At the official Broadway reawakening of Spring Awakening Sept. 27 — after a relatively brief nap of 5½ years — the response of first-nighters at the Brooks Atkinson was as mixed as the cast. Half the house applauded thunderously; the other half threw their hands up, fingers fluttering ecstatically. Midway through Act II, Brooke Shields and Laura Osnes started signing their enthusiasm in the air, too.
This current incarnation, "conceived and realized" by The Forest of Arden (read: director-actor Michael Arden) and Deaf West Theatre (David J. Kurs, artistic director), is manned by a mix of hearing and deaf actors who frequently double up to do one character. Far from being cluttered and clumsy, there's an unexpected poetry to the enterprise, particularly as staged here with such fluidity and grace.
Frank Wedekind's timeless play about the teenagers with their knickers in a twist — raging hormones crashing into hammer-hard Morality in the German provinces of the 1890s — always has the welcome mat out for the next generation. Youth must be served — and was in 2006, with a rock-solid score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater and hard-driving direction from Michael Mayer. The result won seven Tony Awards. Sheik was unfazed by the show's swift return to Broadway. "It is practically a new show, given the way it has been so radically re-imaged by Deaf West," he contended.
Sater, however, was still seeing the same show. "Maybe it's like having a grandchild, where you see your child having a child," the lyricist-book writer relayed. "It's so ingrained in me how the show was that when I watched the opening night in L.A., it seemed like a tale of two Michaels. I was remembering all I did and created with Michael Mayer and then marveling at the reinvention of that with Michael Arden."
It does not surprise Sater the show would gain an extra dimension from a Deaf West rendition. The writing's in the script — in teen-angst dialogue about hearing or not hearing. "I didn't change the lines," he swore. "They're just inflected differently now. "I was always aware of this issue because the play, to me, was about the fact that they were no longer listening to what was going on in their children's hearts. They could no longer hear what's happening to the youth of their culture. I was aware of it thematically so, when Michael approached us about developing this with Deaf West, I was thrilled by the prospect immediately because I could sense the potential for it."
The inspired notion of a singing-and-signing Spring Awakening is something that director Arden takes co-credit for: "Andy Mientus and I came up with the idea together," he said.
"Then, we sat down and started talking about how specifically it would work and what characters would be deaf and who would be hearing. If an actor's deaf, then his character's deaf, too. We wanted to be as honest as we could."
Mientus, who is reprising the role of Hanschen, the blonde gay German he played touring the original show, assisted Arden in putting together a workshop that led to two productions in Los Angeles. It was intricate work, playing to two different audiences simultaneously. The trick was to make sure neither side was neglected. If the dialogue is spoken, it is printed on stage — say, on a blackboard or on scenery; conversely, when a performance is signed, an actor is near, speaking the lines.
"I think the language is intrinsically understood by everyone," said Arden. "We're able to absorb more from the lyric than we might had we been listening just with our ears. We're listening with our eyes, too."
He arrived at the Atkinson, where he was last seen as an actor-dancer in The Times They Are A-Changin', buoyant to be turning over a new leaf in his Broadway-directing bow by launching a cast that includes 25 Broadway debuts. (His own Broadway acting debut was as Tom Sawyer in the Deaf West revival of Big River.)
"The fact I get to be a part of returning this incredible company to Broadway is such an honor. I can't wait for the world to meet these kids. They're so incredible. They're people who never did plays before and people who won an Oscar or an Emmy."
Peter Gallagher, arriving with his family, said he had played the Atkinson before. "I was doing Noises Off here 14 years ago, and it was Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, and I brought Kathryn, my daughter. She's here tonight, making her debut in this show."
Lilli Cooper, who made her Broadway debut in the previous Spring Awakening, was radiantly in attendance, pretending to be feeling old that they're reviving it (but definitely not looking it). "At least 10 or 12 of the original cast are here tonight," she bubbled. "We just got to take a big picture together. It's great! Christine Estabrook is here, Gideon Glick is here, Jonathan Groff is here, Lauren Pritchard is here..."
Another of the original cast was in attendance — but on stage, playing the role she'd only understudied before. "To this day," admitted Krysta Rodriguez, "if anyone asks what was my favorite role on Broadway, I say Ilse without a beat. So, to have this part come up again was especially wonderful. I just love this character so much."
The character came with a catch — the manageable, but difficult, multitask of signing while acting. "I'd never signed before so I had to learn it, sorta like choreography at first, and then figure out what I was saying, and then figure out how that informed what I was actually saying and put it all together. I had two weeks. It was stressful."
Everyone should be as lucky as Austin P. McKenzie, who went out for Deaf West interpreter and came back its star. The 22-year-old was studying to be a special needs teacher in Chicago when he answered a casting call for Spring Awakening.
Now, he's the lead character, Melchior, playing opposite four actors in two roles: Wendla (who is signed by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Katie Boeck) and Moritz (who is signed by Daniel N. Durant and voiced by Alex Boniello). "It constantly feels like it two shows happening at once inside my head," he admitted. "There's one show in sign language, and there's one in English — and I'm constantly back-bending into either one and thinking in sign language and in English because you have to imagine the signs are often completely backwards. It's quite bizarre."
Camryn Manheim, the Emmy winner (for "The Practice") among the evening's debutantes, seconded that motion. Signing while acting, she said, "is more complicated than you'd imagine. I'm speaking in English, but I'm signing in American Sign Language, which is has a different syntax than English. I'm not exactly following my words. Because I know sign language, it's a bit more difficult because I know that's not what I'm signing. And, also because I know it, it made it easier for me to take the language and put it in my body and make it look natural."
One of the great voices in American theatre also signed up for this. Arden invited Patrick Page to play one of the show's older authority figures when they were co-starring recently in The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Page passed on the L.A. launchings but climbed aboard for the Broadway edition. "Between you and me and the tape recorder," he said, "I think that Michael is kinda making one of the most astonishing directorial debuts that we have seen in several years."
Marlee Matlin, the only deaf performer to win an Oscar (for the "Children of a Lesser God" role that won the late Phyllis Frelich a Tony), fields three roles her first time on Broadway. Like the three other adults, she joined the company two months ago.
"It was like jumping into a shark tank — but a very friendly shark tank," she said. "I couldn't be surrounded by more love and warmth for each and every one of them."
"The American Sign Language is perfect for the stage. It's visual. It's a form of choreography that adds to the Broadway language. It emphasizes the message. And it doesn't matter if you're hearing or deaf — it's the coming together of the two."