Opiate of the musical: Spring Awakening at the Almeida
Stalls C29, £20
29 December 2021
Rather like my futile and now historic attempts to understand Philip Glass’s appeal, musicals mostly make me feel like an alien invader, lost among a strange people who worship a strange god. The rock musical Spring Awakening is no different, although I certainly enjoyed the high production values and strong performances from an attractive cast. This pleasure is arguably sufficient, and I’ll admit part of my reason for going was a mothlike attraction to the slavering production posters of near-offensively beautiful people. But another reason was to understand why someone would make a musical of Wedekind’s unbearably bleak Spring Awakening, and this remains mysterious to me – but not, evidently, to the acolytes around me, who jumped unanimously to their feet as soon as decency allowed.
I came to the Wedekind through my love of Berg’s opera Lulu. I’ve never seen Spring Awakening, only read it, and just as with Lulu it makes me marvel at its clear-eyed empathy as much as it depresses the hell out of me. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical adaptation is, with one significant exception, remarkably true to the original. I was expecting at the least a shift from fin-de-siècle Germany but there we remain. This could risk historicising the play’s still pertinent themes, but on the whole the musical does a good job of recognising that which has improved since Wedekind’s time – for example, a serious shift in the moral acceptability of beating children – and that which still persist or where, as with legalised abortion, the progress made is endangered.
I didn’t feel the incongruity between the setting and the music, which on the whole provides upbeat easy listening and a few moments of beautiful falsetto lyricism for the two male leads, Laurie Kynaston as Melchior and Stuart Thompson as Moritz. I was moved only once beyond a passive appreciation and that was in the high-energy chorus number ‘Totally fucked’. I guess I’m a sucker for any mention of climate change, and the inclusion in the teenagers’ rage anthem of even this single passing reference – as far as I can see, the musical’s only addition to Wedekind’s original – was enough to make me rage with them. Why is the world like this? Why?
But I was also moved, only once, in the opposite direction, and that was in the musical’s closing number ‘The song of purple summer’. This is, like most of the rest of the music, a cheerful, upbeat, straightforward song, and in this production by Rupert Goold the cast amps up the corniness, smiling sweetly at each other and at the audience, on whom the lights are raised. This I have a problem with. Spring Awakening describes child abuse: a girl kept ignorant and then murdered; a boy under such pressure that he takes his own life. That rage from ‘Totally fucked’ is because the world is cruel like this, arbitrarily, when it could be different. What exactly is there to be cheery about?
Perhaps in productions of the play there is more optimism than I’ve found in reading it. After all, Wedekind could do away with Melchior at the end, and he does not. But I have my doubts. These are shored up by the fact that Sheik and Sater’s only departure from Wedekind is that Melchior and Wendla’s sex is consensual. Wedekind’s Melchior is ambiguous, upsetting, his course troublesome; Sheik and Sater’s is a straightforward goody, and a victim of those awful adults – who, of course, were children once themselves, though I think the musical would have us forget that.
Sheik and Sater mould in Spring Awakening a more-or-less traditional coming-of-age story, where the hero passes through experience to arrive at a greater understanding of the world and himself. This is a reasonable enough vehicle for some simple rock songs. But I would argue that the Wedekind offers something less conventional and more honest – less an opiate story to make us feel good about ourselves, and much more a depressing reminder of our apparently irresistible capacity for cruelty. So is Spring Awakening an adaptation of the Wedekind or a bowdlerisation of it? I’m inclined to the latter – but on the other hand, I did enjoy it and it didn’t depress the hell out of me. So maybe the worshippers of the musical are onto a good thing.
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