The Playgoer: Sheik vs Franzen

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sheik vs Franzen

Rocker Duncan Sheik answers back in print to Jonathan Franzen's skewering of his alleged watering down of Spring Awakening. (A spat I first covered here.) In a letter to the editor to NY Magazine--where Franzen, in an interview a few weeks ago, elaborated on the critique laid out in the preface to his new translation of the original Wedekind play--Sheik rails:

The dexterity [Franzen] displays in simultaneously riding our coattails and stabbing us in the back certainly proves him quite the limber ‘populist.’ Though his apparent conflation of ChloĆ« Sevigny and Avril Lavigne drew a chuckle, it serves less as a critique of the musical than as evidence that, very much like all the adult characters in Spring Awakening, Mr. Franzen is hopelessly out of touch, mired in his own self-interest, and just doesn’t get it. His confusion about pop culture aside, I’m delighted it’s now a matter of public record that not only is Franzen a world-class curmudgeon, but he’s a baldly opportunistic one at that.

For the Avril/Chloe stuff, see Franzen's original NY Mag quotes--where any "stabbing" is pretty front-on, I'd say, not concealed.

All this "opportunism," "riding coattails" and "stabbing in the back"--I mean, it's not as if anyone needs Sheik and his colleagues' permission to translate a modern German classic, do they?

Franzen's response to the response?

It is Mr. Sheik’s and Mr. Sater’s production that is riding on the coattails of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. Whether the musical also stabs the play in the back is up to theatergoers to decide.

Let's see if it ends there.


parabasis said...


Look, Jonathan Franzen is a good writer, and I am very much not a fan of the musical Spring Awakening, but JF should really just keep to writing fiction and keep his thoughts on things to himself, as he can't seem to help bbut come across as a sanctimonious douchebag whenever he opens his mouth. I mean, have you read How To Be Alone? It's ridiculous.

Which masks the definite skill he has as a writer, unfortunately. I just think he doesn't do himself any favors.

And Sheik is right-on in saying there is no way that Franzen would be able to publish his translation of SA were it not for Sheik's musical of it. I mean, it's not like S.A. was this hot property prior to the musical...

Anonymous said...

The real point that Parabasis doesn't grasp is that there would be no musical were it not for Wedekind's play.

Franzen's concern is that Sheik stole Wedekind's play, ruined it by changing major plot points, but kept its name so as to give it intellectual legitimacy.

Had this play been stripped of its Wedekind trappings it would not have made it past NYMF.

Franzen has done a great service in pointing out that the real Spring Awakening offers theatregoers something very different than the watered down musical.

Sheik is obviously threatened by this or else he wouldn't have gone on such a ranting response.

Sheik says that Franzen, like the adult characters in Spring Awakening, are "hopelessly out of touch." Actually, in the true play, it's the adolescents who are more often than not out of touch, and the adult Masked Man -- which the musical excises -- who offers a way out of an angst-ridden adolescence.

There is no Spring Awakening: The Musical without Spring Awakening. That Sheik finds Franzen the opportunist shows us who "just doesn't get it."

Moxie said...

I think Masked Man is joking, but just to clarify, Spring Awakening was never in NYMF.

So you're saying... there would be no Spring Awakening... without Spring Awakening? Thanks for clearing that up ;-)

parabasis said...

Here's a question, Masked Man (Assuming you're not joking for a moment) and anyone else who wants to comment...:

If Sheik and Sater had simply had a different title for their musical and then included the credit "Based on Frank Wedekind's `Spring Awakening'" would that satisfy?

Anonymous said...

No telling what the other commenters would say, but the title wouldn't make much difference to me. I thought Spring Awakening had problems on its own--i.e., not in terms of its adaptation of the play, which I'll admit I haven't read.

I'll ask a question back, for Parabasis or anyone else: Isn't it often the case that a great work adapted is no longer a great work? Think of books turned into movies as well as plays turned into movies or musicals. That's not an excuse for anything; maybe just a sort of resigned sigh...

Anonymous said...

I'll take Franzen's comments on the pitfalls of artistic borrowing seriously once he apologizes to Messrs. Parker and Stone of "South Park" for ripping off their Mr. Hanky character (vis a vis the "talking poo" scene in "The Corrections.")

That said: I agree with John Branch that often an adaptation can exceed the original and become its own indelible work of art. How many of us would prefer reading Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather" to seeing the film?

Kerry Reid

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I misread Mr. Branch. (Shouldn't post late at night!) He was arguing the opposite. I do agree that many adaptations miss the point of the original; however, in the case of several works (and "Godfather" is primary among them in my view), the adapter takes rather unremarkable material and transforms it into something far greater. Puzo's novel, if you've never read it, is pretty much a pulp potboiler with several groanworthy sections of dialogue. Coppola's film is an undisputed masterpiece. I have no desire to re-read the book, but I have watched the movie more times than I can count.

Can't speak for "Spring Awakening," as I've only heard the cast recording (and saw the play in college about 20 years ago), but I have many bones to pick with Jonathan "I consider myself to be in the high-art literary tradition" Franzen. (Okay Jonathan -- and Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.)

For that matter, isn't quite a lot of Shakespeare "adapted" from other sources, such as Seneca?


Anonymous said...

I think this is all ridiculous.
Mr. Franzen translated the original play into English, YAY! Musicals are never like the originals. I don't hear anybody complaining about how Little Shop of Horrors: The Musical completely did away with the "Horror" element of the original film... I also don't hear people whining about how FAME: The Musical is nothing like the film. Spring Awakening: The Musical is just another take on the classic piece of theatrical history. Duncan Sheik used elements of contemporary rock to bring the play to a new generation. Using elements of both new and old worlds, Sheik was able to bring the play to a new level that young people today can grasp without being bored to tears because they are so deprived of culture. Honestly, we have Disney and Nickelodeon censoring any type of tragedy imaginable to "protect" children and Sheik's adaptation breaks that boundary. In any case, we have both versions now and people can choose which one they want to see. Fin.

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to comment on this, for fear that I'll be instantly branded as another teenager jumping on the Spring Awakening bandwagon, but Franzen's entire preface smacks of jealousy, to me.

For all that he says he translated the play himself many years ago and loves it dearly, he made no effort to publish that translation until Spring Awakening regained its popularity through Sheik and Sater's musical. If the play meant so very much to him, why not put the word out about it himself by publishing the translation when he claims to have written it? If he's now suffering sour grapes over having been beaten to the punch -- and let's be honest, however "one of a kind" he thinks his version is, it certainly would not have garnered the same attention as the musical -- then the least he can do is to keep his bitching and whining to himself. Throwing it in before his translation seems to me a childish attempt to get in the last word, so to speak.