Masturbation. Teen pregnancy. Live nudity. Gay kisses. Suicide.
If you’re easily shocked, then you probably shouldn’t see “Spring Awakening,” playing two shows at the Pantages Theater on Saturday. All of these issues are tackled in this live Broadway musical. But the Tony Award-winning rock musical isn’t just gratuitous horniness: It explores the angst that comes when teens and adults don’t talk, when vulnerability clashes with power – and the ironic thing is, it does it with a plot that’s more than 100 years old.
“The music and lyrics are incredible, and the story fits so well into it,” said Mark Poppleton, who plays all of the adult males in the story – the brutal schoolteacher, the unforgiving father, the incestuous father. “All the angst (that the characters feel) is put into song, and that’s really eye-opening. It attacks points that need to be shown to audiences in such a beautiful way.”
Based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, “Spring Awakening” tells the individual stories of a group of teenagers in rural, 19th-century Germany, with an alt-rock score by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater.
As they discover their own sexuality through books, dreams and hayloft experiences, they also deal with the fallout from uncommunicative and selfish adults – Martha is abused by her father, Wendla gets beaten by Melchior then gets pregnant from their make-up session, Moritz hangs himself after his father kicks him out for failing school, Hanschen and Ernst discover the delights of gay seduction, and there’s more death and anguish before the final, vaguely hopeful end.
It’s a script that was banned when Wedekind first published it.
These days, though, with those issues all around us, is it still possible to shock people?
“Yes, it is,” said Poppleton, talking over the phone from the show’s Denver rehearsal. “Last night we had two people walk out when the two boys kiss. They’d sat through brief nudity and violence, but they couldn’t take that.”
After the show opened on Broadway in 2006, it prompted The New York Times to declare that it “would change Broadway forever,” and it comes with warnings of adult content.
Yet the onstage sex and violence isn’t just for kicks.
“Spring Awakening” is more about the generation gap and lack of tolerant communication than a “Rocky Horror” kind of thrill, and that is what’s important about it, Poppleton said.
“People today don’t learn (from their parents), ” he said. “People don’t want to communicate. But if (teenagers) have to learn from someone else, they get into trouble. The play is saying that if we just open up the lines of communication, we wouldn’t have all these problems – teen pregnancy, suicide.”
It’s a message that has had a hugely positive reaction.
Quite apart from the play’s eight Tony Awards and four Oliviers in London, audiences around the country have given “standing ovations, night after night,” Poppleton said. “Even in Kansas ... they stood up at the end (for a standing ovation). ... And everyone in the cast wanted to do it – no one took other gigs. That’s how important it is.”
Is it the kind of show you take your teen to?
“It’s for all ages, even 12- or 13-year-olds, if you have a very open relationship with them. We see younger and older people, everyone. Everyone can find themselves in it in some way, has been through something in this play,” Poppleton said.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, firstname.lastname@example.org ‘Spring Awakening’
What: National tour of the Broadway musical comes to town.
When: 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Information: 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org