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Awake and Sing

I somehow managed to miss the original production of the musical, Spring Awakening, based on the Frank Wedekind play of the same name. But I am very glad to have managed to see the revival from Deaf West Theatre, currently on Broadway, an exceptionally moving evening of theater.

I say that in spite of the fact that I think the Wedekind play is more than a little bit  hysterical, and the additional fact that the musical adaptation, to my mind, softens the source material in ways that make it less-interesting. Wedekind’s play is substantially about attempts to repress budding sexuality and the pain and suffering that results – but it is first and foremost the budding sexuality that causes the pain; the problem with repression is that it inevitably fails. Spring will awaken, whether you do a May dance for it or not. And that awakening will be beautiful, but also dangerous – and you can’t escape that danger by building walls against the outside world, because it is growing from the inside. Meanwhile trying to escape leaves you unprepared for both the beauty and the danger.

The musical, though, takes its liberationist cues from its alt-rock musical stylings, and suggests that repression is the primary source of danger – that if the grownups would only listen to their children, and stop trying to control them, all would be well. This is a very teenage perspective, and both rock music and rock musicals have gone there before – with more memorable anthems than here. Weekend’s perspective is rather less sanguine.

The change is easiest to delineate when looking at the character of Melchior and his relationship with Wendla. As in the original Wedekind, Melchior is something of an exception to general repression. He’s an atheist, brought up by a mother who believes in free thought. Alone among the teenagers, he knows the facts of life – and teaches them to his hapless friend, Moritz, to help dispel the enchanted power of the succubi that visit him nightly in his dreams, reducing them to a more tolerable, merely human misery. (The gambit doesn’t work; Moritz is just as tormented after his enlightenment as he was before.) As in the play, all the girls swoon over Melchior’s combination of athleticism, intellect and charisma. And, as in the play, he forms a particular connection with Wendla, a just-pubescent girl who is exceptionally ignorant of the most basic facts of sexuality.

In the scene most faithful to the source material, Wendla, having just learned that a friend of hers is regularly beaten (as well as molested) by her father, asks Melchior to beat her so she knows what it feels like – so she can authentically feel something, anything. And when he doesn’t beat her hard enough, she pushes him to escalate his efforts until he is bludgeoning her furiously and runs off in tears.

But in the play, when Melchior later meets Wendla in a hayloft, he is overcome by desire and rapes her. (Earlier in the play, Melchior admits to being unable to imagine what it’s like to be a woman, a clue to problems to come.) Wendla, knowing nothing about sex, doesn’t even really understand what is happening, and is left disoriented and in shock. By contrast, in the musical, sex in the hayloft is a moment of mutual affection. Wendla doesn’t know what she’s doing, and therefore has no idea of the consequences. (She gets pregnant; her mother arranges an illicit abortion; she dies of the procedure.) But she knows what she wants, and what she wants is Melchior.

This alteration makes it much, much easier for us to like Melchior and hope that at least he will come to a good end. Which is precisely why I don’t trust it. It’s stacking the deck, shifting the story to much more comfortable ground, and thereby draining it of some of its visceral power. Melchior’s actions in the play arouse all our protective impulses toward Wendla – but much of the play has already demonstrated how those protective impulses did not serve these children well when their sexual awakening begins. Far easier to imagine that they don’t need no education, and would just be good if they were allowed to be free.

I’ve gone on a bit too long about this one point, but it’s all to explain why I went in without huge expectations for emotional impact. So why do I say this was an exceptionally moving evening of theater?

Honestly, I have to give all the credit to Deaf West. The only play I’ve ever seen before that substantially revolved around a deaf character played by a deaf actor was Tribes, but this isn’t explicitly a play about deafness. Moreover, it’s a musical. And I have to say, it was a really extraordinary experience just watching how everything played out. How choreographed signing of the songs became a kind of music of movement, a kind of modern dance. The double consciousness of watching a signing actor perform a part while another actor, in the shadows, “translated” from sign to speech. The plain old raw energy of relatively less-studied performers on a Broadway stage, and the additional dimension that their deafness – a visible sign of alienation – gave to the situation of their characters. And how young they all seemed!

Doing this play in this way made it something considerably more than it otherwise might have been. I can’t imagine being moved nearly so much by poor Moritz’s plight if he hadn’t been played with such naive poignancy by Daniel Durant, nor by Wendla’s ignorance if it weren’t signified by such desperate signing by Sandra Mae Frank. Frankly, I can’t see myself liking the music half so much without the wonder of seeing how you sign a rock song.

And so, I sincerely hope this is itself an awakening, and not the last Deaf West production that will come east. I mean, I can only imagine what they’d do with West Side Story.

Spring Awakening runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway through January 24th, 2016.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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