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Long Story Short

A once-banned play about oversexed teens gets a Duncan Sheik makeover.

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1. In 1891, Frank Wedekind, 26, writes his first play, Spring Awakening, in Munich. A big influence on Brecht, it’s set in a boarding school where restrictive social mores lead to group masturbation and suicide. He plays a role in the first (seriously edited) production in 1906. (Ever the rebel, Wedekind later serves six months in prison for writing poems satirizing Kaiser Wilhelm.)

2. New York tries to ban the U.S. premiere during World War I, but a court injunction keeps it running. Some critics praise it, but Burns Mantle rips its “hidden nastiness” and takes a swipe at the enemy: “Its creation would suggest that they need it in Berlin . . . They should keep it in Berlin.”

3. A 1963 Royal Court production—the first after a British ban is lifted—is heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain. But by 1974, London is ready for its first full-length version, in a (later much-used) translation by Edward Bond at the National Theatre.

4. In December 1977, Romanian director Liviu Cuilei stages an arty Juilliard production, set partly in a cage. Widely praised, it’s revived at the Public Theater starring a young Boyd Gaines. Walter Clemons, in Newsweek, says that “a play that could seem episodic and ungainly rises to piercing eloquence.”

5. The new theater director at Toronto’s CentreStage, Bill Glassco, creates a stir by producing Spring Awakening in 1986—and using actual teenagers for the first time. Offended audiences flee the theater. Director Derek Goldby says, “I expected to be arrested when I put this on. One hundred [walkouts] a night is nothing.”

6. As regional productions of Spring Awakening become surprisingly common (everywhere from the Philippines to Israel), two L.A. adaptations attempt to update the radical chestnut. One, in 1989, adds guns and a ghetto blaster; another features skateboarding suburbanites. Critics compare them to Molly Ringwald films.

7. In 2000, Michael Mayer directs the first workshop of a new musical version by Steven Sater and that great existentialist Duncan Sheik. “The show cries out for pop-rock,” Sater explains. A Roundabout production is scuttled after 9/11, but a one-night “American Songbook” show in 2005 piques the Atlantic Theater’s interest. Sheik’s musical opened there last week.


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