E xtraordinary how potent cheap music is,” says Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. This fact, so obvious to so much of the pop-music-listening world—whether it’s Tin Pan Alley tunes in Coward’s day or in a Williamsburg dive tonight—only penetrates the nostalgia palace of Broadway once every decade or two. Thus when Hair opened in 1968, critics and audiences rejoiced because Broadway had finally discovered the power of rock. Then Rent opened in 1996, and critics and audiences rejoiced because Broadway had finally discovered the power of rock. Now Spring Awakening has opened, and guess what Broadway has just discovered.
The new indie-rock treatment of Frank Wedekind’s play about hormonal adolescents has just about everything going for it. The score is exciting, the performers gifted and attractive, and there’s every reason to hope the show will be around long enough that casting directors will need replacements when early middle age claims this bunch. It’s too soon to know if the show will lead musical theater around a stylistic corner, the way Rent never did. But if it does, the shift may have less to do with the show’s brilliance than with the aesthetic trap in which Broadway lately finds itself—the one Spring Awakening escapes.
Though Broadway’s musicals have secure finances these days, they’ve got schizophrenic tastes. Changing sensibilities have helped push shows away from the orchestral sound that long defined the place and into various clumsy embraces of Coward’s “cheap music.” Whether it’s wresting pop into a traditional mode or just swiping pop catalogs in their entirety, the resulting mix of ancient form and newish content has produced a muddle: Most new musicals haven’t sounded like the rich classic style lately, but neither do they have pop’s cheap, authentic joys, managing only a gassy blend of high and low, bad and worse.
The Spring Awakening approach to this conundrum is to tell everyone involved, in so many words, to fuck off. Its creators show more disrespect for current Broadway practice than any I can remember, and I love them for that. The score isn’t sorta-pop of the fifties or sixties or eighties, as in Hairspray or Jersey Boys or The Wedding Singer, nor pop cut with stagy bombast, as in Wicked. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have written indie-rock songs. That’s all. Librettist-lyricist Sater has preserved the dialogue and formality of the 1891 play, for which Sheik’s tunes serve as internal monologues. Some are gentle ballads, like “Left Behind,” a bittersweet graveside melody; others are big anthems, like “Totally Fucked,” a song so fierce it could have used two or three more choruses, at which point we would’ve begged for air. After the score unfolds the tale of doomed Wendla and Melchior and their repressed friends, the charge that rock music can’t sustain a story seems flimsy.
While clearing a path out of Broadway’s pseudo-pop mire, the show also flashes some newly adventurous stagecraft (for uptown, anyway). With a few exceptions, like John Doyle’s Sondheim revivals, musicals tend to follow the Lloyd Webber principle that a respectable show needs eighteen sets and huge machinery. Michael Mayer, by contrast, has put a rock concert on Broadway. The band sits onstage in plain view, and along either side of the playing area are risers for audience members. (Why not?) Even better, Kevin Adams has dreamed up the most blazing lighting plot on Broadway. He’s not afraid to saturate the stage with bubble patterns or sprays of light, as they do at Irving Plaza or Bowery Ballroom when a blistering solo demands it. And it’s not just the stage. One drawback to putting high-energy rock musicals on Broadway is that they tend to look silly in these gilded playhouses. So Adams just mounts neon all over everything, even in the audience. In a flash—so to speak—Broadway looks a lot more hospitable to music incubated in a garage.
Best of all, Spring Awakening suggests that musical theater’s recent plunge into stupid cuteness doesn’t have to be a death spiral. Lately Broadway has domesticated a John Waters film, prettified characters created by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and tamed Monty Python. Improbably, a pop songwriter and a bunch of teenagers have made the Broadway musical seem grown-up again. They’ve softened an edge or two of the original play, but this is still the raciest thing on Broadway. Sex, violence, dying young: It hits all the high points of Wedekind’s story (and the high points of pop music).
Out of enthusiasm for the promise Spring Awakening holds, I worry that my raving fellow critics and I may be overselling the show. It gets the adrenaline pumping, no question, but there are still a couple of wobbly performances, some dead spots when Bill T. Jones isn’t contributing his brilliant choreography, and the whole thing doesn’t so much end as rush for the exit. More generally, although we’re all besotted with the songs just now, further reflection may reveal that what is A-minus work when judged against Broadway scores is only a B compared to first-rate pop. So see it, but see it without any expectation of a masterpiece. And be prepared to say—and to hope that a hundred young composers are saying with you—“Oh, I didn’t know musicals could do that.”