“Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rent.” Every generation has its forbidden Broadway — the rock ‘n’ roll musical that pushes boundaries, makes adults cringe and sends young people screaming to the theater.
“Spring Awakening” is doing just that. The 2006 musical based on a controversial 1891 German play walked off with eight 2007 Tonys and a Grammy Award, and helped put Lea Michele on the radar long before “Glee.”
But with this show — running Friday through July 20 at Theatre Cedar Rapids — parents shouldn’t cringe and stay away. They should bring their kids and afterward, discuss all the uncomfortable teen-angst themes.
“It isn’t easy to explain, because the source material is from the turn of the 20th century,” director Leslie Charipar says.
But the growing pains that have haunted teenagers through the ages still spring uncomfortably true today.
“Every kid in a 60-mile radius came to auditions,” Charipar says. Because of the adult language and themes, 11 young adults ages 18 to 23 were cast, along with two adults handling all the older roles.
“There are big issues like homosexuality, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, illegal abortions — illegal botched abortions. It’s big stuff — it’s big, heavy stuff in the world of a teenager, but set in the late 19th century Germany,” Charipar says.
The story was kept under wraps for an entire century.
“The original play was banned,” she says. “It ran for a night in New York, and then they banned it. It was banned in Europe, and it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that anybody put their hands on it again, and thought, ‘Hmmm, this is interesting.’
“It’s a coming-of-age story. But, it is not a feel-good coming-of-age story necessarily,” she says. “It’s all the ugliness of what happens when all the things that are natural in us as we grow up are repressed and not talked about, and how does a kid make a good decision when they don’t have all the information. …
“Most of the issues are around sexuality — how do two kids who don’t know anything about sexuality understand the ramifications of sex. How does a young man who has feelings for another young man understand what’s going on with him. And how does a young girl who’s sexually abused by her father understand that that’s not right, because nobody will talk about it.”
- “Spring Awakening”
- Friday to July 20; 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2:30 Sunday
- Theatre Cedar Rapids
- Tickets: $20 to $30 at TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org; limited $10 onstage seating only by phone
- Warning: Rated R for adult situations and language
The rock music by Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater helps bridge the story between centuries and generations. It embraces and transcends the play’s themes.
“Having read the novel from 1891, it’s a depressing, depressing story,” music director Janelle Lauer says. “The music lifts the story to a different kind of emotion …
“Even though the themes are heavy sometimes, the music has a way of making you feel like everything’s going to be fine,” she says. “It touches on the (hard) subjects certainly. There’s moments where the music is in your face, but there are beautiful, lovely ballads in the show.
“There are songs where the lyric follows the storyline and touches on subjects people don’t know how to approach with their kids, and the music can maybe connect them,” says Lauer, who has two teenagers at home.
“I hope that parents aren’t gonna shy away from the show and that they’re gonna bring their kids. It’s one of those shows that allows you to go, ‘What do you think about that,’ and suddenly there’s a dialogue that opens between kids and parents that maybe they didn’t have before — or maybe parents didn’t know how to approach the subject. It’s a real opportunity to affect a lot of people.”
The University of Iowa staged the show last November. Composer Sheik spoke at the UI on Nov. 15, then performed in concert that night at CSPS in Cedar Rapids. Hoopla caught up with him shortly before those Corridor appearances.
He loves that two local theater troupes were staging his musical.
“I grew up doing community theater in Hilton Head, S.C., when I was in elementary school, and even though I concentrated more on regular music as opposed to theater music during most of my teens, I did have that experience and was really encouraged by that in many ways,” says Sheik, 43, who first found fame in 1996 with the pop hit “Barely Breathing.”
He has since turned his attention to writing for the stage, with “Whisper House,” “The Nightingale,” an “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation titled “Alice By Heart,” and a musical adaptation of “American Psycho,” as well as music for a screen version of “Spring Awakening.”
“I love the fact that people are doing ‘Spring Awakening’ all over the place,” he said of the play back in November. “I just got back from Mexico City, and there was a production down there in Spanish. It was really wonderful.
“For me, it was just great to see it done differently and with different actors, because the experience is then new and fresh and exciting,” he says. “Sometimes there are problems with it, but sometimes there are really amazing discoveries that they make, so it’s all good.”
The path from concept to stage took about seven years, he says, calling it “one of those thrilling rides” that began with “a light-bulb moment.” His writing partner, Sater, had fallen in love with the 1891 play as a teenager, and when he later showed it to Sheik, it piqued the composer’s interest.
“What if you took this play — this really cool, weird, strange, eccentric play — and then you adapted it as a musical, but the music, stylistically, was connected to … alternative rock or indie-rock. The thing about theater music — as genius as much of it is — stylistically it’s the kind of music that .001 percent of people in the world listen to. It’s not really relevant to the rest of the culture,” he says.
“So the light bulb was kinda like, ‘What if you made the record and you wrote the songs in such a way that they wouldn’t be out of place if you put it on a mix tape with Cold Play.’ That was the initial idea,” Sheik says.
“I feel fortunate that the hybrid worked as well as it did. It’s something I’m interested in continuing to refine and to hopefully take it further. Any art form, especially something like theater, it has to be progressive or it’s going to go away.”