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It Might As Well Be Spring

Brooke Pierce • Musical Stages • December 9, 2006

“My show is moving to Broadway — it’s like a dream come true,” enthuses Steven Sater, lyricist and bookwriter of Spring Awakening, which opens at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on December 10. “I walked through the stage door and it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I came in, and we’re just standing on this Broadway stage.” But it’s taken seven years for Sater and his collaborator Duncan Sheik to get their show this far.

Based on Franz Wedekind’s play, Spring Awakening is about teenagers in a provincial German town where none of the adults will explain to their adolescent children the changes they are going through — resulting in tragic consequences. “People have praised the fact that we’re faithful to Wedekind, which has meant a lot to me, because I made a vow that we would. But the truth is, we have rewritten the hell out of it,” admits Sater. They have taken the episodic play and made it a “hero’s journey” for the thoughtful and intelligent Melchior, also focusing on the frustrations of his friends Moritz and Wendla.

Playwright Sater and singer/songwriter Sheik (who released his debut pop album in 1996) first crossed paths because of their shared Buddhist faith. “We just had one of those amazing meetings of a lifetime, and I can’t really explain it otherwise,” says Sater. Though he had never thought about writing lyrics, he and Sheik tried writing a couple of songs together for Sater’s play Umbrage, and soon enough the pair were collaborating on the album Phantom Moon. “I said we should create a piece of theatre. I gave him Spring Awakening and that’s when we started talking about it.

“I had long loved the play,” continues Sater, “and it had seemed to me that it was kind of an opera, potentially — that the soul of song was already within the play. There’s all this unfulfilled yearning, and these cries.” He felt that the haunted romanticism of Sheik’s music would be ideally suited to the material. “Pop music is an outlet for this same yearning, and a release that was so unavailable to those kids. In your room, you’re a rock star, and you get to sing about whatever it is. Then you’re still stuck in your life. So that was the first conceit for the play. My thought was that all the songs would function as interior monologue.”

Though they briefly considered doing an updated version, the beauty of the play seemed specific to its time and place, so they settled instead for keeping the 19th century setting, but creating the songs in a contemporary style. “The kids grab mics and step out and rock out,” says Sater. “Then they go back, and they’re trapped in this world of breeches and buttons. The structure of the show becomes a way of underscoring the timelessness of this theme.” And it’s not just the music that sounds contemporary, but Sater’s lyrics, too, are strikingly modern, using colloquial expressions (“we’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you”), curse words, references to devices like stereos and the ubiquitous teenage verbal hiccup, “like.”

Which comes first for this songwriting team? “I write the lyrics first,” answers Sater. “We have had a couple of great experiences writing music first, but by and large, I give Duncan a lyric, and he just sets it verbatim. It’s so easy. There’s something almost mystic about our relationship.”

Unfortunately, getting a musical produced is rarely so easy. Things started out promisingly when director Michael Mayer came on board. They did workshops of Spring Awakening in 2000 and 2001, and the Roundabout was set to put on the first full production. But Mayer became busy with Thoroughly Modern Millie, so they postponed the production for a couple of years. Then Roundabout got hit with budget cuts and had to drop the show from its roster, leaving the Spring Awakening team to find another home. “Everyone was just confounded by it,” remembers Sater. “Here was this period script with German names, and this contemporary rock CD, and they just didn’t know what to make of it. And everyone said ‘Times have changed, and it’s dark.’ ”

Tom Hulce, of Amadeus fame, had seen workshops of the show and came in to help the guys get it back on track. Eventually they were offered a slot in the Great American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center in 2005, which got the momentum going again. Says Sater, “Out of that, producer Ira Pittelman became interested, and the Atlantic Theater committed to doing it, with Ira and Tom’s involvement, commercially.”

Before bringing it to the Atlantic this past summer, they did a workshop at Baruch College. “That was one of the most important things we did,” says Sater. “Michael was able to try out his staging ideas, the designers were able to grow familiar with the world of the play. And the kids, who were so young, were able to come and learn this.”

The kids in question include Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr. and Lea Michele in the main roles of Melchior, Moritz and Wendla, respectively. “Because we went on for seven years, kids kept getting too old for the cast.” But Michele has been with them for six years. “Somehow she always seemed to me like thesoul of the show,” says Sater. To find the other talented young actors, they had to do a wide search, from schools to bands. “It’s a really hard show to cast because the kids have to be able to do classical text and then be able to sing pop/rock. You have to find really special individuals.”

Now they’re all packing up and moving to the Eugene O’Neill for the commercial run — “We’ve got a couple of new songs, we’re adding musicians” — but hopefully Broadway won’t be the end. “I always thought there was a future for this show at colleges, regional theatres,” says Sater. “It’s such a great opportunity for kids to do a show that’s about their issues.”

He has found the experience of giving voice to these kids very rewarding: “Just to write a lyric and then have someone sing it back to you, it’s a remarkable experience. Then to see kids onstage embody that song, act it and sing it to each other, it’s tremendously powerful.”

Despite its dark subject matter, Sater thinks Spring Awakening should have broad appeal. “We all went through adolescence, and that’s what the story calls out to in people. It’s as much about parenting as it is about being a child,” says Sater, who is a parent himself. But some of the best responses have come from young people, as in one instance he relates during the Atlantic run. “There was a set of high school kids that came in,” he recalls. “It was one of the most amazing performances we ever gave of the show. And afterwards the kids said, ‘Thank you so much for respecting us enough to put our story onstage.’”

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