“They stood perplexed in top hats, as if round the carcass of a vulture. Bewildered crows.”
Berthold Brecht about Franz Wedekind’s funeral
The musical version of a once highly controversial play, Spring Awakening, by Franz Wedekind, opened at Garfield High School’s Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center this week. Although the musical version, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater. won numerous Tony awards on Broadway, in my opinion, it was the sort of play that should never be adapted into a musical.
Spring Awakening (Frühlings Erwachen in German) was originally written in 1890-91 but not performed until 1906, when the famous avant garde director Max Reinhardt directed it at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin . As a result of its controversial subject matter: the devastating effects of adolescent sexual ignorance and repression, teen-age suicide, child abuse, and other taboo subjects in the early 20th Century, it was often banned and censored. It was also a harbinger of Expressionism and modernism in theater.
Wedekind was writing at a time when Freud was writing about psychoanalysis, infantile sexuality, the role of sexual repression in mental health, the interpretation of dreams and other taboo theories which threatened the social order of 19th Century bourgeois society. Other visionaries such as Oscar Wilde and the French symbolist poets were undermining cultural norms as well.
Spring Awakening’s exposition was swift, a 14 school-girl Wendla, is trying on a short skirt, when her mother tells her that the “stork” has brought another baby for the older married sister, and then forbids Wendla from wearing a short skirt.
Well into puberty, Wendla begs her mother to tell her where babies come from, but the mother says they just come from loving one’s husband a lot, leaving Wendla extremely vulnerable for sexual exploitation.
The plot weaves a web around the theme of sexual repression and ignorance, as both boys and girls in the provincial town try to deal with sexuality without any concrete knowledge of what is happening to them or their bodies. The adults around them are generally nasty, repressed, frightened and authoritarian. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a botched abortion, suicide, domestic violence, parental and school abuse and very little comic relief.
Unfortunately, the one place where comic relief could have been injected was lost. In naming the teachers, the author chose names with great comic appeal. The name of the corporal-punishing school master Knochenbruch actually means “fracture”, The name of the large bosomed piano teacher Fräulein Grossebustenhalter, actually means “Big Bra.” It might have been better for the adapters to translate these names into English.
Since the names are cognates with English, it might have been better, for the director of the production, Stewart Hawk, to have the actors pronounce the German names reasonably competently, since the onomatopoeia of the German words would have made it accessible to English speakers.
The bad diction of the German pronunciation was also a major issue with the English pronunciation, except for the Charles Whitson, who played the male lead, Melchior. He was the only actor, even with microphones whose diction was clear enough, so that he could be understood when he spoke. For the rest, 90% of the dialogue was incomprehensible, as were the lyrics of the songs.
Since it was performed in the Quincy Jones performing Arts Center, a highly sophisticated large auditorium, the actors needed more reliable microphones, and did not need to be drown out by the orchestra as much.
The strength of the production was in the creative choreography by Juliet Ahrens-Siegel and Hazel Danielsen-Wong. Likewise the set and lighting by Theo Unger and Alex Reynolds respectively was inventive and worked well for all the numerous set changes.
In my opinion, the weakness of the play itself was emphasized by making it a musical. Although Wedekind subtitled the play, A Children’s Tragedy, it is not really a tragedy in the classical sense, as there is no flawed hero, who brings about his own downfall in pursuit of some goal.
I would title this play “Children’s Holocaust” since they are all victims of a repressive, authoritarian society, with destructive social norms. The children are all victims of these social norms; the play is a really series of interwoven horrific anecdotes to illustrate this point. ¸
As to for the music, it was as plaintive as the subject matter. I found little to distinguish one song from the other, the melodies sounded the same and since the lyrics were incomprehensible, the music became tedious and just got in the way of the drama.
These young people may not have had the training that professional actors have in terms of diction, but the best production I have ever seen in terms of voice and speech in Seattle was a Blanchet H.S. production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. If those teen-aged actors could be taught to speak clearly, using a much more difficult text, why were the teen-agers at Garfield allowed to flounder?
High School productions are learning experiences, but the audience is expected to pay $19.00. I was very excited to see this production since I studied German Literature in college and grad school, but if a director does not respect the audience enough to make sure the actors can speak clearly and be understood, why should anyone pay $19 to hear mumbling.
Spring Awakening the musical by Sater and Sheik. Garfield High School, Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center. 400-23rd Ave Seattle 98122 ( Central District) Thru June 1. Info (206) 252-2408 (Some parking in lot, plenty of off street parking on side streets)