2010-01-21 / Arts & Entertainment News

Spring Awakening

BY NANCY STETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com

Musicals are often thought of as fluffy, inconsequential things, but when Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik were writing “Spring Awakening,” “We set out to change the world,” Mr. Sater says.

“We really wanted to make a dent and affect how people think and feel. That was the impetus for the show. I wanted to create something that felt truthful to me, that felt real.”

And they did. When “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway in December 2006, The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood said, “Broadway may never be the same.” And calling it “a primal scream of turbulent puberty,” Linda Winer of Newsday wrote that the musical “did not merely open… last night. The action was more like ripping open, more like breaking out, more like tearing into the pretend pop and reused plots that pass for new musicals on Broadway today.”

The cast of “Spring Awakening.” The musical opens at Mann Hall Jan. 26. The cast of “Spring Awakening.” The musical opens at Mann Hall Jan. 26. “Spring Awakening” ran through January 2009, after almost 900 performances. A national tour plays the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall Jan 26-31.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, “Spring Awakening” focuses on the tumultuous, exhilarating time of teens’ sexual discovery. Using pop music composed by Duncan Sheik (known for his hits “Barely Breathing” and “On a High”), the show not only deals with burgeoning sexual curiosity and feelings, but with homosexuality, sexual abuse, abortion and suicide.

The teens in “Spring Awakening” are living in a highly repressive 19th-century German society.

Mr. Sater wanted to draw parallels to today’s culture, with abstinence-only education and health programs that deny people access to condoms and abortion.

“That’s 100 percent what we were doing,” he says. “This moral hypocrisy, it denies life, the facts of life and young people experiencing puberty. In some ways, it’s very threatening to think that children grow up. If they grow up, then who are you, as the parent, the adult? It’s very frightening to acknowledge your kids as sexual creatures.

“What struck me early on was that to use this 19th-century play, and set it against this contemporary music, is that we’re still not listening to what’s going on in kids’ hearts. We’re still ignoring the music that is in our children, as a society, as a family, as a religious body. These are the things that formed the show.”

Audiences welcome the musical’s bracing honesty.

“…Young people definitely relate to this; they’re going through it,” Mr. Sater says. “And older people remember in their own minds, their own lives. It opens their hearts again. They have empathy for young people. It has such an impact on families. It opens up dialogues between generations.

SHEIK SHEIK “I had a painful adolescence,” he says wryly. “Didn’t we all?”

The musical was also a critical success.

Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, it won eight, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. It received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding New Broadway Musical, Outstanding New Score and Outstanding Direction of a Musical. “Spring Awakening” received a Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Musical and tied with “In the Heights” for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical.

And the soundtrack received a 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

But it was a long road to get to that point.

Mr. Sater says that he and Mr. Sheik never set out to flout the rules.

“I knew this play, I love this play,” he says. “I would imagine, hear Duncan’s music in the play, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ The idea came from me. I didn’t worry about how radical it was. I just wanted to create something beautiful, I wanted to make a change.”

The show’s unique style was informed by taste, he says. Mr. Sheik told him that he never liked it when people in musicals talk, then sing, then talk again, because what they’re saying seems arbitrary. So Mr. Sater said, “Let’s make the songs internal monologues.

“There were points of discovery like that, along the way,” he says. “It was never to break the rules, it was always to create something that we thought was cool and that we thought was beautiful, to tell a story.”

The two, both practicing Buddhists, met in New York at Mr. Sheik’s loft, to chant together. They started talking and just hit it off. Mr. Sater calls it “a fateful first meeting, a five-hour meeting of the minds and hearts.”

Mr. Sater was doing a play in New York, and another in London (a reconceived version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” for which performance artist Laurie Anderson wrote the music.)

Mr. Sheik asked him if he had a song in his New York show, “Umbrage.” Mr. Sater said he had “just this little thing I wrote,” and Mr. Sheik asked if he could see the lyrics. So when Mr. Sater went home, he faxed him the lyrics, and Mr. Sheik composed music for it.

“I thought, ‘This is fun!’ I started doing it more, faxing him lyrics.”

It was the start of a beautiful creative partnership, with Mr. Sater writing lyrics and Mr. Sheik setting them to music. They worked on Mr. Sheik’s album, “Phantom Moon,” on the Nonesuch label. Then they began working on “Spring Awakening.”

The two have worked on many other projects together too. Currently, they’re working on a musical about Nero, which Mr. Sater describes as “black, comic, political, and epic, almost like a Greek tragedy but very much about today.” They’re also working on a musical based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Nightingale.”

“It’s very cool, it’s all about storytelling,” he says. It’s a different sound for the them; it’s not a rock musical, but a chamber piece. And it’s a family-friendly show that younger children can attend.

“We connect, Duncan and I, on such a profound level,” Mr. Sater says. “We never write in the same room, which makes a brilliant collaboration. We both retain our solitary processes… Part of what’s really beautiful in my relationship to Duncan is that we’re so in sync, but we allow ourselves our privacy in the process… And 97 percent of the time, he just sets the lyrics, completely verbatim. We’re just so easy.”

Of course, when they go into the theater, “that all changes, the collaboration shifts.”

The director gets involved, the producer gets involved.

“They have opinions,” he says. “Sometimes you are resistant, and sometimes you realize there are exergencies. Songs have to work in a certain way (within a show), in a certain tempo. It may be OK for an album, but it may not be the tempo you need in the show.”

But if the song isn’t right, they have to rework it, or write another.

Mr. Sater describes the process as “a butting of the heads, which leads to a meeting of the minds.”

He says the number of songs they wrote for “Spring Awakening” that didn’t make it into the show could fill a double album.

It took them seven years of working on it, beginning in 1999. Mr. Sater calls it a millennial piece.

They dramatically altered the original play.

“For seven years’ labor, we were conceiving and creating a story that would bear the weight of the songs. That’s really our play you’re watching, in the guise of Frank Wedekind’s original play. That was all a great deal of collaboration,” he says, with himself, Mr. Sheik, director Michael Mayer, and during the last couple years, actor Tom Hulce, all working on it.

“Tom’s very good with story; he thinks like an actor, he’s very subjective,” Mr. Sater says. “Michael was very helpful. He comes from a very traditional musical theater background.

“My impulses with Duncan were, I wanted to write a great play, not just the book of a musical. I wanted it to be like a classic play that would stand, even without the songs in it. But we also wanted to write the songs as a concert version of the story without the play. It was a great effort to hammer that out through the years. It was really intense and really painful.”

They faced many moments of profound discouragement, “Horrible and discouraging rejections,” he says. “(People saying) that it was incomprehensible: those German names, this formal language, and this rock CD.”

And people were turned off by the serious subject matter. After 9/11, they kept being told that audiences wanted mindless comedies.

“We had something of substance to say,” Mr. Sater says. “We kept on.”

What helped him persevere?

“I’m a Buddhist,” he says. “I chant, and I was really determined, from the bottom of my heart, when we began this. I wanted to touch the troubled hearts of youth around the world. I would return, again and again, to that: we wanted to make a difference. If we gave up, it could not make a difference.

“I’m pretty tough. When I believe in something, I really believe in it, and I don’t let it go easily.”

During the premieres, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, considered by some to be the greatest living artist in American musical theater, came to see it off-Broadway.

“People said, ‘He’s here, he’ll never stay past Act I,’” Mr. Sater says. “But he did. And he was the first person to leap up and give us a standing ovation. I met him afterwards. He took my hand and held my hand in both of his hands and said, ‘This is beautiful.’”

Now “Spring Awakening” has not only enjoyed success on Broadway and has a national tour, but has opened around the world, including Sweden, Norway, South Korea, Brazil, Austria, Australia, Finland and Japan, and in London and Budapest.

A movie version is in the works; Mr. Sater wrote the screenplay. He hopes to shoot it this year, but nothing is set yet, and the movie hasn’t been cast.

“What was important and helpful to me was to have a producer involved and a director who helped me open my eyes, to re-visit it with open eyes,” he says. “It opened up for me very naturally. I could then explore things that you can’t in the play. (With a film version), you have to reinvent it, you can’t just translate it (to the screen.) The musical was so groundbreaking, you want it to be groundbreaking as a film. So you can’t just be filming what you did on stage.”

Since that fateful meeting with Mr. Sheik, Mr. Sater now works with other composers in addition to continuing their creative partnership.

“It’s part of the joy of my life, a door opened by Duncan,” he says. “Now I’m in the world of music, working with different composers. It’s like discovering a part of yourself that was always there, that you were in a sense training yourself for, your whole life: a student of literature, writing poetry. I discovered this gift for music. It’s so much a part of my life, which it may never have been, and now it is.” ¦

if you go

>> “Spring Awakening”
>> When: Jan. 26-31
>> Where: The Barbara B. Mann Performing
Arts Hall, 8099 College Parkway, Fort Myers
>> Cost: $60, $50, $40, $30
>> Information: Call (239) 481-4849. Note:
The venue advises parental discretion, as
the show contains mature themes, including
sexual situations, profanity and brief nudity.

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