The show didn’t run as long as its immediate reception would have indicated, and it didn’t have as direct a revitalizing influence on Broadway as many had hoped at the time, but it’s hard to convincingly blame that on its quality: a show fairly faithfully based on a great and extremely provocative play, only slightly softened and still powerfully disturbing, and with an absolutely glorious score.
Many people have complained about the changes in tone between the original play and the musical, but the fact is that the play was an early example of German Expressionism, and the creators were not aiming for an aggressively avant-garde musical like those of Lachiusa, which is about the only kind of musical unadulterated Expressionism would work for. After all, let’s remember that the legendary Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera that basically invented the Off-Broadway musical as we know it also completely altered the tone of its source. What’s important is that virtually all of the story material is intact, and much of it is actually far more disturbing in the musical’s anguished emotionalism that it ever was in the original play’s proto-Brechtian detachment, giving the play’s intended messages about violence, ignorance and the way we raise our children that much more impact.
Similarly, Rock purists can argue all day if the score is ‘Rock’ or ‘Pop’, but either way, there’s no denying that the actual music…the melodies and harmonies…are on the highest, most ravishing level. Duncan Sheik is one of the better alternative acts of the 2000s, but generally his songs, while often gorgeous, do suffer from a certain lack of variety, and the fact that they all sound pretty much the same eventually becomes rather wearing. That said, Spring Awakening is considered his greatest work for a reason. Not only are there four enraged rock anthems to break up the pervasive sameness of his usual atmospheric ballads, but even the ballads all sound different this time. You’ve got the sensuality of “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body”, the coolly contemplative “The Guilty Ones”, the calm sadness of “Left Behind”, the quietly searing anger of “Whispering”, and the gently uplifting “Those You’ve Known” and “The Song of Purple Summer”…all different, and all utterly gorgeous.
Yet the show, while unquestionably a hit, didn’t end up emulating its spiritual forbearer Rent in becoming a Broadway fixture. Why? Well, the show is not without its flaws: the presentation, in which the time period switches during the musical numbers and the songs are full of anachronistic references, is kind of confusing and off-putting, even though I can see why they thought it was necessary to justify the use of a rock score. And the lyrics are problematic—some of the poetry is pretty, and it sounds fairly appropriate for the teenage characters, but it can get a little embarrassing in its pretentiously purple excess (Ex: “Ooh, I’m gonna be wounded/Ooh, I’m gonna be your wound/Ooh, I’m gonna bruise you/Ooh, You’re gonna be my bruise”). In addition, some of the angry rock songs end up devolving into little more than profane banalities.
But to be honest, this show is nowhere near as flawed as the unpolished and structurally all-over-the-place Rent (for the record, I love Rent, but its lack of rehearsal- and tryout-era revisions kind of shows). I think what it comes down to is that Rent, in spite of its treatment of AIDS, homelessness, and drug addiction, is ultimately a feel-good show. You leave Rent feeling hopeful and uplifted; Spring Awakening, not so much. It’s a brilliant show, one of the best of the decade, but it was just too disturbing to keep audiences coming back to see it indefinitely.