No Show Tunes Allowed

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

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.”

Now that they’ve announced that their show will close after fourteen performances, the creators of High Fidelity are sure to be harassed from every side. What a lousy idea, people will say. In fact, the notion of putting Nick Hornby’s novel onstage always had allure. The lives of its characters, especially Rob, the heartsick record-store owner and pop savant, are suffused with music. Onstage, the energy of live performance could give a story this rich in music real punch.

In the end, librettist David Lindsay-Abaire and songwriters Tom Kitt and Amanda Green only began to make good on this promise. The score consisted of the vague Broadway-rock wash that sounds authentic only next to other pop musicals. It was funny when Rob’s customers danced around the store, but it violated everything they hold dear. When Barry and his band performed at the end, there was no band—they sang while the pit orchestra played.

That’s just how Broadway works, you’ll say, and for decades that’s been true. But herein lies the final brilliance of Spring Awakening. It offers a reminder for some, a news flash for others, that the conventional Broadway musical is only one of many ways to tell stories with music onstage. The creators of High Fidelity flattened their story until it fit that form, and it closed in two weeks; Sheik and Sater threw the conventions away, and rock on.

We have Buddhism to thank for Spring Awakening — specifically Soka Gakkai International, the association to which both Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) belong. After meeting in 1999 through the group, which teaches the Nichiren school, the two chanted together at Sheik’s home in Tribeca, then got to talking. Sater asked Sheik to write music for a lyric in a play called Umbrage, and Sheik obliged. “Then Steven just started faxing me lyrics,” says Sheik. “He’s very prolific.” In no time, they were collaborating on an album, Phantom Moon, and Sater convinced Sheik to look at an odd German play called Spring Awakening. Seven brief years later, they’re Broadway phenoms.

Spring Awakening
Lyrics and book by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

High Fidelity
Lyrics by Amanda Green. Music by Tom Kitt. Book by David Lindsay-Abaire.

No Show Tunes Allowed