Friday, September 05, 2008


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I know, I know: it's been about two weeks since my last update.

When I've taken such lengthy breaks between posts in the past, it's because I haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm to blog about anything in particular. This time, however, I think I can honestly say that I've been legitimately too busy both at work and outside of it these past couple of weeks to have the time to sit down and compose a thoughtful, substantive entry. Yes, readers, I have actually, for once, been living it up! (We'll see how long that lasts.)

What have I been doing, some of you might be wondering (if you haven't abandoned this blog already)? An accounting of events and impressions is in order...


Over the years, I've developed a bit of an allergy to the institution of the Broadway musical---not just because Broadway has recently been putting on too many revivals, revues and movie-to-stage adaptations to my liking, but also because I've just found the genre increasingly irrelevant: too many glitzy, empty spectacles, too little connection to anything resembling reality or art. That said, I've still attended a good amount of local musical productions: at Rutgers, the Livingston Theater Company made musicals its raison d'etre (even though their productions rarely ever approached anything beyond the agreeably second-rate), and every summer a friend and I check out generally high-quality productions at Plays in the Park, a state government-sponsored theater that stages musicals outdoors at dirt-cheap ticket prices. Thus, I've had more than my fill of Broadway musicals---but precious few of them have made such a profound impression on me that I would rank them aside, say, some of the more revelatory movie-watching experiences of my life. Perhaps a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line was the closest I've ever come to actually feeling something close to rapture at a Broadway musical. That show, with its tough-minded portrait of backstage Broadway life, broken dreams and artistic compromises, felt deep and humane in ways that other hit shows I've seen---like Cats, Miss Saigon, and The Producers---don't even bother to approach. Those three---among many others I've seen---may make for great tourist attractions, but they're high on glamour and short on humanity. And as for actually going to New York to see these shows...well, do I even have to remind you all how expensive those tickets can get? (Oops, I guess I just did.)

But a few weeks ago, a friend of mine brought up the idea of finally biting the bullet and plunking down our hard-earned money to see a show in the city---Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's 2007 Tony Award Best Musical winner. My friend's main interest in seeing it mostly lay in glimpsing a new cast member, Hunter Parrish, the MILF-loving son in Weeds. I had heard other friends rave about the show, so I figured I'd take a chance on it (a $94 chance, to be precise).

Folks...Spring Awakening is so good that it provided an awakening of sorts in me: a reawakened thirst for more theatrical experiences, and in general more of the culture, high or low, that New York has to offer. Frankly, the idea of seeing art-house films after a tiring day at work just isn't exciting me anymore (I almost dozed off at the last one I saw, Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; that doesn't mean the movie was bad---the parts I was fully conscious for were actually quite breathtaking---just that I had a really long day); it's time to branch out. As Frank Sinatra famously sang: I want to be a part of it---New York, New York!

Oh yeah, back to Spring Awakening. My theater-going companion, in typical ad-blurb style, simplified it down to a cross between Rent and The History Boys. Um, well, I haven't seen the latter, in either its stage or screen incarnations (although, having heard something about its plot, I think I get what he means by evoking the title), but if you're going to bring in Jonathan Larson's much-acclaimed rock musical into the discussion, then allow me to go against the grain and state that, at its best, Spring Awakening, in its excoriating view of both teenage sexuality and damaging adult prudery, strikes me as a hell of a lot less sentimentalized and false than Rent. Larson threw in a lot of superficially "edgy" topics---homosexuality, AIDS, the vagaries of living the bohemian lifestyle---but failed to bring anything resembling social insight or even many memorable tunes ("Seasons of Love" notwithstanding), leaving it a rather shallow celebration of youthful artistic rebellion.

Some of that sentimentality admittedly underlies Spring Awakening: For the most part, the adults in the story are portrayed as either broadly villainous or just plain clueless in their overprotective nature. (That all the adult roles are taken on by a male and a female actor suggests a view that all adults, at least in the show's universe, are pretty much the same.) Spring Awakening is, to put it simply, all about the kids. On the other hand, to criticize the show for being adolescent-centric would be missing the point not only of this show, but also the 1891 Frank Wedekind drama on which it's based (side note: I haven't read or seen the play, but I've heard that it's even more provocative and daring in its depictions of budding sexual confusion than the musical)---one of its more plangent points being that to shield young children from the truths about sex and adolescence is not honorable good taste or good manners, but has its own set of possibly tragic consequences.

Tragedy certainly befalls the characters in Spring Awakening...and Melchior, the appealing rebel at the center of the show, isn't exempt from experiencing it. Not that he perhaps didn't bring it upon himself. Melchior clearly prides himself on his "adult" knowledge of sexuality; he's the most thoughtful and well-read character. One can see why his male peers and the girls find him attractive: Melchior's frankness and open-mindedness provides a breath of fresh air from their parents' collective cloistering. But then, as the drama unfolds, the truth eventually reveals itself: Melchior doesn't really know as much about adult behavior as anyone else. Just because he knows the truth of where babies come from doesn't mean he's better equipped to deal with sex and the messy consequences of it. He passes on his sexual knowledge to straining overachiever Moritz, but even he can't prevent Moritz's eventual mental decline as this knowledge more or less tears him apart. Even more tragically, Melchior beckons the shy girl Wendla to let go and give in to her passion as they have their first bout of consensual sex---it's gloriously liberating in the moment, for sure, but the consequences turn out to be dire and, by its conclusion, fatal. Sexual repression may be damaging, but Melchior's single-minded idea of "freedom" turns out to be its own dead end. Adolescence as both a time of exhilarating discovery and a time to realize the agonizing complexities of adulthood---that is Spring Awakening's proposition, one that is put across with just enough nuance, and with no small amount of sympathy and feeling, to make it seem honest and convincing rather than sentimental and pandering.

Certainly, it helps that Duncan Sheik's score is richly varied---hard-driving rock numbers alternating with folk-like ballads---and Steven Sater's lyrics and book psychologically acute. I don't think I've ever seen quite as gut-wrenching a moment in any Broadway musical as the scene in Spring Awakening where Wendla, realizing that she feels nothing at all for a friend's abuse at the hands of her father, meets Melchior and goads him into beating her with a stick---"to feel something," she says. The fact that she expects to feel some kind of pleasure from this will stick in your throat. (Is this how S&M fetishes start?) The shock of the moment, and the hard truth it revealed, left me gaping at the stage.

But that isn't the only revelation this show has to offer. My friend noted that nearly all of the songs---numbers which, rather than merely advancing a plot or providing some cutesy respite from the gloom, serve as expressions of the characters' private emotions, sometimes in deliberately florid, impenetrable flights of poetry, always sung directly to us in the audience (Brechtianism in a Broadway rock musical?)---cut off before their natural endpoint. It's actually another brilliant touch, suggesting the abruptness and fluidity of people's thoughts, the way a thought may simply stop when you're interrupted by something back in real life. And of course there's the fact that the show's makers made no attempt to try to clumsily "update" Wedekind's controversial play beyond having the American cast speak in their natural accents. The fit sometimes comes off a little awkwardly---early on in the show, some of the actors at the performance I went to seemed to be overdoing certain emotional emphases in their speech, as if they were actually trying to preserve something of the feel of the German spoken language while speaking American English---but otherwise the lack of a strong historical component works marvelously to give the story a universal quality that somehow enhances its power, even if the world it creates may feel far from our own.

I could go on, but I'll just end this quasi-review by saying that if you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth the trouble. Dark, unflinching, moving and sometimes quite beautiful, it's a powerful evocation of adolescence on the cusp of adulthood, the limits of freedom and rebellion, and the danger of repression. Spring Awakening ends with its own bit of Broadway-style uplift ("And all shall know the wonder of purple summer," the entire cast sings in its concluding number), but the catharsis is tempered somewhat by the realization that it's not so much a resolution as simply an unresolved cutoff point. Melchior is perhaps no closer to truly understanding the adult impulses that torture him, and the society that surrounds him is arguably no closer to understanding the tragedy of its attempt to shelter its children. The really the only thing left to do is to keep living, because Melchior at least hopefully has his whole life ahead of him, whatever troubles he's dealing with now (and it's a lot of tough shit). When you're an adolescent frustrated by feelings and impulses you don't understand, sometimes it's hard to remember that.


Consider my venture into the U.S. Open last Friday, then, as a pleasant postscript. One of my Wall Street Journal co-workers apparently makes it a ritual every year to buy a bunch of tickets to a day session of tennis at the U.S. Open and then offer them up to people at work. Mind you, I'm not a tennis fan---heck, I'm not much of a sports fan in general---but I figure this would be a nice opportunity to not only mingle with co-workers outside of the workplace, but also spend some decent quality time with one of my younger brothers, who is very much into tennis himself (he played it nearly every day during the summer). Anyway, it was a fun time, although the warm weather blindsided all of us---the weathermen were all saying last Friday would be overcast with a chance of showers; much of the day turned out to be hot, sunny and humid instead. Neither of us were prepared for the bright sun beating down on us; for that reason, we've been battling dry skin on account of the sunburn we both acquired this past week. But my brother seemed to get a kick out of seeing Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the flesh. No Nadal or Venus or Serena, alas. Maybe next year.

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