For their final production of the year, the university’s Musical Theatre Society chose to perform Spring Awakening. The musical was written by Steven Slater and Duncan Sheik, adapted from the German play by Frank Wedekind. It has a smooth blend of folk and rock music and is frequently censored in television performances (I mean, who can blame them a song called ‘Totally Fucked’?). It explores themes such as abuse, adolescent sexuality, suicide, abortion and rape. In other words, it is the polar opposite of UMMTS’s last musical, Seussical.
It is a musical I am very familiar with and subject matter that can easily be treated insensitively. The Society entrusted it with Director Grace Johnstone, Oonagh Johnson (assistant director) and musical director Zoë Kondu. It was also choreographed by Hannah Blau and produced by Sophie Procter. So does this production do it justice? Absolutely!
Spring Awakening follows a group of teenagers in late nineteenth century Germany. Amongst them are Wendla Bergman (Kate Gabriel), an innocent girl who just wants her mother to tell her how babies are made, Melchior Gabor (Zahid Siddiqui), a rebel who knows very much about how babies are made, and Moritz Stiefel (Jack McCartney) who is too worried about his sexual dreams to focus on his school work. The musical is relevant today with young people still being denied knowledge of their own bodies.
A number that especially resonated with me was ‘The Dark I Know Well’. In this song, two of the girls, Martha (Esme Wade) and Ilse (Catriona Darroch) sing about the sexual abuse they face from their fathers. The music is heart-wrenching and I found myself in tears. Wade has an astoundingly unique, soulful voice, well-suited to folk music, and this made her very memorable despite her role being minor.
What was so excellent about this song was how much was left implicit. The lyrics do not describe the abuse graphically and Blau’s choreography used the metaphor of them ballroom dancing with their respective fathers. Similarly, when one major character shoots himself in the head, this was not shown onstage and when several characters beat each other with sticks, they always stood a great distance apart and the sticks never physically hit them. There is a great problem in the media of traumatic scenes that may deeply disturb viewers being shown in graphic detail for shock value. It was wonderful that this production did not resort to such cheap tactics as it allowed the topics to be treated carefully and given the emotional depth they deserved.
I did find one decision made by Johnstone and Johnson rather interesting: the sex between Melchior and Wendla at the end of act one was presented as entirely consensual. In the original play, this was an explicit rape scene and productions of the musical tend to have Wendla resist several times, only consenting after a struggle. The act finished calmly with Melchior softly asking “Yes?” and Wendla responding “Yes” in an equally calm tone. It was refreshing to see such a tender moment in an age wherein we hear so many horror stories about lack of consent. However, an issue emerges in that Wendla does not know what sex is whereas Melchior is very knowledgeable, and this creates a power imbalance that any director of the musical must consider.
While every actor showcased their incredible vocal abilities, the standout performance was from McCartney as Moritz. The role could not have been more perfectly cast with McCartney’s natural nervousness and wide, innocent eyes. His vocals really shone through during his powerful solo in ‘Don’t Do Sadness.’ I was astounded to find this was the first time he had acted with the University.
Annoyingly, this production revealed another problem with the world of theatre. In act two, male students Ernst (Gary Gannon) and Hänschen (Cali Nice) sung a love duet together, ‘The Word of Your Body (Reprise)’. Through no fault of the production crew at all, the audience laughed throughout, when they did not laugh at its almost identical predecessor which was sung by Wendla and Melchior. It is time that theatre and its audiences stopped treating romantic relationships between men as a punchline.
Spring Awakening is a relevant show that is hopeful for the future, that condemns censorship and adults who stifle the minds of the young and warns of the fatal consequences of criminalizing abortion. This production hones in on these delicate themes and does not let its audience be distracted from them. And it also boasts a cast of very talented singers!