Perhaps German social critic Frank Wedekind would be gratified to know that his banned 1891 play “Frühlings Erwachen” became the inspiration for one of Broadway’s most influential contemporary productions.
“Spring Awakening,” the rock-musical adaptation of Wedekind’s controversial story of youthful sexuality, won eight 2006 Tony and four Drama Desk awards. The production’s national tour comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus later this month, an arrival that’s much anticipated by the show’s many aficionados.
“Spring Awakening” tells the tale of a group of school friends – male and female –coming to terms with their budding sexuality amid the social repression of 19th-century Germany. Women fall for men and men fall for women and for other men in the surprisingly frank narrative. A gay kiss, simulated masturbation, an abortion, a suicide and exposed body parts are among elements of the play that shocked German society and have propelled the show into a runaway 21st-century hit. As the New York Times put it, “Broadway may never be the same again.”
“The Wisconsin Union Theater has always embraced ‘hot button’ issues, and this show sure does embrace them all,” says Ralph Russo, the theater’s cultural arts director. “As a university presenter, our mission allows us to push these buttons.”
“Spring Awakening” retains its period setting, opening with school boys in itchy wool suits being sternly lectured by their Latin instructor. When the boys pull microphones from their itchy suits and launch into composer Duncan Sheik’s Grammy Award-winning rock-and-roll anthems, it’s clear that this isn’t Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany anymore.
The gay subtext exists between the characters of the humorous, cocksure Hanschen (Devon Stone) and the shy, quiet Ernst (Daniel Plimpton), who come together in the aftermath of a friend’s death. Hanschen seduces Ernst and they share a passionate kiss during a reprise of “The Word of Your Body.” Ernst falls in love with Handschen, an opportunist who boasts to his delicate schoolmate that he is a “pussycat,” because he knows how to “just skim off the cream.”
“The dynamic between Hanschen and Ernst is beautifully presented on stage,” says George Salazar, who portrays their classmate Otto in the touring production. “We have two teenage boys, one who is confident and unafraid of what others may think of him, the other naïve, unsure and just wanting to fit in. Hanschen sees Ernst’s eagerness and the fact that he is somewhat lost and takes advantage of it.”
Salazar believes the relationship between Hanschen and Ernst reveals more about power than sexual orientation. “Unlike shows that deal specifically with LGBT issues and meet them head on, ‘Spring Awakening’ never refers to it as anything other than a moment when one teenager, secure and confident, takes advantage of and relishes the attention from another who is trying to find himself,” Salazar says.
The Wisconsin Union Theater engagement includes two evening shows and special midnight performance on Sat., Oct. 23. The late performance was negotiated to allow UW students to attend the show at slightly lower ticket prices.
“Spring Awakening” is a powerfully poignant piece of theatre,” Salazar says. “It’s primary message that regardless of time, location, gender, or race, every teenager experiences confusion, angst and a desire to belong and be understood. The production speaks directly to each individual in the audience, assuring them that everything will be OK.”