Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Gritty Awakening

On stage: Century-old radicalism

Teenage sex, masturbation, suicide, abortion. No, this isn’t the latest HBO series or Atom Egoyan film. This is musical theatre. 

Winner of eight Tony Awards, Spring Awakening took Broadway rough and hard in 2007 with its combination of authentic teen angst and a brutally cool alternative rock score by Duncan Sheik. On Tue, Mar 17 it arrives at the Canon Theatre to conquer Toronto audiences.

The story centres around a group of high schoolers caught in the grip of exploding hormones and turbulent family lives. Melchior (played by Kyle Riabko) is the ubiquitous golden boy: good-looking, intelligent and the focus of many schoolgirl fantasies. His radical disestablishmentarianism leads him to defend and befriend meek Moritz (Blake Bashoff), a classmate who is bullied by teachers and parents alike. In addition to his troubles at school and home Moritz has become increasingly horrified by dreams of an erotic nature and shares his discomfiture with his new friend. Melchior obligingly jots down the sticky details of sex — complete with diagrams.

The girls in Spring Awakening aren’t making out much better. Thanks to her prim mother, Wendla’s (Christy Altomare) cluelessness about where babies come is a veritable ticking uteran timebomb once she hooks up with hunky Melchior, while Martha and Illse (Sarah Hunt, Steffi D) face a different sort of neglect and horror on the home front.
Amazingly enough this terribly modern take on teen life is not the creation of some 21st-century scribe. Steven Sater adapted Spring Awakening from a wildly controversial play of the same title (“Frühlings Erwachen” in German) written by playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891. Naturally the original production caused quite a stir in turn-of-the-century Germany. Its criticism of the country’s repressive culture and vivid portrayal of sexuality led to it being banned. The play suffered a similar fate in 1917 New York, where only one matinee performance survived accusations of pornography.

One of the most surprising elements of the original is the relationship between characters Hanschen and Ernst (Andy Mientus and Ben Moss). Even in 2009 there are prudish audiences (I’m looking at you, Kansas) who would find Hanschen’s methodical seduction of delicately innocent Ernst shocking.

“There was no such thing as ‘gay’ in 1891,” says director Michael Mayer. “It wasn’t a concept that existed. Homosexuality was called ‘sexual reversion,’ so Wedekind was being really radical in the day.”

As in the original, this production of Spring Awakening weaves each of its relationships together in a nonjudgmental fashion, illustrating the seemingly impossible complications of transitioning from childhood to adult.

“It’s about the complexity of growing up,” Mayer says. “It’s not simplistic…. The politics of the piece are really about what we do about our kids and how we create a world where it’s safe for them to grow up?”