Anyone remember when the musical Spring Awakening was a different kind of "hot property?" Admittedly, you have to go back to the early and mid aughts when producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman were developing and workshopping a rock musical adaptation of a late 19th-century German play about sexually repressed teenagers and their grossly intolerant parents. The show included pounding music by rocker Duncan Sheik and a spicy libretto and lyrics by Steven Sater, along with rape, incest, nudity and simulated sex by actors, several of whom, during the show's early days, were not old enough to legally depict some of what ended up on stage.
We all know how that turned out. Spring Awakening was a huge hit, running at the Atlantic Theater Company and then for more than two years on Broadway, collecting eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), launching a national tour and international productions and putting newcomers Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. on the road to stardom.
Still, if there is anybody who might relate to what the creators of Spring Awakening were experiencing before they knew what they had, that might be the company of Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre whose new production of Spring Awakening represents a creative leap on many levels. Deaf West has a nearly 25-year history of producing plays by and for the deaf, and has enjoyed success in its unique creation of four previous musicals. Even so, this Awakening — set to open Sept. 13 at Inner City Arts — is anything but business as usual.
"This is new ground for us," says Deaf West artistic director DJ Kurs. "With a new director and this young group of people, with the controversial material that will exclude a large part of our regular audience, it's equal part nerves and positivity." "On the first day of rehearsal, I told everybody that I knew they were terrified," adds director Michael Arden. "Because I've been there, and I want us to embrace that, because that fear is the reason why we're doing it. Having anything worth doing should scare the shit out of you."
The two men are speaking — Kurs through ASL master Elizabeth Greene — from a small conference room at a church in Toluca Lake where Spring Awakening is in rehearsal. Kurs takes in the action along with fellow producer Christopher Sepulveda, who has brought a couple of investors — committed and prospective — to observe as well. It is week four of rehearsals, and a Kickstarter campaign has raised about $22,000 of the $25,000 necessary to fully fund the production (the campaign ultimately far exceeded its goal). The campaign includes video plugs from original cast members Groff and Skylar Astin who, like Sheik and Sater, are also longtime friends of Arden's.
If any members of the original company catch this production, they will see the work significantly re-imagined. Although the music and libretto are the same and many of the behind the scenes team have Broadway credits or past Awakening experience, the Deaf West production will not replicate what has been seen before. Musicals adapted for ASL performers include a mixture of deaf and hearing actors with other performers supplying the speaking voices of deaf characters for hearing audiences. In previous musicals staged for the company by Jeff Calhoun, the blend and the handling of vocals, sign language and choreography have been intricate and highly imaginative. The 2003 revival of Big River, which played a nearly three-month run at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, earned a special Tony award for Excellence in Theater.
Deaf West's Awakening has nine deaf cast members and 15 hearing performers, several of whom speak and sing for deaf actors as well as play instruments in the band. Austin McKenzie, who plays Melchior Gabor, came to the production with sign language experience, one of the few hearing actors who arrived with that skill. Sandra Mae Frank, playing Melchior's ill-fated love interest Wendla Bergman, is deaf, as are Daniel Durant, Miles Barbee and Joshua Castille who play Moritz Steifel, Otto and Ernst respectively.
"I'm doing my regular lines and he's following right along," says Durant, "Then when the music comes, I have to follow the beat and we really have to be in synch."
"Normally you're not reading for someone else. You're reading for you," adds Rustin Cole Sailors, who supplies the speaking and singing voice of Moritz and plays in the band. "I have to literally watch him see what he's feeling and read as such, and that's an interesting thing as an actor, because normally everything comes from internally."
The deaf/hearing casting breakdown is not haphazard. Arden and the team expect audiences to view this Spring Awakening through the prism of the debate over oralism. In late 19th-century Germany, deaf children who were unwilling to learn to speak would have been treated with about as much tolerance and sensitivity as... well... a student who was caught masturbating, exploring homosexuality or one who ended up pregnant out of wedlock. They would have ended up, as the song goes, "Totally Fucked." "These people were silenced and sterilized, and if you were deaf but you didn't speak, you were considered a failure and would be institutionalized or worse," says Arden. "The source material, Frank Wedekind's play, is a comment more than a regular narrative, and now we're giving that comment more of a specific time and place. So it's actually saying something about a certain time and what was going on in people's lives."
The thematic parallels resonated with Kurs, who was initially reluctant to produce yet another revival of Spring Awakening. A workshop of three songs held at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena helped change his mind.
"They explained it's a play about communication, about young people's journey in the world without a solid guide," said Kurs, "and I thought, 'Wow. That really has a lot of parallels to the deaf community.'"
The idea originated with Andy Mientus, who performed in the first national tour of Spring Awakening. Mientus went to Arden, who has long been on the company's radar to direct a Deaf West production. Arden's Deaf West roots run deep; he was in the Broadway company of Big River as well as a 2009 production of Pippin co-produced by Center Theatre Group and staged at the Mark Taper Forum. Both of those productions and an adaptation of Oliver! and the original musical Sleeping Beauty Wakes were all directed by Calhoun (Newsies, Jekyll & Hyde). And where Big River had co-producers in Center Theatre Group and the Roundabout Theatre, Spring Awakening is being produced exclusively by Deaf West and Arden's company Forest of Arden, at least at first.
Having given up its administrative offices, performance and rehearsal space several years ago and seen much of its federal funding dry up, Deaf West is essentially an itinerant company. And now they're producing their largest endeavor, unaided.
"We want to be doing more productions per year," says Kurs, who shares producing credits with Sepulveda and Ann Wareham. "This year we have two, next year we will have two and I'm hoping in 2016 we'll be able to have three and go up from there. At the same time, we want to take this step on our own and do this show in order to attract future partners. We're very optimistic about the future, and we feel this is a take on Spring Awakening that everyone will want to see." Following the workshop, the creative team conducted a national search for its cast, culled through video auditions and ended up pulling from as far away as Washington, D.C., Kentucky, Louisiana and Indiana. The actors are mostly between the ages of 17 and 24, and many of them moved to Los Angeles for the opportunity. Some are making their professional debuts.
"They get to work on the play all day long, and they're all so excited," says ASL master Shoshannah Stern, who first worked with Deaf West when she was 19 years out and freshly out of Gallaudet University. "It's just great to see those new young faces coming from where I came from once upon a time, to be able to help them grow and give them experience." Inside the rehearsal room, Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff guide the cast through the blocking for the first act number "Touch Me." For the number, Arden and Liff configure a line of performers some signing, some signing and singing with hands thrusting downward: "Touch me — just like that/ Now lower down, where the sins lie." The chorus eventually forms a procession, moves off upstage, and ultimately reassembles. For the start of scene five, between Melchior and Wendla, Liff assembles bodies splayed out and propped up against each other like a sensual sculpture.
A number like "Touch Me" presents any number of challenges. There's all the metaphoric and suggestive imagery in Sater's lyrics which have to be communicated via ASL in a manner that is both comprehensible and conveys the spirit of the piece.
Whether a sensual ballad or a pounding rock number, keeping things focused and progressing is a feat, says Liff, whose day job is with the hit TV series "So You Think You Can Dance." When he worked on the workshop, Liff got a sense of how difficult incorporating movement into a Deaf West musical could be. And, indeed, it has.
"The simplest things like getting everybody to take a step on their right foot in the same moment can be very difficult when half your cast can't hear," says Liff. "You have to think ahead in all of your spacing. You have to have hearing cast members in viewpoint of all the deaf cast members to take cues off them. If a deaf cast member is going off a solo, you have to have someone close enough to give them a little squeeze or nod to cue them.
"But it's one of those things where every single day I have a moment where I feel such incredible joy over what we have created and you see this magical thing happen," he continues, "and once a week during rehearsal I want to rip my hair out because it's so hard."