Dealing with the dark in ‘Spring Awakening’

Spring Awakening isn’t just a show that dares to set new precedents in musical theater. It also proves that teenagers can win Tonys, too.

This year’s winner for Best Musical, along with seven other Tony awards, features a critically acclaimed cast of young actors – only two of the actors are over 24. Eleven teenagers grapple with their sexual awakening in a society that not only believes sexual urges should be suppressed, but that children should be seen and not heard.

The Temple News spoke with 17-year-old Lilli Cooper, who plays Martha in the show. Aside from providing most of the beautiful harmonies in the show’s numbers, Cooper’s character provides a shocking moment in “The Dark I Know Well.” In this rolling, ominous song, Martha reveals that she is sexually abused by her father.

“Sometimes if I’ve had a bad day, I get pretty emotional during the song,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of times when I have tears in my eyes.”

She noted that even though the story takes place in the 1890s, sexual abuse is still a modern-day issue.

“The show has really helped a lot of young girls that I’ve met to tell their own story and talk about what they’ve been going through,” Cooper said. “It’s almost like a therapy.”

Although Cooper and the cast perform the show eight times a week, which she describes as exhausting, she is also a senior at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Being a Broadway star and a high school senior is a task not too many Broadway actors have to contend with. But Cooper manages to pull it all off and garner standing ovations every night.

Though she doesn’t have much time for friends outside of the show, being 17 and in one of the hottest and most acclaimed shows on Broadway is worth the effort to Cooper.

“Sometimes I just have to step back and look at my life right now because I’m experiencing such amazing things,” she said.

The privilege to take part in a show marked as having significant social relevance is what really astounds Cooper. “We like to talk about the different reactions we get from the audiences,” Cooper said. “There are people who can be appalled by it and there are people who are so amazed that they’re crying. We’re just amazed that we can do that to people. It’s not just us, but it’s the story we’re telling and the way it was directed and written. Every aspect of it, we think is so well toned, and we’re all really proud of it as a piece.”

You’d think that performing the same show eight times a week for more than a year now would make the story grow irritating. but Cooper says otherwise.

“There are definitely days where I walk to the theater and I’m exhausted, but when I get onstage, my adrenaline is really pumping,” Cooper said. “Having a new audience every night really makes the show new. It often feels like we’re doing it for the first time every night.”

The cast has certainly come a long way since its off-Broadway days. “We all shared one dressing room – the boys and the girls were all in one room. We basically spent all hours of the day with each other,” she said. As is expected from their onstage chemistry, the young cast is a tight-knit family, Cooper said.

As a family, being at the Tonys was an incredible experience to share, she said. “When we won our first Tony, it was the most amazing feeling ever. And then we just keep winning!” Cooper said.

Cooper expects to depart Spring Awakening next September, when she will be a freshman at an as-of-yet undetermined college. But the experience of originating a role in a hit show that worked its way up from indie theater to the majors will stay with her.

“It [started off as] a small, little workshop,” she said. “I had no idea it would be this big.”

Jesse North can be reached at

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