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Possibilities awakening

Rock music throbs through an 1891 teen-angst tale. Can Michael Mayer's vision upend Broadway?

January 21, 2007|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — MICHAEL MAYER threads his way into a Chelsea restaurant, having just come from the orthopedist. During the summer, he had been walking on what he thought was just a sore ankle. Turns out, after diagnosis, to be what the doctor called a broken navicular.

"The doctor said to me, 'You've been walking on this for two months? You must have a very high pain threshold,' " recalls the 46-year-old Mayer. "And I said, 'Honey, I'm a director of Broadway musicals. You bet I have a very high pain threshold.' "

That threshold may be tested in the coming months, not by those who usually inflict pain on Broadway directors -- the critics -- but by the general theatergoing public. For "Spring Awakening," which Mayer directed and nurtured over a long gestation period, opened on Broadway last month to universal raves as the most daring and ambitious new musical in years. And that has set up the show as this season's most fascinating cultural litmus test: whether a modest musical -- with no stars, one set, an alternative rock score and a story line based on an 1891 German tragedy about provincial teens -- can prosper in a $120-a-ticket milieu increasingly dominated by lavish spectacle, jukebox musicals, self-referential comedies and family fare.

Perhaps aware of the stakes, the critics were unqualified in their praise, largely echoing Charles Isherwood's description of the musical in the New York Times as "brave ... haunting and electrifying," going on to express the fragile hope that "Broadway, with its often puerile sophistication and its sterile romanticism, may never be the same."

Such critical exuberance did give "Spring Awakening" a boost at the box office (it took in about $2 million in the week after opening) and set chat rooms buzzing about whether it: (a) deserved the accolades and (b) could survive through the slow winter months to take advantage of awards, including the Tony for best musical, for which it is a strong contender.

Though the jury is still out on the show's commercial success, what is clear is that the public's embrace will come on the terms set by the creative team of Mayer, Duncan Sheik -- the maverick rock composer ("Barely Breathing") who wrote the music, and Steven Sater, the off-Broadway playwright, screenwriter and poet who penned the book and lyrics.

"We have not pandered at all," Mayer says. "Broadway was never in our sights. When we started with that brief workshop Annie Hamburger gave us [at the La Jolla Playhouse], we just wanted to be able to get it on a stage wherever, whenever. It took eight years."

But Mayer is as persistent as he is protean. One would scarcely think him a potential savior of the musical art form as the director of such innocuous fare as the revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," the Tony-winning "Thoroughly Modern Millie" or even the recent remake of a classic horse film, "Flicka."

But as the onetime wunderkind who directed the 1995 national tour of "Angels in America" and followed up with the Tony-winning "Sideman," an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" and the film "A Home at the End of the World," Mayer has never shied away from dark and sophisticated subject matter.

"Michael allows the material to speak to him, and he answers it," says Tom Hulce, the actor-turned-producer who with Ira Pittelman, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel transferred "Spring Awakening" from its showcase run at the Atlantic Theatre last summer. "He has this unique ability to celebrate what is fun, comedic and musically thrilling about first discoveries -- and yet he can be unflinching about exploring the dead serious and deeply powerful aspects of this kind of story."

The material Sheik and Sater brought to Mayer certainly demanded the latter. Frank Wedekind's German classic created a scandal with its taboo topics of masturbation, sadomasochism, homosexuality, sexual abuse, suicide and abortion. In the play, the first stirrings of love and desire are tragically warped by the puritanical repression and the ignorance of parents and teachers. Mayer says that although he was attracted to the story, he was uncertain that the songs could work in the way the writers were insisting.

Sheik and Sater were adamant their score be created in a contemporary rock idiom through which the characters would express their inner thoughts and feelings. At no time were the protagonists to sing to each other, nor would the often poetically dense songs necessarily advance plot or character as is the norm in musicals. "We came to Michael because we were confident he would still allow us to bring something original to the form itself while fulfilling its requirements," says Sater, who had worked with Mayer on readings of his earlier work.

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