any of the kids and most of whom do little other than find new and increasing cruel ways of mistreating them. (The one adult who ever makes an attempt to be understanding, and who is somewhat less obviously a cartoon character than the others, nevertheless won’t stand up for her son when it counts, so it doesn’t matter.) The cartoony, one-dimensional way all the parents and teachers are written reminded me at times of things like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bleah.
I haven’t read the Wedekind play in probably thirty years, so I’ll have to reread it and see, but my memory is that the characters are just as shallowly drawn and the story just as one-sided there. But that’s just an observation, not a justification; I’m not a believer in being faithful to the weaknesses of a play as well as its strengths when you’re adapting it. And the Wedekind play is not a classic because of its theatrical skill, but because it was very, very shocking a century ago. It isn’t very shocking now. It’s not that America isn’t every bit as fucked up and in denial about sex as Germany was a century ago; but we aren’t fucked up and in denial in quite the same ways.
However, the audience was full of young people who were applauding vigorously all the way through and cheering at the end, so clearly the show strikes a chord with its audience, and equally clearly I’m at least a quarter of a century too old to be part of that audience.
I have several rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years about choosing stories to adapt as musicals, and one of them is: Don’t adapt anything you were assigned to read in school. It tends to lead you as a writer into to the wrong relationship with your story. It’s hard to argue with Spring Awakening‘s success, but the story and characters never came alive for me, and I wish they’d chosen a different play to give this treatment to, something that they might have felt freer to rewrite as they wanted to in order to tell a richer and more alive story. Or maybe scrap the nineteenth-century German setting and move it to modern-day America, and use it to write about the lies about sex that our society is telling itself. It’s a little too easy to give ourselves credit for recognizing the lies of a century ago.
The book itself to Spring Awakening is clear and well constructed. One thing it was hard to miss about the musical, though, is that the songs are rarely used in a dramatic way to advance the action. They’re all static expressions of the characters’ attitudes and emotions, and the characters and situations and relationships never change between the beginning of a song and its end. It’s what I think of as opera seria construction: You have a spoken scene in which, say, X tries to persuade Y about something; Y is either persuaded or not, still in spoken dialogue; and only once the action of this scene has concluded do X and Y sing a static duet that is in some way about the new situation. This seems like bland theater writing to me; better if the song in that scene consists of, say, X making his argument, or Y giving her answer, or a duet in which both happen.
On the other hand, though, with the songs in Spring Awakening being performed in the modern overamplified style, I couldn’t make out very many of the lyrics, so maybe it was just as well.