Workshops and readings in New York and around the country led to a 2006 Off-Broadway run at Atlantic Theater Company, which prompted the commercial move to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. But the show was hardly "frozen" after its acclaimed run at Atlantic — there was still more parenting to be done in the production.
One of the discoveries made by director Michael Mayer, a 2007 Tony nominee for Best Direction of a Musical, was to more deeply explore the idea of the onstage audience that flanks the action. (Lower-priced seats are offered to theatregoers, placing them close to the action and in full view of the wider audience.)
"Community" is a major idea in the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik retelling of Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionistic play about adolescents living in ignorance fostered by adults. The onstage audience echoes that idea of community. Teenagers expressing themselves in contrast to the adult world is the dramatic explosion of the show.
In one of the more spine-tingling moments of the season, youthful actors planted within the onstage audience emerge from the mass and express themselves from their seats, in chorus with the centerstage characters.
Mayer explained, "The idea occurred to me when we were casting the understudies for Broadway. I heard the voices of these understudies, and I loved them so much and wondered, 'Why can't they be in it?' The light bulb went off in my head. Right away, we checked with Actors' Equity and asked — what if they are 'partial swings.' They cover the roles and they are also onstage covers? We checked, and sure enough we could do it. This, then, was the finishing thing." Thus, the timelessness of kids' turmoil, Mayer said, "gets to reverberate out in a conscious way, not just in a subliminal way," underlining that metaphor of community as well.
Mayer said he is particularly moved when a girl stands up in the stage bleachers and sings along with "The Dark I Know Well," about sexual-abuse secrets. "How many girls out there have secrets that aren't maybe that secret, but that dark part of themselves that they can't tell anyone about?" Mayer asked. "Only by the miracle of theatre can you have that kind of simultaneity — it can't happen in any other medium."
Spring Awakening, through its pulsing Tony-nominated score that matches the urgency of a teenage heart, asks the following questions, according to Mayer: "How are you responsible to your community?, How do you take care of your kids?, What are the parameters of morality? and How do you teach your kids and create the next generation?"
In audience talkbacks, responses have been personal, Mayer said. "A lot of young people have said how gratifying it is for them to see images of themselves onstage, people they can relate to, frustrated in their life — and able to express themselves only internally, the way the songs do."
The personal becomes political, "it always does," Mayer said, adding "until we as a culture start to really examine how we're dealing with kids, we will all be — as the song in the show goes — 'Totally F-----.'"