Spring Awakenng In Autumn

Critically Acclaimed Broadway Fare In Milwaukee

Dec. 31, 1969
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It’s not often that a big, commercial Broadway musical can have an impact beyond its own popularity. Granted, some of the biggest entertainment ventures in history (Phantom and such…) have made a hell of an impact over the years, but they do so by telling a story in broad strokes that doesn’t exactly challenge the audience. Even when Broadway musicals tackle bigger issues (Rent) they don’t exactly do so with a whole lot of nuance or complexity. With heavy sexuality and harsh language, Spring Awakening  may come across as a radically different kind of Broadway musical, but what really sets it apart is the fact that it’s willing to tackle the complexity of life found in such abundance outside the Broadway stage. The touring production of Spring Awakenings opens tonight at the Marcus Center.

As slick as the online promotional materials can be for a Broadway show, very few of them have an online parent’s guide. This is a bit odd as it’s not a kid’s show . . . based on a drama that had been banned from late 9th century Germany, the story involves a group of teenaged kids discovering the nature of sexuality in a sexually repressed era that still has some parallels with contemporary culture. A musical that does this with a contemporary alt-rock score is going to end up appealing to a younger demographic than most family-oriented musicals—and so it goes that Spring Awakening ends up with a parent’s guide website. The interesting bit about the website is that it illustrates that the musical has sort of a after school special effect—some parents who would otherwise have had difficulty talking to their kids about sex found the musical had brought-up issues that they wouldn’t’ve been able to discuss otherwise . . . and somewhere beyond this, there’s a retroactively anti-commercial thing going on with it. There’s a punk sensibility about some of the music. One of the catchiest songs in the show has a word the FCC is unfriendly to right in the title. There is a love story here, but it rests in a bigger story addressing some of the problems of communication in formal education that ultimately deals with bigger societal issues. At every turn, Spring Awakening seems to want to keep out of step with its own glossy, commercial nature. As a result, it may never have the kind of universal appeal of other contemporary musicals like Wicked . . . but it’s already garnered quite a bit off acclaim. A number of New York critics have already hailed it as the best musical in a decade. Personally, I don’t think this is saying a whole heckuva lot, but . . . it’s definitely worth a look.

The real challenge here in the long run may be Spring Awakening’s willingness to fuse the very commercial with the very un-commercial. In doing so, it’s fusing two different aesthetics which appeal to two distinctly different groups of people. Aside from the acclaim, the immediate commercial success and what will probably end up being a fairly decent touring run, this may end up being a musical that isn’t entirely satisfying for anyone. The contrast between contemporary, punk-inspired alt-rock and the more standard contemporary American musical sound may be a bit to extreme. In any case, it’s a very interesting effort and definitely a lot more noteworthy than any other musical that’s come out of Broadway in the past ten years . . .

Of course, all of this has been written without actually seeing the musical. More on the actual show tomorrow . . . Spring Awakening opens at 7:30pm tonight at the Marcus Center.


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