Tony Award nominee Michael Mayer staged the Tony-winning Millie, about young people reaching their potential in 1920s Manhattan. He also helms Atlantic Theater Company's production of the new Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionist drama, The Awakening of Spring. The alternative-rock-infused show is also about young people reaching out, but as Wedekind subtitled his play "a tragedy of childhood," don't expect tap dancing.
Spring Awakening, with book and lyrics by Sater, a score by Sheik and choreography by Bill T. Jones (The Seven), addresses the frenzied physical and emotional state of human beings when they are just reaching their sexual maturity. A trio of kids — Melchior, Moritz and Wendla — are the central strugglers in both the play and the new Off-Broadway musical. As in the source material, the 19th-century teen characters feel pressure from parents, teachers and clergy — with tragic results. But this time, they get to rant, rave and sing about it, with microphone in hand.
Playbill.com: I didn't know the source material until recently. I read about it in school, but never read it as a student. I don't think most people have seen the play.
Michael Mayer: In England, in drama school, it's a much more popular play. Most theatre majors or drama school kids there know it better. When I was at the University of Wisconsin, we read it. I first encountered it when I was 18, and it blew me away.
Playbill.com: When people say Wedekind's The Awakening of Spring, is "expressionist," what does that mean to you? Some of the scenes come off as domestic, Ibsenesque exchanges.
MM: I'm not a scholar, but for the majority of the play he seems to be taking his structural sense, his formal sense, from [Georg] Büchner because it's very episodic. It's not a well made play in the modern "Ibsen" sense — there's not a unity of time and place. I think why people call it…expressionism is that in the very last scene of the play, a new character arrives — "The Masked Man," or "The Muffled Gentleman," depends on the translation. In the original, when Melchior is in the graveyard, Moritz comes to him with his head under his arm…and he tries to talk Melchior into killing himself. And Melchior's about to do it when this Masked Man enters without any explanation of who he is — he's nobody you've seen all night. And there's a very lengthy dialogue between Melchior and this Masked Man. The Masked Man basically says, "You are in no condition to make a decision about killing yourself because you're hungry. Come with me into town and we'll have some soup and you'll feel better." Literally. It's a very peculiar ending to the play. At that point Melchior goes with the Masked Man, out of the cemetery…
Playbill.com: Most of the earlier scenes in the play are exchanges between young people ….
MM: Or adults. In the original, the adult characters are a little caricaturish. The translations are "Professor Sunstroke," "Reverend Baldbelly"… humorous German surnames meant to reflect a certain quality of their personalities. But you're quite right, by and large the scenes are very naturalistic. Playbill.com: How long have you been involved with Spring Awakening? Are you the originating director?
MM: Yeah. Steven Sater came to me a long time ago, it was about seven years ago when he first came to me with the idea. He and Duncan had been talking about collaborating on a musical theatre piece, and this is the idea Steven had. It was one of my favorite plays, and I said, "Oh my God, this is what I've been looking for." A Spring Awakening is something I'd always wanted to direct. I thought Duncan Sheik was a super talented songwriter and we got together the next day and started working on it. As it happened, I had a lunch scheduled with Annie Hamburger [then of La Jolla Playhouse] the following day, and I told her about this, and she said, "Why don't we do a workshop there?" Our first deadline was to go to La Jolla and do a five-day workshop. We had about 10 songs by the end of those five days, and we read a couple of the scenes, and we did a little presentation for Annie's board of directors. It was about 40 minutes of material. Some of it is still in the show, and a lot of it isn't. From there, we applied to the Sundance Theatre Lab. That following summer, we spent three weeks in Utah working on it [at Sundance]. We got a lot done. We had Roger Bart as the Masked Man. We actually had the Masked Man in the show, just until this last version. Even in the  Lincoln Center Songbook concert. Michael Cerveris was in it [then] — we called him The Stranger at that point.
Playbill.com: Why did you get rid of him?
MM: The conceit is that these kids in a repressive society have a private outlet to express their emotions through these pop songs or rock songs or alt rock, whatever we're calling it — the very unique musical language that Duncan Sheik creates, with these absolutely astonishing poetic lyrics by Steven Sater. If the Masked Man was meant to suggest a kind of otherworldliness that allowed access to the inner life of the kids, and the music was doing that as well, it seemed redundant. The music is the Masked Man, the music is the expressionism: The fact of the music, the way in which we use the music and illustrate the music with the staging, and the use of the microphones, and the fact that the action stops — we realized we were being redundant [having the Masked Man].
Playbill.com: Losing the Masked Man means Melchior now gets to make a choice that's independent of an adult influence.
MM: Which I think is much better.
Playbill.com: The characters and situations seem incredibly timely. There are still parents who leave their children in ignorant night.
MM: Completely. Early on, we discussed the possibility of creating an updated version. With the internet, and with access to information…you'd have to reframe the story so much. It seemed to us that what would be really cool is if we could honor the history, to really show that even though it's a hundred years later, the emotional issues for these kids are the same. It hasn't changed, even though a lot of people have access to information in different ways now.
Playbill.com: But there are still teens without resources and support.
MM: Or they're ashamed [to seek things out]. The sense of shame and wrongness in even asking the questions is so pervasive still. That sermon at the top of Act Two where the Reverend quotes Martin Luther and basically says "Search your black hearts" to these children! They don't have black hearts. But it's so entrenched in the Judeo Christian world we live in — Original Sin, that the natural expression of puberty and maturity is somehow dark, wrong, sinful and something to be controlled and stamped out.
Playbill.com: Parents don't come off well in the play. Wedekind called the work "a tragedy of childhood."
MM: Teen suicide. There's so much of it now. That's a completely resonant thing. What is it? It's a hideous combination of your body going through all of these changes, your hormones going crazy, you have no clue who you are, and then to have the pressure of succeeding at school, without anyone to help you prioritize or understand what's happening so you can prioritize yourself…
Playbill.com: How did you arrive at the spare physical world of the production? Did you know you wanted to see the band on stage?
MM: The first image I had in my head was of boys in breeches and knee socks and little vests and jackets and little haircuts that I designed, jumping up and down and singing into microphones. [It's a] juxtaposition of [19th-century] period and a kind of garage band feel. I knew the band was going to be on stage. I knew it was going to be the "chair play" version where you use as little as possible [including hard-backed chairs, rearranged on stage] — I wanted it to feel like a hybrid, sort of half concert, half play. I knew because the songs don't forward the action, a conventional musical theatre approach would be at odds with the material.
Playbill.com: What was your conversation with Duncan and Steven about the songs — the musical numbers seem to accent or underline the action or emotion rather than drive the story. There is a sense that some of these poetic lyrics are the kind of things kids would scrawl in a notepad.
MM: Exactly! When we first started talking about it, it was around the time when [the film] "Dancer in the Dark" came out. That seemed like a paradigm to us in terms of how the songs might work: They are completely fantasy, or they are in the heads of the kids. They are not actually ever singing to each other. They're not affecting each other in any literal way. The songs had to be true to the [feelings] a 21st century kid in a similar situation would have.
Playbill.com: There's a pulse to the music that indicates the hormonal rush of adolescence.
MM: Steven writes the lyrics first, and then Duncan sets them. There's something about the lyric and the way Steven writes them that does something to the way Duncan writes his music, because nothing else [Duncan] does sounds like this.
Playbill.com: It's a little jarring to see 19th century characters pull out hand-held cordless microphones.
MM: The microphones are meant to be empowering tools. The first time you see them is after Wendla sings privately…while she's looking in the mirror, and then those girls come out. All the girls in the play get to express their indignation at the mother's refusal to tell this girl the truth. …One of them hands Wendla the microphone. At that point she is permitted to express her outrage. Her first expression of the song is completely internal, she's looking in the mirror, it's a more conventional musical theatre kind of trope, right? You meet the girl and she's singing. And then those microphones come out. The same thing happens with the boys in the classroom. The microphones are empowering. What I instruct the kids to do, they have to imagine they are home alone in their bedrooms or their bathrooms. And they pick up a brush and they're their own rock star. The rock star of their mind. Finding their own voice, and expressing it, and using it — unfettered by any sense that they're being watched. We all do it.
Playbill.com: There is darkness in the show, but there's hope in it, too. Was that important to you?
MM: Yeah. You have to have hope. We've actually changed a few things from the original. In the original Melchior rapes Wendla. There's no real love between them. It's not much of a connection between them. She's this precocious girl who is so desperate for information, she unlocks something in this basically good kid, who has also been frustrated. He ends up raping her. His main emotional relationship is with Moritz. I didn't want it to be that the only expression of sex could be rape. I still think that left to their own devices two kids could come together and still have a beautiful — complicated, but beautiful — sexual awakening together.
Playbill.com: Choreographer Bill T. Jones has created a unique physical language for the show.
MM: He couldn't participate in the [earlier] workshop. I staged the whole thing in a three week workshop and he could see the whole thing in context. He started with this movement of the girl exploring her body, and that became a series of semaphores. When the boys imagine what it's like to be a girl, they do it too. It becomes this evocative and loaded series of gestures which then can be used in so many different ways. That's the kind of mind [Jones] has. He's incredible.
Playbill.com: Spring Awakening will challenge people's ideas of how songs should or can function in a show.
MM: I think at this point in musical theatre we have to liberate ourselves in a very real way from our preconceived notions about how a musical should work. If we try to keep certain rules intact, then the musical has no prayer of growing and continuing to express what it used to do from the beginning — a popular musical idiom, combined with storytelling. It would be terribly sad for the musical if we couldn't find ways to allow alternative music into the mix.
Playbill.com: And Spring Awakening wants to introduce mystery and inscrutability into musicals — not every song is on the nose, echoing that theatre is a non-literal form.
MM: That's one of the things that I feel is very successful, and I'm proud of. It's evocative, it's poetic, it's metaphorical. It isn't literal.