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The writing of 'Spring'

Pop rocker Duncan Sheik gave Broadway a jolt with his first musical, inspired by fellow novice Steven Sater and an oft-banned 1891 play.

October 26, 2008|Rob Weinert-Kendt | Weinert-Kendt is a freelance writer.

NEW YORK — As the tragically misunderstood teens of "Spring Awakening" could tell you, sometimes parents just don't get it.

"I remember being on the phone with my mom about five years ago," singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik recalled recently, sitting between a pair of vintage rock organs in a makeshift music studio in Manhattan.

In 2003, Sheik was touring to support what would be his last major-label album, "Daylight," and Mom had some unsolicited staging suggestions.

"She was like, 'Duncan, I saw Madonna on the "Today" show this morning, and they showed footage from her concert. She's got dancers and lights, it's a whole experience -- I don't understand, why don't you have that?' "

Sheik patiently pointed out the exponential budgetary chasm between a brand-name pop extravaganza and a solo tour by an artist with a single major chart hit (1996's "Barely Breathing"). But if he was looking to tout his own theatrical ambitions, he could have pointed to a project he had begun with playwright Steven Sater: a pop/rock musical based on Frank Wedekind's oft-banned 1891 play "Spring Awakening."

At the time, of course, Sheik, a theater newbie, didn't foresee the Broadway phenom that would emerge in 2006 from this unlikely premise -- complete with lights and dancers, Ma -- let alone the eight Tony Awards, the long Broadway run, the nearly assured place in the musical theater canon. A sit-down production in London opens next January, and the show's U.S. tour docks at the Ahmanson this week.

For his part, playwright and lyricist Sater vividly recalls another momentous phone conversation along the show's bumpy road.

"I still remember, I was on the phone, walking down West 57th, and Duncan was saying that what he disliked in musical theater was when people talked, then started singing -- it seemed arbitrary," said Sater recently from L.A., where he spends most of his time. "And I said that the songs in our show could function as interior monologues. That's where this concept was born."

This snap decision by a pair of musical-theater novices would develop over the years, with the helpful guidance of old hands like director Michael Mayer ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Side Man"), into the show's signature storytelling gambit.

"Spring Awakening" is now best known as the show in which 19th century German schoolboys take a break from conjugating Latin to wail profane thoughts on another sort of conjugating, and a chorus of schoolgirls sets down their woodruff to pick up hand-held microphones and pant over the class bad boy. "We all have our junk / And my junk is you," they sing. There are plenty of jumps to the left and steps to the right, but every number in "Spring Awakening" is a time warp.

The importance of this pop-Brechtian gimmick to the show's success, however, may be overstated. Though Sheik and Sater have matched form to content in a novel way, "Spring Awakening" connects with audiences chiefly because it does what all the best musicals do: It turns songs into the storytelling partners of the scenes. In this case, they only look mismatched, in a punk-rock sort of way.

"In truth, as much as Steven and I were always saying, 'We're writing an anti-musical -- we're breaking all the rules,' in fact at the end of the day, there are many aspects of the show that are incredibly traditional," Sheik conceded. "It's just that we found a device that puts the actual transition between scene and song in the foreground, instead of trying to hide it."

Indeed, though Sater goes so far as to refer to "a divorce between the script and the songs," in fact the relationship of music and action of "Spring Awakening" more closely resembles its central love story. Like the star-crossed romance between an earnest rebel, Melchior, and a credulous, soulful maiden, Wendla, Sheik and Sater's sensual score strives yearningly, and tragically incompletely, across an imposed divide.

"From the beginning I did not want to write lyrics that forwarded the plot of the story," Sater explained. "I like songs that take you into the profound heart of the story. So the songs become the subtext of the scene." In the play's central lovers' clinch, then, "Melchior and Wendla may be nervous and inarticulate on the surface," Sater said, "but underneath they're saying, 'I'm gonna be wounded/ I'm gonna be your wound.' "

In singing their subtext, though, the youthful characters do so absent any trace of adult self-awareness.

"It's innocent; it's not ironic or postmodern," Sater averred. "These songs say, 'This is the deep truth of my soul and I'm going to express it this way.' "

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A pervasive frankness

OK, OK -- its storytelling style is not the only thing "Spring Awakening" is famous for. It has also been celebrated for putting teen sexuality and its discontents center stage more graphically than your average Broadway property.

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