PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Spring Awakening — Knickers in a Twist

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Spring Awakening — Knickers in a Twist Youth is served in the new rock-musical rendering of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind's controversial classic play about the stirring of sexual teen angst in a small German village of 1891. It opened Dec. 10 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, and the big question before the house was simple: Would youth return the serve (since the land-office business the show was doing in rush student tickets clearly wouldn't make a big hit)?
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The answer came with the dawn. The stage rants gave way to an unbroken line of print raves, and youth would indeed be served. More tickets were wrapped before 9:30 AM than had been sold in weeks of advance sales. It appears an intense tennis match is starting up between the musical and its desired market. Spring is here, evidently — in December.

The man-of-the-morning-after is composer Duncan Sheik, the latest thirtysomething to charge down a Broadway still golden with the hummable hits of Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, et al — a new generation elbowing their way into the current marketplace. At 37, he has five years on Tom Kitt, who just arrived with High Fidelity.

Sheik wrote a hard-driving, modern score to book-writer Steven Sater's lyrics, which are delivered by a magnificent 11 in high collars and three-buttoned-down suits, flailing about erotically, desperate and lost, hitting most taboos (then and now) like berserk pinballs (S&M, abortion, suicide, gay love, masturbation). All this and rock 'n' roll.

At the jubilant celebration at the holiday-trimmed Tavern on the Green, Sheik said his pop roots were so pronounced the only way he could get into the oppressively repressed 19th century setting was to ignore it and concentrate on the cries of the stuck and stymied youth. "When Steven and I conceived of this project back in 1999 — and I should say it was Steven's idea — I said to him, 'I'm interested in doing a musical as long as the music's something that reflects the stylistic sensibilities of my generation — and of, y'know, kids.'"

The seemingly incongruous notion of musically melding Wedekind's work with Sheik's "now" sounds was Sater's brainstrom. "Spring Awakening was my first thought," he said. "It's a play I knew and loved, and I always thought it was like an opera-in-waiting. It's full of the anguish of young people, and it seemed to me that the place where young people found release and expressed that longing is rock music so it seemed a good fit." How did he know this collision of two radically different works would be remotely compatible? "I dunno. I just trusted that it would be. It seemed it would allow us to make the point about how nothing has changed and how much we want things to change. When we don't listen to what's in young people's hearts, tragedy happens. We began this in the wake of the shootings at Columbine, and it was very important to me to try to tell a story that could have an effect on young people. I had had the idea before, and we had begun work, then those terrible shootings happened, and it just deepened our commitment."

Sheik contended that the production, on several fronts, conspired to unite these parallel universes. "Thanks to the genius of [director] Michael Mayer and a really cool cast and Kevin Adams' amazing lighting, I think that we found ways of creating two different worlds that interlock. You've got the stark, emotionally barren world of 1891 Germany, and then you've got their fantasy world where they break into in those moments of song.

"I always felt strongly that the music should be music that moves me, whatever that means. When I write a song, I'm not necessarily saying, 'Oh, I'm going to write a rock song' or 'I'm going to write a folk song.' I write a song that has emotional impact to me, and I'm influenced by many different genres of music. If you listen to a song like 'The World of Your Body,' there's absolutely a more classic, aesthetic base. If you look at 'The Mirror-Blue Night,' there's more of a 20th century composition kind of minimalist aspect of that. If you look at a song like 'Blue Wind,' it comes very much from a 1960s folk tradition. Then there are other things — music from other cultures: Brazilian music, Indian classical music — all these things sorta filter through my mind, and then I come out with whatever music I come out with. Of course, there's rock, because that's where I come from. It's all these things coming together, and hopefully it amounts to something."

Speaking directly to today's musical marketplace, the lyrics run from blue to the deepest purple. Brian Drutman, whose Decca Broadway is releasing the original cast recording of Spring Awakening, said that it carries a "Parent Advisory: Explicit Content" warning.

To gain perspective on the raunchy lyrics of today, I asked The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization flack, Bert Fink, if he thought "Totally Fucked" was the "Some Enchanted Evening" of the evening. Fink blinked, then responded in kind: "You know, that song was cut from The Sound of Music — the scene when Maria gets caught by the nuns."

Director Mayer, who specializes in plays about alienated youth, feels the sexually experimenting youngsters in Spring Awakening could well be the grandparents of his Off-Broadway Stupid Kids. "Hell," he postscripted, "I feel like their great-grandfather at this point. That's how old I feel. I've been working on this project for almost eight years."

The last stretch to Broadway, he said, was filled with new work — "a much more elaborate lighting design, a lot of new writing, a lot of new staging, four new cast members and more people in the band — seven or eight [all of whom take curtain calls with the cast and understudies]."

Mayer said his message is simple: "I want people to see that musical theatre is alive and well and continuing to grow and change and embrace new forms. I want them to take away that if you're an adult and if you listen to your kids, you might learn something. If you're a kid, hopefully you'll learn that you're not alone and you can make a difference in the world. It's such a universal story — that's the brilliance of the conceit, that a story that's so old is so timeless. You see them behave like they're the rock stars of their fantasy."

How did he know the mix would work? "I felt it. I just felt it. It was, like, a gut feeling. It took us a while to come up with how to juxtaposition, but, once I had this image — an image of boys in knickers and little jackets, pulling out microphones and singing their inner thoughts — once I had that image, I thought, 'Okay, that I can really go to town about.'" Hence, his aggressive direction. "You can't fake it. You have to really go there."

One of the evening's many contented customers — and one of the few with a specific rock-star frame of reference — Tony winner John Lloyd Young, who plays Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, really got off on the proceedings. "It's really first-rate," he gushed with no coaxing at all. "I loved the way that Duncan and Steve put the show together. The minute that the actors grabbed those microphones out from their lapels, I was so excited.

"I did this play at a storefront theatre on Ludlow St. five years ago with a bunch of twentysomething actors who just wanted to put together a play. I played Mortiz. It was called Rising Phoenix Rep. Daniel Talbot, a Juilliard student at that time and now a Juilliard graduate, put it together. And I studied this play at Brown. I've always loved it."

Other Tony winners in attendance: B.D. Wong, Sutton Foster (new hubby Christian Borle skipped the party to walk the dog), Michael Cerveris, Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday, M. Butterfly author David Henry Hwang (who's currently casting with director Leigh Silverman for Yellow Face, "which is bound for the Mark Taper in April and then in the fall at The Public"), Jeff Whitty (who, with his Avenue Q partner Robert Lopez, has written four songs for a musical episode of "Scrubs" that airs Jan. 18 starring their Stephanie D'Abruzzo), playwright Tony Kushner (who wrote two Tony-winning performances in Angels in America for Stephen Spinella, who plays all the adult males in Spring Awakening, opposite Christine Estabrook in all the adult females), LaChanze, Jane Krakowski and two women from the Jeffrey Richards-produced revival of The Best Man, Elizabeth Ashley and Christine Ebersole (the latter will alight at Birdland for a Christmas show Sunday night Dec. 17).

"I hope my good luck holds," said producer Richards. "I have a lot of good luck charms here tonight." He itemized: Eric Bogosian and Peter Hermann, the author and a star of Talk Radio, which Richards will revive with Liev Schreiber Feb. 26 at the Longacre, and Ian McShane and Daniel Sullivan, the star and director of The Homecoming, which he'll do next season. (Sullivan is preparing a Hamish Hamlet — as in Hamish Linklater of The Busy World Is Hushed — out at South Coast in April.)

Dallas Roberts arrived, sporting an old-fashioned handlebar mustache for "3:10 to Yuma," a western he's remaking in New Mexico with Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster and Mos Def. It seemed like an extravagant show of support for the composer, director and producer of Roberts' 2004 movie, "A Home at the End of the World" — Sheik, Mayer and Tom Hulce — but in truth, "my lady [Christine Jones] did the set," Roberts said. Not the least of Jones' achievements was an uncannily exact reproduction of the back brick wall of the Atlantic Theatre, where the play had its pre-Broadway engagement.

Also present: Susan Birkenhead and the new Hollywood sun god (via Dreamgirls) Henry Krieger, whose just-finished musical The Flamingo Kid will be directed by Mayer; R&H honcho Ted Chapin, who revealed that he and Dreamgirls writer-director Bill Condon have been conferring for two years about a film of Stephen Sondheim's Follies and one of Condon's "way into the film" could be via Chapin's lovely memoirs as a go-fer for that show ("Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical 'Follies'"); Dana Delany of TV's "Kidnapped"; Emmy-winning Soprano Edie Falco; "Law and Order: SVU" Emmy winner Mariska Hargitay, Lisa Kron, composer Stephen Schwartz and his director-son Scott (who's casting a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that will run from Theatre Under the Stars to the Paper Mill Playhouse and then to North Shore), Amy Smart, Borghese CEO Georgette Mosbacher, Tony Walton (who's currently designing Sleeping Beauty for ABT at The Met), Tamara Tunie, composer Frank Wildhorn (next: Havana, with Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz writing the book, and Cyrano, with Leslie Bricusse, produced by Bill Kenwright in London), Jason Sudeikis and The Times' Frank Rich and Alex Witchel.

As the lead teen whose libido gets the most prominent workout, Jonathan Groff is making what he is careful to call as "my on-stage debut" (i.e., "I was an understudy in a show called In My Life last season, but I didn't go on, except for a couple of times in the ensemble. But, for all practical purposes, this is my debut. It's a dream come true.")

So he would get the full measure of this achievement, he spent last weekend watching Rick McKay's excellent, con amore documentary, "Broadway: The Golden Years." "I was so inspired because they were talking about how Broadway needs something new and different, something that sorta breaks the mold before we get stuck in these trends of movies becoming musicals and taking a group of existing songs and making them into musicals. I was so inspired watching that, feeling I'm now a part of something so great." The bad news: he has to drop his drawers eight times a week for an on-stage seduction of his girlfriend, played by Lea Michele — but even that is a small price to pay, in his view.

"Michael was always very open with us from the get-go and talked us through everything, so, from the beginning, we felt comfortable with it. And Lea and I have a great relationship off-stage so we always feel really comfortable with The Scene. The only time I felt awkward was when my parents were in the audience that's seated on stage. They were right over her shoulder so, as I was trying to convince her to have sex with me, my parents were sitting right in my view. That was the only time I felt a little bit awkward."

The diminutive Michele pooh-poohs the problems of that protracted and candid (and dazzlingly staged) love scene — again, because of the company she keeps. "Jonathan Groff is my best friend. I really love him, and I feel comfortable doing anything with him."

Printed reports that this scene which concludes the first act has been toned down from a more violent original vision are also minimized by the actress. "It used to be where you might have thought it would have been along the lines of rape, 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 really managed to make it very classy and just very respectful. I wouldn't do anything if I felt it wasn't respectful."

At the curtain call, Michele was torrent of tears. "Oh, my God! Did you see me? I was a sobbing, crying, hormonal mess tonight. This was like graduating from grad school or becoming a doctor. You wait seven years for this moment, and now it's finally here."

That's right: seven years. Her mother actually did bring her on the first audition, "but they didn't see it when I was younger. Mothers are allowed to come and watch. I was crying because I couldn't believe I'd had the opportunity to work on it for so long — seven years in the same role, doing workshops and readings of it, then finally at the Atlantic Theatre."

John Gallagher, Jr., who made his Broadway debut last year as the teenage driver who accidentally kills the child of Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery in Rabbit Hole, is again involved in a premature young death as the most tragic and troubled of the teens on view.

"The first time I read the script, he was the character who resonated with me the most," admitted Gallagher. "I love how relatable he is. He's so easy to relate to. I always feel his high school experience and his adolescence were just really an exaggerated version of mine. I had a hard time with my grades, but, thank goodness, my parents were still supportive and didn't disown me when I was bad. And I certainly had a hard time growing up. Puberty is hard for anyone so there's a lot to relate to. I have a tendency toward the manic depressive — and I'm the first to admit it — so there's something beautiful [about] embracing this depressed and manic and just mad character every night. The fact I got to play him in such a cool, exciting new version of the play — I'm really thankful for it."

All his dramatic points are won in spite of a bizarre hairdo — call it a high-rise flattop. "You know what that really is? That actually is my own hair with a lot of hairspray. We blowdry it and hairspray it at the same time — and tease it with a comb to get it to stand that straight up. We haven't named it yet, but I always think that it kinda looks like I may have stuck my finger in a socket and electrocuted myself."

Ten young performers are awakening to Broadway careers via Spring Awakening, and Hulce is officially switching Broadway careers — from actor to producer. "It's nerve-racking in an entirely different way," he admitted. "I made my Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's Equus, and Marian Seldes, who was in that cast, was with us tonight for the show. It was sweet have that kind of connection to note that beginning as well as this beginning."

A look of authentic fatigue passed over his face. "I'm glad to have gotten to this moment."

The company of <i>Spring Awakening</i> takes its opening night bows.
The company of Spring Awakening takes its opening night bows. Photo by Ben Strothmann