The Beacon School, an arts and technology high school located just behind Lincoln Center, is among the first schools in the country to stage Spring Awakening, with performances set to begin April 26 for a two-weekend run.
Beacon Drama Art Theatre founder and program director Jo Ann Cimato, who also teaches Theatre Arts and Playwriting at the school, is shepherding students through the hit musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1892 play. Spring Awakening takes on a new poetic rock context thanks to Tony-winning book writer Steven Sater and Tony-winning composer Duncan Sheik.
While most high schools across the country produce gentler, family-aimed fare like The Sound of Music, Annie and Peter Pan that doesn't ruffle feathers, Cimato and the Beacon School aim to stage works that tackle contemporary issues that kids face in school, at home and in the real world.
In recent years they produced the East Coast high school debut of Jonathan Larson's Rent, School Edition and were also the first high school to stage The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Cimato, who said she's known as the teacher who doesn't censor anything, actually pushed to do the full, unedited edition of Rent with her students in 2009, but rights were not available at that time. "We had gone through a huge amount of drama trying to get the rights to Rent uncut when we did it," Cimato said. "We never thought in a million years we'd get the rights to Spring Awakening uncut."
Subject matter aside, it can be especially challenging for New York City schools and other area theatre organizations to obtain live performance rights, due to author approval on productions within a certain mileage of the city.
In the case of Spring Awakening, Sater and Sheik have approval over every single production that is licensed by Music Theatre International. "We're very careful," Sater said. He ultimately approved Cimato and the Beacon School's production.
The Beacon School and Spring Awakening share history. Cimato had previously taken hundreds of students to see the musical during its Broadway run, and Beacon Students also crafted an evening of dance, music, theatre and spoken word in response to Spring Awakening, which was presented at the now-closed Zipper Theatre as part of the Power Writers program.
Sater was in attendance. "I was so moved by their power and passion, and by how profound their reaction to the show was," he recalled. "It just seemed to me that here was a high school of young people whose response to the show was so aching and pure. How could we deny their request?"
While those students have since graduated, Cimato is leading a new and equally committed group through the adolescent forest of Spring Awakening, expletives and all. The brutality, the intimacy, the red-hot urges and the despair remain intact and unedited. Yes, students at the Beacon School will be singing "Totally Fucked" in front of parents, peers and faculty.
"It's not 'the sex play,'" Cimato said of Spring Awakening. "To me it's a play about grace. It's a play about who is controlling your destiny. Is it you? Is it a higher force? It's a much more spiritual play than I think anybody thought it was when we started this process."
Cimato said she's never had a group of students so passionate about a school production. "It's about the work. They've been so professional. They want to honor it and do it justice. These kids are very serious about their craft and this was such an exciting challenge for them."
A handful of B'DAT student actors will play instruments during the show. The student playing Martha is a concert cellist, who auditioned with her instrument, telling Cimato, "Martha's pain is the cello, I totally get that." Moritz plays the guitar at his own funeral. "He's the ghost in the room," according to Cimato, while Melchior plays the introduction to "Mama Who Bore Me," at the beginning of the show. "He invokes this lusting out of Wendla," she said. There are also actors playing instruments in the trees.
At the Beacon School, Spring Awakening's music and dramatic worlds are separated by classroom and the forest. "The safe places where the kids are themselves, where they are free, where the music happens is in the forest," Cimato explained. "They move in and out [as] musician, and child, and actor, and moment seamlessly because that's what kids do. They retreat to what is safe to them, and in Spring Awakening, for these characters the music is safe to them. Being a rock star alone in your bedroom is where it's safe for these kids."
Parents of each student participating in Spring Awakening were required to sign a waiver stating that they were fully aware of what the musical entailed and that they supported their child's participation, "so there were no surprises on opening night," Cimato laughed. She states that the Beacon administration has also been fully supportive.
That said, the production process hasn't been without any parental unease. One parent expressed concerns about Spring Awakening's violence (a scene shared by Wendla and Melchior includes the use of a switch), as well as characters using the word "fuck."
"Well, if you actually listen to the lyrics in 'Totally Fucked,' no one is saying 'F-you, F-me,' what they're really saying is, 'Oh, no. I blew it,'" Cimato replied. "The song is about taking personal responsibility, it's not about pointing a finger, or causing anyone harm." All parental resistence melted away when the parent replied, "Actually, my daughter and I had a nice talk about that."
This type of dialogue is what Cimato is hoping will come of Spring Awakening. "That's the point, this work will make you talk to your kids."
For Sater, who set out to "touch the troubled heart of youth around the world" when he adapted Spring Awakening, the worldwide response was unexpected and overwhelming. "I never imagined for a moment that we'd have the kind of worldwide impact with the show, that it would mean as much to young people as it has," he said.
While watching the non-equity tour of Spring Awakening in his hometown of Evansville, IN, which included one of the youngest casts to ever perform the show, Sater said his work came full circle: "I thought 'God, this is why I wrote the play.' I was so unhappy in high school."
"I think it's really powerful," he said looking back. "It's like the show has come full circle, and now it's in the kids' hands to act it out."
For Cimato, theatre and arts close a gap in the educational system. "I've always thought that from the moment you walk into the classroom, if you can look a student in the eye and see a person and not simply a student, they're going to return that favor. I think that's something that might be different in what a theatre teacher, or an art teacher does," she said. "We're trying to connect with the whole kid and connect them to their whole world. Especially with something like Spring Awakening, they tell me what they're comfortable with, what they're uncomfortable with, and they're involved in every decision we make as a company."
The B'DAT cast includes Nicole Davis (Wendla), JoMack Miranda (Melchior), Zachary Kruskal (Moritz), Isabel Schnall (Ilse), Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz (Martha), Kaya Simmons (Hanschen), Christopher Gambino (Ernst), Guthrie Park (Georg), Brooke Shilling (Thea), Dan Dobro (Otto), Parade Stone (Anna), Anna Aronson (Adult Women), Eliot Turner (Adult Men), as well as swings Justin Armstrong, Sonia Bloom, Noah Friedman, Julia G. Cohen, Cameron Finkle, Stephanie Herlihy, Enrique Ruiz, Ellen Swanson and Emma Young.
The production has musical direction by Lilli Wosk and choreography by Doug Elkins.
The ten-performance run will continue through May 5. Admission is $10 to the general public and $8 for students. Tickets and reservations are available in person at the Beacon School lobby from 11-1 PM or through contacting email@example.com.
The Beacon School is located at 227 West 61st Street.