Century-old taboos teach modern lessons in Spring Awakening

Temple theater students are performing the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” through Nov. 4 at Tomlinson Theater.

Blue cast’s Ian Monaco, Kathryn Brunner and Griffin Back sing “Those You’ve Known.” ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )
Blue cast’s Ian Monaco, Kathryn Brunner and Griffin Back sing “Those You’ve Known.” ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )
“Spring Awakening’s” blue cast performs ‘Totally F---ed.’  ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )
“Spring Awakening’s” blue cast performs ‘Totally F—ed.’ ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )

Although a play set in 1800s Germany may seem irrelevant to today’s audiences, the cast and crew of Temple’s production of “Spring Awakening” beg to differ.

“The show is full of hot issues in our society today,” choreographer Maggie Anderson said. “It’s completely relevant, even in our Temple culture.”

“Spring Awakening” is based upon the once-banned German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind and was adapted by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik for the stage, debuting on Broadway in 2006. Its original Broadway cast included Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff of the TV show “Glee,” and John Gallagher Jr. of HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

“It’s a sexy, edgy, heartbreakingly beautiful show that’s really about the passion of trying to connect with one another – to touch and be touched, on both a physically and metaphorical spiritual level. It’s appealing because it’s half rock concert, half classical theater,” Anderson said.

Peter Reynolds, head of Temple’s musical theater department and director of “Spring Awakening,” jumped at the opportunity to bring the show to campus by putting Temple on a fast-track notification regarding the play’s rights. The show opened on Oct. 12 and will run through Nov. 4.  Reynolds decided to double cast the show to provide ample opportunity for performers, dividing the selected actors into “blue” and “orange” casts.

“I’m probably most excited about this piece because it resonates so powerfully with young people,” Reynolds said.

With characters facing hardships still considered hot topic issues in today’s society, the more-than-a-century-old play still resonates with audiences today.

“I think it’s really interesting that in the story of the show all of these really tough, tough topics like abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual awakening in young people – all these topics were there and were very, very prevalent, even in the late 1800s, but they weren’t talked about,” blue cast member and sophomore Griffin Back said. “It’s interesting how now, in 2012, all of those issues are huge, but we can talk about them. That’s really the only difference.”

While the show is set in 1800s Germany, the innermost feelings of the characters are revealed through contemporary rock-style songs,  said junior Katie Johantgen, who portrays Wendla in the Orange cast. She said she feels this is a benefit to the show’s ability to connect with audiences today.

“If it were a modern story, I don’t think it would have the same impact,” Johantgen said. “I think it’s the divide of the world of the play in the 1890s era, and then jumping to contemporary rock music that really hits it home.”

Aligned with the original Broadway performance, actors in Temple’s “Spring Awakening” use handheld microphones during these intrinsic musical moments to clarify the divide from one world to another. During rehearsals, the actors used water bottles to mimic the size and weight of the microphones. A somewhat unusual theatrical feature considering modern theater is accustomed to lapel microphones, using the handheld microphones has been a welcomed challenge to “Spring Awakening’”s casts .

“You can’t hold a handheld mic without feeling sort of like a badass or a rock star,” Back, who plays Melchior, said.

Blue cast’s Ian Monaco, Kathryn Brunner and Griffin Back sing “Those You’ve Known.” ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )
Blue cast’s Ian Monaco, Kathryn Brunner and Griffin Back sing “Those You’ve Known.” ( LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ // TTN )

“Spring Awakening” also requires the actors to reveal more of themselves than the average musical – literally. A sex scene between characters Melchior and Wendla includes partial nudity. Reynolds and Anderson said they ensured the utmost care of their performers who would be involved in the scene to provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere. Their efforts seem to have been fruitful, as both Johantgen and Back, who act in the sex scene in different casts, spoke of the scene confidently.

“I’ve been joking about it so much with my family and friends that [it has] helped me to not be so nervous,” Johantgen said.

Back, however, took a different approach when telling his family about the nudity clause.

“With my family, I just kind of told them to prepare themselves and don’t tell my grandma,” Back said.

While Johantgen and Back have similar positive outlooks on the scene, both casts insist that the scene, as well as the entire show, is executed a bit differently by each cast.

Although both casts learned choreography and vocals together and have nearly identical stage blockings, their depictions of their characters are individualistic, providing the audience with two distinct shows.

“The show is the same structure, but the characters are all personal,” said Dionna Eshleman, a junior portraying Ilse in the ‘Blue’ cast. “I really do suggest that everyone sees both casts, because it’s literally like you’re seeing two separate shows.”

Double casting the show required Reynolds to direct twice as much, which has been both a draining yet positive experience for him, he said.

“Absolutely more challenging, more tiring, but more rewarding as well,” Reynolds said.

An additional challenge Reynolds faced while directing was helping actors enter the time period during which the play occurs.

“The biggest challenge is trying to help them wrap their brains around a world where you don’t have cell phones or computers or tweeting or texting – you have nothing – maybe a book,” Reynolds said. “And you’re being told by every adult around you that all things sexual are bad.”

The condemnation of sexuality is a loud theme in “Spring Awakening.” The play opens with Wendla begging her mother to tell her how babies are conceived. The male characters face anxiety and confusion regarding their sexualities as well. The struggles of the characters can be used to teach modern audiences how to approach young people’s sexuality today, Reynolds said.

“We cannot remind ourselves enough how important it is to take care of young people, to nurture young people and allow young people to be what they’re supposed to be and help them understand that sexuality is an absolutely natural part of who we are as human beings,” Reynolds said. “It cannot be squashed, it cannot be manipulated and it cannot be denied.”

Back feels similarly about the show’s ability to encourage modern audiences to reflect.

“This show, for all audiences, but especially for people our age – this show is so important because it may take place over a century ago, and the situation that the characters are in might be seen through a slightly different lens than ours, but these are our stories being told on stage,” Back said.

Jenelle Janci can be reached at jenelle.janci@temple.edu or on  Twitter @jenelley.

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