Recently I was afforded the opportunity to see Spring Awakening as presented by the Wichita Theatre League (thanks Mom and Dad!), and by far, it was the best night of theatre I have experienced thus far.
Based on a play of the same name by Frank Wendekind, Spring Awakening follows the story of a group of teenagers in 19th century Germany, through the trials and tribulations of their own sexual awakenings, school, family, and societal expectations.
The show opens with Wendla Bergmann (Elizabeth Judd) dressing at a mirror, examining her newly formed woman’s body, and bemoaning the fact that her mother has given her “no way to handle things” (Mama Who Bore Me). Judd’s voice is entrancing and draws you in to this world where song expresses the things that the characters have no words to explain.
Her mother informs Wendla that she is an aunt for a second time, and Wendla wonders how this sort of thing actually occurs. Wendla’s mother, after much duress and pleading, finally explains that “in order to conceive a child, a woman must love her husband with all she is.” Wendla and her friends (Anna, Thea, Martha and Thea) rock out girl group style with a reprise of Mama Who Bore Me.
Meanwhile the boys are studying their Aeneid, while attempting to save his friend Moritz Steifel (Coby Getzug) from a beating and dressing down for misusing a word in his translation, Melchior Gabor (Christopher Wood) laments the fact that independent thought and exploration are not valued or even allowed in the draconian school system, (All That’s Known). Melchior’s frustration with his limitations is evident, he is not a boy who enjoys being told what to do, what to think, preferring “to trust my own true mind, and to say there’s a way through this” he knows that there is more to learn and more to know than what he’s being told. He wants “the hunger that a child feels for everything they’re shown” because he wants to “name the stars and know their dark returning.” While he continues to express his desire to be free and learn, his fellow students continue their mindless recitation of the beginning of the Aeneid.
Moritz thanks Melchior profusely and explains that the reason he had fallen asleep and thusly made the error in translation was because he was visited by a ‘phantasm’ in his dreams in the form of stockinged legs climbing over the lecture podium. Melchior laughs, explaining that this is not some horrible thing that Moritz is making it out to be, that in fact these type of sticky dreams are normal and that all of their fellow classmates have had them at one point or another. Moritz is still horrified at what he had experienced, reaches into his jacket for his microphone and proclaims that it’s (A Bitch of Living). The song, as with all of the other songs in this show, breaks the illusion that we are in a village in late 19th Century Germany. A Bitch of Living is more akin to a concert with people jumping up and down, stomping their feet and throwing their fists into the air, which is exactly what the boys do. Each of the boys has a certain thing about their life which they proclaim is a part of their Bitch of Living, whether it be insecurity about showering in gym class (Ernst), the despair in knowing that the girl you think is cute won’t give you the time of day (Otto), knowing how to play the game so you can do what you want one day (Hanschen), an attraction to one’s piano teacher (Georg), or the gnawing truth that living in your head makes it possible to “sense[ing] God is dead” (Melchior). None of the boys can believe that this is all that life is, because if it is, life truly is a bitch.
The girls are walking along a river bank and discussing what they’re going to wear to the wedding of one of the older girls in the village. Wendla says she isn’t sure that her mother will let her go at all. The conversation turns into a discussion of the boys their age and which is the most desirable of all, almost all of them agree that Melchior is the dreamiest. The girls are beset with their own set of emotions and hormones, and they daydream about the relationships they wish they could have with the boys (My Junk), the boys add in their own two cents about their own desires and how they deal with their own frustration. This scene is interspersed between the girls on the river bank, Georg with his piano teacher, and Hanschen in the bathroom with a picture of a saint and his best pal.
Moritz visits the Gabor home to fret to Melchior about how the informative essay that Melchi wrote for him makes his sticky dreams worse. Moritz also confides in Melchi his fear that he would not be able to comprehend what a woman would get out of a physical relationship, and is amazed when Melchi tells him what HE believes. Melchi tells him that he just puts himself in her place, but Moritz is not helped by this revelation and runs away as Melchi and the rest of the boys sing “Touch Me” – their thoughts as to how sex would be, both for themselves and as a woman (evidenced by their mimicking of Wendla’s exploration of her body at the beginning of the show.)
Melchior and Wendla’s relationship beyond that of childhood friends is established in “The Word of Your Body.” Despite the fact that they touch only in the most tame of ways, the sexual heat is plain to see. Wendla is woefully ignorant of the possible repercussions of the racing hormones that she is feeling, but on some level she does know it isn’t something she should allow to control her, and she runs away.
Wendla’s friend Martha accidentally reveals that her father beats her when she misbehaves, and that her mother does nothing to stop him. But her words fall short of the full truth of the situation which she elucidates clearly in “The Dark I Know Well” where she reveals that her father is “dreaming on me” a “Truth I can’t tell about the Dark I know well.” She had told her friends that she had run out of the house to escape a beating the night before, but that it was so cold, to which Thea replies, “like poor Ilse, living who knows where with who knows whom.” Ilse joins the song, revealing that she too had a father who was “dreaming on me, me and my beauty” before she fled.
Wendla is horrified to hear that she did not know her friend was so horribly mistreated by her father. She runs into Melchior again and reveals that she had never been beaten, and begs Melchi to do it for her. He says no, she continues to beg, saying that she’s never been touched, never felt… anything. So he relents, picks up a switch and hits her legs lightly, she shouts at him to hit harder, that she can’t feel it. He has her lift her skirts, and he tries again, still lightly. She yells at him again to hit her so she can feel it. He is enraged, beats her fiercely before throwing her onto the ground and almost striking her face with his fists before gathering his senses and running away. Something has awoken within him. He is feeling things that are not something he is sure he can handle. (The Mirror Blue Night)
“there’s nowhere to hide from these bones, from my mind
It’s broken inside – I’m a man and a child
I’m at home with a ghost, who got left in the cold
Who knocks at my peace, with no keys to my soul.”
He’s caught between being a child and being an adult. He has adult feelings that as a child he doesn’t have the necessary restraint to handle correctly. He thinks he knows what he needs, “Who knocks at my peace” but has no way of getting it, “with no keys to my soul.”
Wendla catches up with him in his hay loft where he is hiding in his mind, castigating himself for losing control. She puts the blame on herself, telling him that she felt something for once. Melchior kisses her, and despite her initial hesitance, he convinces her that despite the thought that perhaps it’s a sin, because that’s what they’ve been told, he can’t see why it would be since it makes them feel, and that it’s good. Awkwardly he undoes the top of her dress, revealing her breasts onstage, lays her back in the hay loft, removes his pants and they have sex. Its sweet, their young love juxtaposed with the ensemble’s singing of “I Believe” makes their union more like a religious act than youthful exploration.
Meanwhile Moritz has found out that he has failed out of school, due to some creative grading by the schoolmasters who found him to be a menace to their well ordered school. When Moritz asked his father a hypothetical question of “What would happen if I were to fail?” Herr Steifel slapped him and says, “What are we going to do? How can your mother show her face at church? What will I say at the bank? Thank goodness my father isn’t alive to see this. My son… failed.” Moritz holds back tears, but then writes a letter to Frau Gabor asking for money to travel to America to escape his status as a failure. In “And Then There Were None” Frau Gabor gives Moritz her answer to his letter, she cannot give him the money he asked for, and that despite what happened with his exams, her feelings for him would not change, nor should his relationship with Melchior. She also warns him against what she called his “veiled threat that if escape should not be possible [he] would take [his] own life.” In today’s terms, her response to a suicide threat is to not take it seriously, but in 19th century Germany, suicide was not seen as prevalent as it is in today’s society. Today, Frau Gabor would be calling Frau and Herr Steifel in for a discussion as to their son’s mental status, Moritz would end up in a Psych ward for a 72 hour hold and he would be doped to the gills on Lithium and Valium before beginning endless amounts of psychotherapy. But as far as Frau Gabor was concerned, telling Moritz that she would talk to his parents and tell them that “no one could have worked as hard as [he] had this semester and that too hard a condemnation could have the gravest of possible recourses.” Moritz and the boys are singing throughout Frau Gabor’s recitation of the letter, he is growing more and more despondent as the letter and song continue, the boys giving Moritz’s inner demons more song time.
Act Two begins with a replaying of Melchior and Wendla’s sex scene in the hayloft while the Preacher lectures on the requirements of morality. When they’re done, Melchior asks Wendla if she’s okay, what follows is my favorite song of the show, one of the most lilting and emotionally sweet ‘The Morning Afters’ “The Guilty Ones.” But despite the song title, the guilt does not overwhelm the good emotions that they are feeling. They are however confused and overwhelmed by what they’re feeling.
Moritz has rocked out for the last time, “I Don’t Do Sadness” where he is determined to not do sadness, but of course the only way for that to work is for him to kill himself. Ilse interrupts him with rememberances of when they were younger, as well as a brief recounting of what she’s been up to since she was thrown out of her house. The artists colony nearby has been her home where the old men just want to paint her and paint her, because “you know men, if they can’t poke you with one thing, they’ll poke you with another.” She tells him how one man woke her up with a pistol aimed at her chest. And even asks him to walk her home, intimating that he’d get more than just a walk, but still he refuses, and crushes her (Blue Wind). She leaves him alone, and he reconsiders right as she leaves, but its too late. He puts his gun in his mouth and the lights go black.
His funeral is over-sung by Melchior giving voice to not only his thoughts, but Herr Stiefel’s as well. (Left Behind). Melchior berates Herr Stiefel for how hard he was on Moritz when he was alive, not giving him enough love, or making him feel like a failure. Finally, Herr Stiefel breaks down and cries on Moritz’s grave.
In order to distract from the fact that their actions led directly to Moritz’s death, the Schoolmaster and Schoolmistress try to put blame for Moritz’s death on Melchior’s essay on human sexuality that was found in his things. They expel him, and there is a release of pent up energy that has been building for the entire show as Melchior and the cast revel in the fact that he is “Totally Fucked.” The entire cast, adult members included, jump around and rock out to a song that is more akin to a rock concert than musical interlude. The emotions that have been building are so volatile that this song is a pressure release that is more than necessary. Melchior’s life in this village has changed dramatically, he is now separated from the lives of his fellow schoolmates, as evidenced by the fact he climbs a ladder on the back wall and spends the rest of the song and a large portion of the rest of the show on a small platform up above the band.
Wendla and Frau Bergmann are visited by a doctor since she has been feeling poorly for a while. The doctor says that Wendla is anemic but later says to Frau Bergmann that Wendla is in fact, pregnant. Frau Bergmann confronts Wendla with this information. The almost criminally misinformed Wendla is ignorant of how this is possible since her information as to where babies came from included the fact that a woman needed to be married and love her husband with all her self. She puts the pieces together and realizes that her mother lied to her, angry she yells “that? But I just wanted to be with him!” But Frau Bergmann does not allow herself to be swayed by her daughter’s anger and insists she know who the father is. Wendla hands over a letter from Melchior that she had received earlier, she wanders off and begins to sing, “Whispering” where she laments the fact that she is nothing more than a cautionary tale to be whispered among members of her village from then on. But she loved Melchior, and that is her story. Frau Bergmann takes Wendla to a back alley abortionist after Melchior is sent to a reformatory by his family for not only getting kicked out of school but also for getting Wendla in trouble.
Melchior escapes from the reformatory after getting a letter from Wendla telling him of her pregnancy, and arranges to meet her in the cemetery at midnight. Midnight comes around, Melchior finds Moritz’s grave, and then stumbles over a new one, he wipes dirt off of the stone and finds that it’s Wendla’s grave and that she died of anemia. This information destroys him and he pulls out a razor blade with every intention of joining Wendla and Moritz in death, but he is stopped by the appearance of apparitions of both Wendla and Moritz who tell him that “Those You’ve Known” don’t want his death, and that they’re still with him even though they’re gone, “those you’ve pained may carry that still with them, still the same they whisper all forgiven.” His love for life renewed he vows to carry on and “Now they’ll walk on my arm through the distant night
And I won’t let them stray from my heart
Through the wind, through the dark, through the winter light
I will read all their dreams to the stars.”
The cast comes together, led by Ilse and sing a song of hope, of rebirth, the “Song of Purple Summer.”