Gwen was not a fan of Spring Awakening –– and she readily admitted that it was her fault, not the show. She’d burned out on the musical, ever since its 2006 Broadway production caught fire among the teen theatre set, with endless repetitions of its inanely pop-punk score dredged up at more cabarets than she could count. The lyrics were poetic enough on their surface that no one Gwen knew had needed to dig any deeper into them to find meaning. An angsty screed against uncaring parents, for a generation slowly acclimating to an uncaring world. A string of regional productions after performance rights were released in 2011, while the tide of interest was still high, had afforded her numerous opportunities to see a gaggle of Wendlas and Melchiors partake in enough hayloft intimacy to make the cast of Equus blush.
Gwen was, to put it mildly, over it.
And yet, when Dania and Eleanor found the upcoming production of the show –– far up North, in Waukegan, at Three Brothers Theatre –– something in Gwen told her she would enjoy the performance. College and a continuing study of theatre history had left her more receptive to the popular arts. Perhaps it was time to give Spring Awakening a second chance.
A note in the program, from director Marie Tredway, gave her early confidence. Focus had been given to the seasons, and their resonance in the story –– a metaphor for the maturation of the characters, in a story that spanned nearly a year. The simple scenic design, featuring a trio of windows atop a featureless platform, cued Gwen in early that this would be a production relying on the actors to carry the emotional weight.
“Have you been to Three Brothers before?” Eleanor asked, mere moments before the house lights went down.
“No, I’ve never made it up here,” Gwen admitted. “Have you? How did you find out about it?”
“Targeted marketing. Dania got a Facebook ad.” She grinned at Dania. “It works!”
“We’re cogs in a system!” crowed Dania. She leaned back to show off her shirt –– from the 2008 national tour of Spring Awakening.
“You grew up with it?”
“It helped me get through school,” Dania admitted. “I was not popular.”
– – – – –
“That was the understudy for Moritz?”
“Yep,” Eleanor said, holding up the insert. For their performance, the actor George Marn had covered for Eric Deutz.
“He was really good!” Dania said. “I’d never have known.”
“He and the Melchior, Kevin Hauger, had really strong chemistry. It felt so conversational, talking about Moritz’s dreams. Like two schoolchildren throwing thoughts back and forth.”
“They’re definitely students, in age,” Gwen repeated. “I don’t know if I ever got that before.”
Dania’s glance sharpened. “You never realized they were teenagers?”
“I knew it, but I didn’t put it together what that meant for their social circles,” Gwen said. “Other versions of the shows I’ve seen, the rejection of the adults leads to the child characters acting more like adults to compensate. They’re conniving and angry and impassioned in the way young adults are –– which I guess they are, young adults I mean.”
“I’m not explaining it right,” Gwen stumbled. “There was something about the staging of things. The scene before ‘Dark I Know Well’ didn’t feel like it was leading to anywhere dark before we got there. It was just girls, together in…it wasn’t a school hallway, but it felt like one…”
“It was certainly less punk rock than the Broadway version,” said Dania. “With their spiked hair and handheld mics. But I think the message is still the same, about how adults are leaving us to fend for ourselves, with disastrous results.”
“We’re leaving them to fend, Dania,” Eleanor corrected. “You’re the adult now.”
Dania’s eyes widened considerably. “Oh my God…”
“It almost…didn’t feel like a musical?” Gwen suggested. “Or, I should say, the music didn’t take focus. The book scenes were just as important as the songs were.”
“Isn’t that the definition of a musical?” asked Eleanor.
“But not Spring Awakening,” said Gwen. “I’ve always felt the show’s book scenes were only there to bridge the songs. To move the plot enough that another emotional ballad felt necessary. But here, there was a lot more care given to the storytelling in the music, so it all felt like book scenes. That’s what I mean.”
“I get that,” Eleanor said. “I’ve never seen it before this, so I can’t judge––”
“You’ve never…what?” Dania shouted. “You talked about how you were excited to see it!”
“Because I never had!” Eleanor said. “I heard about it, but never the actual songs.”
“And your thoughts?” Gwen asked. “Before we bias you further?”
“I enjoyed it a lot,” Eleanor continued. “There were some parts where I got lost –– the lyrics are really heavy on abstract poetry, aren’t they?”
Gwen sighed. “Yes, they are.”
“So some of that I missed. But beyond that, the performances were really solid, I followed the story, the band did an incredible job with a strange dissonant score, I cared about the characters.”
“I agree, and that’s not nothing,” added Gwen. “Caring as much as I did. That Melchior, when he’s in the graveyard at the end, he handled that moment so deftly. Usually it’s a big melodramatic scream and collapse.”
“Well, he did collapse,” Dania recalled.
“Can you blame him?” asked Eleanor. “It’s a melodrama, but not one that’s uprooted from universal fears. What got to me about it was how banal everything felt. The fact that, despite the stakes, there’s such a prevailing sense of dread. The kids knowing that they have to sit there and take what life is throwing at them.”
“Except for ‘Totally F**ked,’ right?” Dania said. “That felt like it they were standing up and doing something about it.”
“Oh, I loved that song,” Eleanor said. “To see everything reach a breaking point in Act II –– just great writing.”
“Maybe that’s it then,” Gwen surmised. “Other productions I’ve seen feel like they live entirely within ‘Totally F**ked.’ Everyone angry at the world, choking to death on their own angst. So overconfident that they can push the rest of the world away. But the kids here…they felt so lost. And so cognizant of how lost they were.”
“It was honest, is what it was,” Eleanor added. “Angst comes from a sense of knowing what you are, or at least knowing what you aren’t. It’s an argument, a sense of fighting for your own identity. I don’t know the Broadway version, but based on this one…the characters seemed too lost about themselves to be angsty. Maybe Moritz, but certainly not Wendla.”
“I liked their Wendla,” Dania added. “I liked her curiosity. Her scenes alone with Melchior, in the first act, I’d forgotten how stumbly and awkward the romance is.”
Dania thought, then added: “I guess I was a stumbly romantic when I first saw it, so there you go.”
“I loved what they did with Ilse,” Gwen said. “Loved having her lurking around in the background during other scenes, looking in on the rest of the group. And her scene with Moritz –– it’s so tragic to see him so close to opening up to someone, before turning away.”
“Okay, was she dead?” asked Eleanor.
“I totally thought she was dead during Act I,” she clarified. “Like, they mention that she ran away, but she’s watching. Even during that Moritz scene, I was like, ‘this is a ghost, he’s standing where she died, this is awesome.’ But then she’s reading Wendla’s letter, and she’s at the funeral, so I figured probably not.”
“…that’s not a bad idea, directorially,” Gwen considered. “Maybe that was Tredway’s intention.”
“She directed it very cleanly,” said Eleanor. “There was a clear sense of the arc of the play, more than any individuals. Which helped me to justify the featured moments for ‘Dark I Know Well’ and the two gay kids.”
“Hanschen and Ernst, yeah,” Dania confirmed. “Yeah, they sort of disappear for the entire center of the show.”
“Well, it’s not their story,” Eleanor said. “It made sense thematically to bring them back, to have the discussion about sliding under the radar without losing your queerness. Again, it’s a thematic arc more than a dramatic one.”
“I’d agree, but I wouldn’t discount the strength of Tredway’s work in giving the drama adequate stakes,” Gwen countered. “It makes sense that teenagers went wild for the show –– it’s all about them, Dania said as much. But getting adult audiences to connect, to find the universality in the renegotiation of identity that kids are always partaking in…that’s hard to translate into drama. Tredway found intelligent ways to justify having other characters in the periphery of the action –– especially the church appearing during ‘I Believe.'”
“That was scary.”
“Ilse floating around is part of that, too. The worldbuilding, mostly through the staging, was strong, and helped to de-center the tragic romance as the ‘thing’ the play is about.”
“So what do you think of the script, then?” Eleanor asked. “Considering you’ve compared the show positively to any other production you’ve seen.”
“I can see the promise in it, more than I did before,” Gwen admitted. “There’s still stuff in it I don’t understand –– ‘Purple Summer,’ as a finale, has a tendency to feel anticlimactic.”
“Yeah, didn’t pick that one up,” Eleanor shrugged.
“And I wish the show went deeper into the parent-to-child relationships,” Gwen said. “There’s a difference between the neglect of Wendla’s mother, versus the abuse of Mortz’s father –– and I definitely empathized with Melchior’s parents more in this version than ever before.”
“Yeah, the whole, ‘it’s only me, just trust me’ stuff at the end of Act I plays…differently now than it probably did in 2007.”
“Absolutely,” Dania said. “He knew what he was doing.”
“That said, as a blueprint…” Gwen continued. “And a script is only a blueprint for a production you have to build yourself…”
“Although most people copy what the Broadway version did,” Dania pointed out. “Unlike this one.”
“…as a blueprint, there’s potential here for something impactful. And to the credit of Tredway and Three Brothers, they found a lot of it.”
“I liked returning to it,” Dania said. “Even if I’m now…the adult.”
“Eh, every adult was a kid once,” Eleanor grinned.
“But the hard part is not forgetting that,” said Gwen.
Image Credit: (l to r) Lauren McKee, Cassidy Skorija, Jules Wolnak, Jenna Rapisarda, Emily Mertens / Photo: Caryn Lorraine