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Rude Awakening
By Shawn-Marie Garrett


Spring Awakening: A New Musical
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 W. 49th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Shortly before the Tony nominations were announced, I finally got around to seeing Spring Awakening: A New Musical on Broadway. Sitting on the stage, practically a member of the ensemble (or so I fantasized), I found the experience amusing enough while it lasted. Yet the show has since collapsed so completely under the pressure of further reflection that I feel compelled to offer a dissenting opinion, quaintly enough, on moral grounds. As far as I can tell, this is the first dissenting opinion of any kind that has yet been published, which is odd. In casual conversations, nearly everyone (including members of the musical's teenaged target audience) begins by acknowledging that the show is basically "lame"--everyone, that is, except its smitten professional critics.

Morality aside, SA the Musical suffers from glaring formal, structural, and aesthetic weaknesses. Aesthetically, the most obvious problem is that neither of the show's basic musical genres, classic rock and mild-mannered punk, is really "edgy," so the project is a shameless taming and dumbing down of a still-disturbing 1891 play. No objections here, by the way, to rock musicals per se: Hedwig rocked the (off-Broadway) house. But SA the Musical is actually less artistically modern than Frank Wedekind's original, irrespective of chronology, and the whole exercise serves primarily as a reminder that the fin-de-XXe-siècle Berlin experimental arts scene was more radical than our contemporary version (but we already knew that) and that history is not progressive (ditto). It also offers further proof (if we needed any) that current mainstream New York theater, whether on, off, or nowhere near Broadway, mostly resembles that of mid-18th-century London: a popular theater of recycling, bowdlerizing, and sentimentality.

For decades now it has been unfashionable, or fashionable only in unfashionable circles, to consider art in moral terms. This reluctance is an understandable (if superficial) reaction by aficionados faced with encroaching cultural fundamentalism, a habit that confounds moralism with morality. Morality with its legion conundrums is still very much with us, whether we like it or not. What has happened, though, is that moralism rushes in (with its mega-churches and mega-musicals) where morality fears to tread. SA the Musical is not mega by Broadway standards but it is moralistic, and its moral blind spots give rise (as such blind spots always do) to artistic problems, plot problems, even logical problems that require no special training to discern.

In adapting the play, the musical's director and producers kept Wedekind's central, infamous rape scene. Somewhere between Chelsea and Times Square, however, they changed it from one of disturbing or at least uncomfortable quasi-forced sex (as played off-Broadway) to one of missionary-position love-making (as played on Broadway). Christopher Isherwood surmised in his Broadway review that "only scholars are likely to care that a key plot turn, a sex scene with the central female character, the pubescent Wendla Bergman (Lea Michele), has been thoroughly softened from confused ambiguity into a consensual act." Confounded again, morality is thus "thoroughly softened" into moralistic textual purism and exiled to the provinces of nitpicking scholars (German literature scholars, presumably, those strident advocates of theatrical rape fantasies).

"Softening" the play's rape scene, making it seem like it's not rape, is the moral equivalent of marrying Cordelia off to Edgar at the end of King Lear. Wendla's rape is the terrible, troubling crux of Spring Awakening. The Broadway producers' no-means-yes bowdlerizing makes the scene less shocking, less moral (to put it mildly), and paradoxically less feminist--political correctness once again gone awry. Staging and thereby confronting rape is not criminal or offensive. Pretending rape isn't rape is.

No doubt there was a heart-stopping moment in the transfer process when somebody realized you can't rape someone and then sing about it on Broadway. What's more, the audience won't like Melchior if he rapes Wendla, and if we can't have a hero we at least need an anti-hero, right? One might imagine similar scruples about another character's confessing that her father physically and sexually abuses her, after which she breaks into a song about it. Evidently, the production team felt this was more plausible or acceptable than the deeply creepy rape, though. Creepier still: the producers' hoary platitudes about why forced penetration might just be an act of love after all. Inevitably, the actress playing Wendla (Lea Michele) carries the burden of parroting these platitudes to the press: "It used to be where you might have thought it would have been along the lines of rape," Michele told Playbill, "but the more we learned about the play the more we realized these two characters were very much in love with each other, and we really just showed the truth of that. Michael [Mayer, the director] really managed to make it very classy and just very respectful. I wouldn't do anything if I felt it wasn't respectful."

Wedekind would. In his mysterious final scene, a character called the Masked Man (first played by the author) reminds the audience that the play is about morality, and not the easy conventional kind: "By morality I understand the real product of two imaginary forces," the Masked Man says. "The imaginary forces are should and would. The product is called Morality, and no one is allowed to forget that's real." A naive, aroused, presumably virgin boy rapes an ignorant yet provocative virgin girl: this presents a moral problem not easily solved, the product of would without should. The same boy and girl have loving, consensual sex: this presents no moral problem (the product of would and should) unless you think that kids having sex, period, is immoral. Here we glimpse the deeply conservative moralism of SA the Musical which, in a single stroke, unwittingly endorses the myopia of the play's laughably conventional parents and teachers.

Far from a simple celebration of desire, Spring Awakening explores the truth and consequences of desire: what happens when desire is repressed and then--inevitably, ignorantly, chaotically--unleashed. It also shows the abuse of power, or "the misuse of authority," as Edward Bond once wrote. Melchior is one of the people in the play who misuses his authority and thereby makes somebody else suffer. Melchior knows about sex, Wendla doesn't--in a deeply ambiguous play, there's no ambiguity about this. In that most difficult scene, Wendla says to Melchior, "Don't kiss me!" and "When you are in love--then you kiss--no, no!" She says this because her mother tells her in an earlier scene that a woman becomes pregnant when she "loves her husband with her whole heart," and she is afraid that if Melchior kisses her it will mean they love each other with their whole hearts and consequently she will become pregnant.

This is the magnitude of Wendla's ignorance. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine a contemporary American girl so ignorant when hardcore is only a mouse-click away, which poses a problem for any contemporary production of Spring Awakening. Nevertheless, Wendla can't be "sex-positive" if she doesn't know what sex is. Making her seem so is just sloppy directing.

The production is fuzzy on several such points, but its attitude towards one of the play's key troubling questions--is masculinity itself a threat?--is clear: SA the Musical simply refuses to entertain the possibility. The answer to the next logical question threatens to bore us all, once again, to politically correct tears: no, none of the primary members of the production's creative team nor any of its powerful primary producers nor any of its gushy reviewers is a woman. Why bother critiquing a Broadway musical on this or any other moral front when, as a commercial production, its only moral obligation is to the bottom line? On the other hand, why should the words "Broadway" and "commercial" (i.e., "free market") banish all serious criticism of a production, especially one with semi-serious aspirations to become (by now it's a cliché) "the next Rent"? Alas, if only it had tried to become the next Spring Awakening instead.


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