Well, any doubts I ever had about Spring Awakening's chances on Broadway can now be officially laid to rest: it recouped. But it was no sure thing. In previews it reportedly lost $700,000 of its initial $6 mil investment. What saved it? Apparently, says Riedel, the "yutes":
For one thing, "Spring Awakening" really did manage to tap into an audience that's much younger than the typical Broadway crowd. And it did so largely through the Internet.
A clip of the show on YouTube, illegally swiped from the Tony Awards in June, has received more than 100,000 hits. And there are video and audio clips from the show all over MySpace.
MTV, which pays scant attention to Broadway, did a major piece on "Spring Awakening" that, says Pittelman, sent the box office soaring.
And even through the ups and downs of the doldrums of summer, it's been playing strong to full houses.
So there you have it. Instead of infantilizing geezers with cotton candy, we have young audiences flocking to challenging 19th century German source material to a rock beat.... Is Broadway growing up, as it were?Well, not so fast, if you remember what had to be done to Wedekind's original Frühlings Erwachen to make it play on the Rialto. And who else should come along and remind us about that than... Jonathan Franzen?
It's true, Jonathan Franzen has just published his own translation of the original play (yes, he apparently knows German, it's not a lazy "adapt" job) and writes a very insightful introduction to the play. Including a number of zingers calling out the musical. At length. Such as:
One example of the ongoing danger and vitality of Spring Awakening was the insipid rock-musical version of it that opened on Broadway in 2006, a hundred years after the play's world premiere, and was instantly overpraised. The script that Wedekind had finished in 1891 was far too frank sexually to be producible on any late-Victorian stage....And yet even the cruelest bowdlerizations of a century ago [i.e., the early censored versions] were milder than the maiming a dangerous play now undergoes in becoming a contemporary hit.
The hand-wringing young Moritz Stiefel, whom Wedekind had kill himself over a bad report card, is transformed, in the musical version, into a punk rocker of such talent and charisma that it's unimaginable that a report card could depress him. The casual rape of Wendla Bergmann by the play's central character, Melchior Gabor, becomes a thunderous spectacle of ecstasy and consent. And where Wedekind showed the young sensualist Hansy Rilow resisting masturbation--reluctantly destroying a piece of pornography that threatens to "eat away" his brain--we in the twenty-first century are treated to a choreographed orgy of penis-pumping, semen-slinging exultation....As for the working-class girl Martha Bessel, who in the original play is beaten by her father and ardently envied for these beatings by the bourgeois masochist Wendla Bergmann: what else could she become in 2006 but a saintly young emblem of sexual abuse? Her supportive, sisterly friends join her in singing "The Dark I Know Well," an anthem to the sorrow of being carnally interesting to grown-ups. Instead of Martha's appalling matter-of-factness about her home life...there is now a dense modern fog of sentimentality and bad faith.
A team of grown-ups creates a musical whose main selling point is teen sex (the first Broadway posters showed the male lead mounting the female lead) and whose female teen characters, shortly after wailing to their largely grown-up audience that they are bad-girl love-junkies, come forward to sing of how terribly, unfairly painful it is to possess a teen sexuality that fascinates grown-ups. If the path from Bratz dolls through Britneywear finally leaves a girl feeling like somebody else's piece of meat, it obviously can't be commercial culture's fault, because commercial culture has such a rockin' great sound track and nobody understands teenagers better than commercial culture does, nobody admires them more than it does, nobody works harder to make them feel authentic, nobody insists more strenuously that young consumers are always right, whether as moral heroes or as moral victims.... In the end, the only thing that really matters to teenagers is that they be taken very seriously. And here, among all the ways in which Spring Awakening would seem to be unsuitable material for a commercial rock musical, is Frank Wedekind's most grievous offense: he makes fun of teenagers--flat-out laughs at them--to the same degree that he takes them seriously. And so now, more than ever, he must be censored.First of all, I think this is first lengthy serious analytical response to the musical "Spring Awakening" I've seen in print. And since it's a notable phenomenon on B'way, it's worth paying this much attention to. That it's by a famous literary fiction author is also heartening, since we need more of this "crossover" and conversation between artists of all media and genres. We need the arts to pay attention to each other, in other words.
Franzen's views on Wedekind and the musical are highly personal, of course. While I tend to agree with most of his diagnosis of the musical's watering down the play, I actually don't for a moment think these changes were made purely for commercial reasons. I mean, no one would even start writing a musical of Spring Awakening if they wanted to make millions. I really think that for the personnel most responsible--Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater, and director Michael Mayer--they genuinely like their version better.
(True, the act one finale, the rape/non-rape scene, seems to have been tinkered with extensively between the first staging and Broadway previews. Perhaps some commercial pressure was brought to bear on that.)
I don't think has to do not with conscious "selling out" so much as the current sensibility of American theatre artists as opposed to a German rebel from a hundred years ago. As Americans are we so inculcated with the cultural and narrative values sanctioned "family entertainment" that we crave more. And when faced with a radically different vision from another time, we rush to assimilate it to the more familiar, and less threatening.
One thing I agree with Franzen about is that the current version may be explicit but it is not disturbing. A great production of the real Spring Awakening would fascinate teenagers, but also challenge, not flatter them.
As opposed to:
Walk by the stage door after any performance, and you'll see hordes of kids waiting to meet the cast. Once upon a time, they would have thrust out their Playbills for an autograph. Now, they whip out their cellphones and take picture of themselves with the actors.
I haven't read Franzen's translation yet, by the way. But I'm curious. He claims it's the first "complete" English version that restores all the parts cut by censors over the years...