Spring Awakening is a show about many things, but at its core, it’s about the many ways we fail our children. As parents, as a society, and even as friends, these failures often end in tragedy. Me + You Productions takes a look at the 2007 Tony-winning musical through a 2018 lens in a new production at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood, with 100% of proceeds to benefit Everytown for Gun Safety. While gun violence is but one issue explored in the show, it’s a story about preventable tragedies, and the ways this production incorporates current events makes it feel more timely than ever.
For those who may be unaware, Spring Awakening is a rock musical with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, based on the 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. It takes place in Germany in the late 19th century and follows a group of teenagers as they discover and explore their sexuality, while struggling against parents and teachers who wish to keep them as oppressed and innocent as possible. One of the main characters, Moritz (Thomas Adoue Polk) is plagued with confusion and guilt by the ever-prevalent sexual impulses he’s feeling and is pushed over the edge when he fails out of school, a turn of events his father reacts very poorly and abusively to. He ultimately commits suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot from his father’s gun. Meanwhile, Wendla (Asha Noel Iyer, also the show’s lead producer) cannot get her mother to tell her anything about the birds and the bees and does not even know what sex is. She falls for the class radical thinker, Melchior (Andrew Gleckler), who is wise beyond his years when it comes to mature topics, his thirst for knowledge having led him to answer all of his questions via books. Wendla becomes pregnant before she even understands how that happens, and dies as the result of a botched illegal abortion ordered by her horrified mother.
Director Travis Kendrick and the creative team find clever ways to make a story that takes place so long ago tie in to the modern day. Before the performance begins and at intermission, audio plays of news reports about mass shootings. Wooden beams that line the back wall of the set are flipped around at the top of act two, revealing headlines about not only gun violence, but other social justice issues, from women’s rights and gay rights to the atrocities in immigrant detention centers to the Black Lives Matter movement. And, most powerful of all, when the cast takes the stage for the final musical number, “The Song of Purple Summer,” they are wearing modern clothes and each actor is wearing a t-shirt representing a different cause or movement, from Everytown to Planned Parenthood.
A lantern is also hung on the moments surrounding Moritz’s death, and the many ways in which the adults in his life fail to recognize the warning signs. He flat out mentions contemplating suicide in a letter to Melchior’s mother, who tells him she does not appreciate his “veiled threat.” In the scene where Moritz nervously goes to tell his father he has failed his exams, his father is cleaning his pistol, which Moritz is then easily able to access. Even once he has died, his teachers, who bullied him and made it their mission to ensure he would not pass, can barely remember his name. It’s haunting, and sobering, and something that still happens seemingly more than ever today.
Another interesting change made for this production is in the sex scene between Melchior and Wendla that occurs at the end of act one. In this iteration, Wendla gives affirmative consent—Melchior asks her “yes?” and she responds, definitely, “yes.” I have been a fan of Spring Awakening since it debuted on Broadway over a decade ago, and have seen many productions of this show, and many different interpretations of these characters. One common denominator is that this scene, as well as Melchior and Wendla’s relationship in general, is problematic as written when it comes to matters of consent. Wendla does not know what sex is, nor that it can lead to pregnancy, and Melchior does. You cannot have true consent without both parties understanding exactly what they are consenting to. At the same time, I respect the choice to try to help a challenging scene that has always walked the line of rape by showing an example of affirmative consent to a young audience, although it’s ultimately hard to say if it only confuses the message given the larger issues with the dynamic between those two characters.
The young cast is spirited and energetic, shining brightest in ensemble numbers such as “Touch Me” and “Totally Fucked.” Adoue Polk is the standout as Moritz, committing to a version of the character unlike any I’d seen before, reading certain jokes and lines in ways that breathed new life into the script. He leans into the humor of Moritz’s awkwardness and struggle to belong, making his eventual descent into depression all the more heartbreaking. One slightly strange choice is that to play an odd sexual tension between the two adult teacher characters, which begins as an attempt to show it is not only the children who fall victim to urges but ultimately comes across as too cartoonish.
The best you can hope for when reproducing a beloved musical, especially one that has had a recent, highly praised revival, is to bring a new flavor to the source material, and make even those audience members who are intimately familiar with the work see even one moment in a new light. This Spring Awakening certainly accomplishes this, and proves that this show about a bunch of teenagers living in another country over a hundred years ago is perhaps more needed than ever today in the United States. To prevent tragedies like those that occur seemingly every day in this country, we must pay attention to our children, and to our peers, who are struggling. Before everything goes wrong, Melchior and Wendla talk about their dream of building a better world together, for their child. Throughout the course of the musical, these characters are literally waking up and recognizing the injustice and hypocrisy of the world they live in. They learn to speak up, to defend themselves, and to act upon their urges if that is what makes them happy, even when it goes against everything they have been taught. For a tragic story, it ends on an uplifting note with “The Song of Purple Summer,” a hopeful song about better days yet to come. This point is really driven home with this important production as the young cast stands onstage, wearing their shirts representing different movements and issues. We can all build a better world, together, if we simply learn to listen.
Spring Awakening for Gun Safety closed on September 9th. For more information about the show, visit springawakeningforgunsafety.com and meyouproductions.com. 100% of the proceeds from this sold-out run benefitted Everytown for Gun Safety, which is always accepting donations.