The Playgoer: Spring Awakening and Success

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Spring Awakening and Success

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.

and then...
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...


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about the value of this Franzen piece--I don't think there's much going on in it other than his unremitting sour snobbery, the native condescension that so many novelists have towards theater, and a kind of self-willed refusal to understand that a contemporary rock musical version of "Spring Awakening" does not obliterate, deface or otherwise harm the original work of art. It's a bit like reading a long rant about how West Side Story vulgarizes Romeo & Juliet and isn't it disgusting that teenagers like it and is this what passes for art these days and popular culture defiles everything it touches and so on and so on. This is not, to me, an interesting cross-cultural conversation--it's a novelist playing at being a theater critic. Didn't the Oprah experience teach him that whenever his first instinct is to express contempt for something, it might be better to wait for his SECOND instinct?

Playgoer said...

Fair point, I must say.

I agree about the whole Franzen/Oprah episode, btw. My problem there was that Franzen had no problem buying into, NY Times media coverage as somehow above commerce, while believing that distancing himself from Oprah's book club was rising above it all.

But while his Spring Awakening critique is extreme, to be sure, as a fellow lover of the play I think it has value. He's articulating--again in xtreme form (and I quote him at length not all out of admiration, but almost gawking)--what many of who love the play thought of the musical.

That said, I agree with you that there's no reason the two versions can't peacefully co-exist. The musical is simply a different entity and I accept it as that, and see its value as a "popularization" of a twisted fin-de-siecle classic. So I wouldn't want to obliterate it as much as Franzen does.

But... THAT said... (trying not to be too even handed here) what appeals to me most about Franzen's argument is how our art of today shrivels at the daunting moral challenges of the art of bygone eras. Our need for happy endings and likeable characters (Franzen doesn't even touch on the Sp Awakening ending changes) seems to get more and more desperate. La Boheme's Mimi dies, but Rent's lives, for instance. Even those old 19th century melodramas were more willing to look deeper into the abyss than our mainstream culture.

But, hey, I guess I'm a bit of an elitist, too.

Anonymous said...

interesting romeo and juliet comparison, but I would reply that that the creators of West Side Story took more of a risk by updating the show and making it topical and urgent: puerto ricans were immigrating to the US, immigration and racial politics are hot-button, morally challenging issues. The creators of Spring Awakening, on the other hand, conservatively retain the 19th century german facade and water down the challenges of the original Spring Awakening. Franzen argues that the modern teenager isn't challenged or moved by watching spring awakening whereas your teenager in 1959 watching West Side Story is going to have to think about pre-Civil Rights america, race and class. if you translate a play you're going to know it really well, almost too well, but this doesn't smell like an attack on all adaptations. a translation, after all, is an adaptation. I'm interested in Franzen's approach using language in his translation. teenage america is where most of our slang begins, after all, so there are many choices out there as to what sort of tone he could give a translation.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point, printemps. I think that's what Franzen is saying, too. How could something written in 2007, using the same characters and situations written in 1891, been so much less truthful, probing, complex, upsetting? If you stop and think about it, it says a lot about our moment. Either commercialism or psychological denial seem the most logical culprits. These creators have a lot to answer for.

Here's another interesting take from a Barnard professor:

Playgoer said...

Thank you for the HOT Review link, Moritz--or shall I say, Herr Steiffel.

I like what Ms. Garrett (no, not me--and not Charlotte Rae either) has to say. Her elucidation and analysis of the "rape" scene is the best I've read, and informative. The quotation from the actress is especially revealing: "these two characters were very much in love with each other" is exactly where the show goes wrong--or at least parts company with Wedekind. The true tragedy of SA (subtitled, btw, "A Children's Tragedy") is that Wendla dies and Melchior's life is ruined by a no-doubt ten second sexual intercourse with no love at all, but lots of confusion, in it.

As the musical's insertion of Wendla's "ghost" into the ending indicates, though--it is essential, inherent to the form of The Broadway Musical (conventionally, at least) for the "love story" to be central, the source of all conflict and resolution. Because Wedekind didn't really have one (because he seems to think teenagers incapable of anything like "love") the play had to be given one.

And that's how a chilling rape scene becomes a luscious make-out Act One finale.

Rocco said...

I love this Franzen piece. And Garrett, your first comment here really hits the nail on the head. Its not that Spring Awakening the musical is a bad show. Its just that its not really Spring Awakening. That's why (as a lover of the original) I was really disappointed. And that's also why if I went back with a better understanding of what I was in for, I would probably enjoy the show a lot more.

The hardest for me was the Ilse/Moritz scene, which is really heartbreaking in the play. Its converted to a 60 second sketch with a (somewhat unrelated) song. Eesh.

Anonymous said...

I love this quote from New York Magazine's Year in Theatre 2007 List.

Spring Awakening
When the year started, Spring Awakening was a critics' darling facing long odds for survival. Did an audience exist for a pop-musical version of a 116-year-old German play about hormonal teens featuring onstage nudity, simulated masturbation, S&M, and the dirty words they don't air on MTV? As the year ends, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's show is a runaway hit: the winner of eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, a crossover phenomenon (compliments of a Gap ad featuring the eye-candy cast), with box-office momentum that Jonathan Franzen's bitchy tirade against the adaptation couldn't impede. The success of this gutsy indie-rock show proves that the 21st-century musical doesn't just live: It kicks ass.