Newies but Oldies

Pop music kick-starts an 1890s drama but fails a record-store musical

What's a new musical? These days, it's hard to tell. The Brit-import megaliths, with their recycled tunes and Lit 101 stories, have been followed by two alternating blizzards: "jukebox" musicals (Good Vibrations, All Shook Up), in which the tunes are recycled more openly and the scripts more haphazard; and spoof musicals, like The Producers and Urinetown, in which every moment is a quote and every quote is a joke. This latter group at least offered a chance of wit—parody has always been one of the musical theater's standard tactics—but an art form can't live its entire life enclosed in self-conscious quotation marks. Sooner or later, to survive, the Broadway musical will have to be itself again, telling its own stories and singing in some idiom natural to it. That day hasn't yet dawned, but the interim phase is showing distinct signs of vitality; musical-makers are starting to stretch artistic muscles that went unused during the long semi-comatose period that followed the success of Cats. There may be no reason to dance in the streets as yet, but the news is definitely not all bad, even if the clutch of new shows that have just opened all lean heavily on various kinds of old material.

When the old material is a play as great, and as rarely seen, as Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, the musical even seems to be aiding the cause of dramatic literature. Written in 1891, Wedekind's extraordinary drama wasn't played in his native Germany, much less anywhere else, till 1906. The Lord Chamberlain didn't license it for public performance in England until 1964; a U.S. resident-theater production was shut down (voluntarily, under complex circumstances) in the 1990s. Wedekind's topic is the generational canyon between teenagers experiencing the first confused stirrings of sexual desire and an adult world desperately pretending that no such feelings exist. Wickedly and innovatively, Wedekind stretched 19th-century notions about drama into an eerie, off-kilter modernism. He let his teenage characters articulate their feelings, in a frenetic, heightened language, while their elders hide behind a wall of clich's and euphemisms; he cartooned his authority figures with names like Sunstroke and Flyswatter. And he imagined for his teenagers a range of sex-linked experiences, most never previously depicted onstage, that run the eyebrow-raising gamut from masturbation in the privy to death at the hands of a back-alley abortionist.

Wedekind's work is what gives Spring Awakening, as the musical's authors have titled their adaptation, both its emotional power and its stinging irony: I suspect that the skill with which director Michael Mayer has conveyed the original's dramatic substance accounts for a large share of the enthusiasm that has greeted the show's Broadway transfer. An additional layer of excitement comes from the musical numbers' inventive relationship to Wedekind's scenes: The beat of Duncan Sheik's music literally makes the kids jump out of context as they pull mics from inside their school uniforms to bemoan the hell that grown-ups put them through. Bill T. Jones's choreography, built of colloquial motions heightened and stylized, likewise abets this dynamic tension between script and score, while bringing Broadway a welcome relief from show dancing's standard routines.

Teen dream: Spring Awakening's Michele and Groff
photo: Joan Marcus
Teen dream: Spring Awakening's Michele and Groff

Details

Spring Awakening
By Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Music by Duncan Sheik
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
212-239-6200

High Fidelity
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Songs by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street
(Closed)

The Apple Tree
By Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerome Coopersmith
Roundabout Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
212-239-6200

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Spring Awakening's shortfall occurs in its songs. Sheik's music tends to be effective rather than memorable, partly because Steven Sater's lyrics often sound like ideas for lyrics (or worse, ideas about lyrics) rather than supplying the pop-poetic zing that makes a lyric unforgettable. There are places, too, where the songs need to convey a dramatic turning point, and instead fall into the basic problem of pop-rock songwriting for the stage: Their repetitive patterns lack theatricality. At the end, the hero, Melchior, a bright boy who has unwittingly precipitated the deaths of his less quick-witted best buddy and best girl, chooses to live and face adulthood rather than join them in the grave. Wedekind's original provided an allegorical adult figure to lead him out of the cemetery; Mayer provides a touching tableau, with Melchior flanked by his two ghosts, for which Sater and Sheik provide no strong musical definition.

Mayer's best work has always been done with very young artists (Stupid Kids, The Credeaux Canvas), and he gets mostly first-rate results here. Two key performances, though, strike wrong notes: John Gallagher Jr.'s mixed-up Moritz is artificial and self-consciously overwrought; Jonathan B. Wright is asked to play the show's main gay character, Hanschen, as a practiced seducer rather than a nervous kid experimenting. These and a few minor quibbles aside, Mayer hits the right emotional note at almost every point; much of the acting, particularly by Jonathan Groff as Melchior and Lea Michele as his Wendla, is strongly shaped and moving. Sheik's rhythms give the story a pulsating forward motion, and Kevin Adams's bold lighting effects make the bare-brick stage look very full indeed.

The elaborate sets of High Fidelity, in contrast, convey mostly nondescript clutter, and Walter Bobbie's staging often loses focus on the underdeveloped characters who wander through it. This is a pity: A modest amount of good fun and a number of likable performers gleam amid the clutter. I don't know the original novel or its film version; onstage, the story, which suggests a less funny Wedding Singer, seems thin and schematic, as well as far too intimate for the lofty Imperial. Boy, an indie-rock fanatic who runs a used-LP store, neglects and thus loses Girl, makes a mess of trying to get her back, but ultimately succeeds, mainly because his competition's a tiresome jerk. David Lindsay-Abaire's script tosses out a good laugh now and then, while Amanda Green's lyrics display intermittent glints of her late father Adolph's sparkle. But Tom Kitt's music tends to lack variety as well as theatricality. There's a sense, too, in which these characters were never meant to sing for themselves: They live through other people's music. Will Chase and Jenn Colella have to work awfully hard to get us interested in the leads; Christian Anderson and Kirsten Wyatt do better with less as an amusingly geeky subordinate couple. And Christopher Gattelli, who must have memorized the moves of every doo-wop group in history, provides several droll bits of choreography, including a climactic absurdity for which the only correct term would be pomo-Motown. High Fidelity, which posted its closing notice as I was filing, isn't the Chinese water torture of musicals, but "harmlessly pleasant" doesn't get a show far at today's ticket prices.

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