SPOILER ALERT: This article includes specific details from Spring Awakening. You’ve been warned.
Spring Awakening is one of my favorite musicals — easily sits in my personal top 5 next to problematic fave Miss Saigon, the synth campiness of Phantom of the Opera, the contemporary prowess of Hamilton, and the timelessness of Sondheim benchmark Into The Woods. For the record, my top 5 are fluid and may have changed by the time you read this, but Spring Awakening stays in the rotation.
When East West Players, the nation’s longest-running professional theater of color producing Asian American artistic work announced that they would be putting on a production of Spring Awakening this year, my ears perked up.
I remember watching Spring Awakening during its initial Broadway run which was from December 2006 until January 2009. I sat in the audience at the Eugene O’Neill Theater near the beginning of 2008 when I was working as a fashion journalist. I was in New York for fashion week and bought tickets (for $75!) to watch the musical which, by that point, had won a Grammy and a boatload of Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Based on Frank Wedekind‘s play Frühlings Erwachen (which translates to Spring Awakening), the musical’s book and lyrics are by Steven Sater, and music by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik of “Barely Breathing” fame.
Set in 19th-century Germany, the rock musical spotlights wildly sheltered adolescent students as they try to navigate that awkward and troubling bridge between childhood and adulthood. With hormones at full throttle and prude adults who deflect their questions about sexuality and desires, we find one idealistic young man, Melchior who shakes the status quo as he shares truths with his friends including Moritz, who is in a dangerous state of puberty panic as well as Wendla, a young woman who wants to lean into her desires but doesn’t know how to take ownership of it.
As seen in the Playbill I dug up from my archives, I was treated to some of the original cast when I watched the musical. This included Jonathan Groff as Melchior Gabor and Lea Michele as Wendla. However, as seen in the insert in my program, the lovely Alexandra Socha played the role of Wendla on the day I went.
You’ll also see that a pre-Pitch Perfect Skylar Astin was in the cast as well as Glee alum Jenna Ushkowitz.
Check out those headshots!
Spring Awakening allows us hear the unsaid thoughts of excitement, confusion, and turmoil of Melchior, Moritz, Wendla as well as a host of young adults through the aural lens of a rock concert soundtrack that includes songs like “Bitch of Living”, “Totally Fucked” and “My Junk”, the latter being easily comparable a Taylor Swift bop. It’s lively as much as it is dark and relevant in 2023 as it was in 2008. That’s a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it.
For East West Players to take on such a culturally relevant and beloved musical is bold an ambitious, but it seems to be no challenge for the company as they have taken on similar musicals in the past, thoughtfully folding in cultural nuance to the mix without it seeming forced. In 2019, they put on a production of Mamma Mia! which was infused with Filipino American nuances. Similarly, Spring Awakening‘s cast is predominantly people of color. The faces singing not only help bolster the inclusive production of the musical but go beyond that by exploring the intersection of conflicting progressive ideals in traditionally conservative cultures — a microcosm of what’s happening on a sociopolitical level.
The East West Players’ production directed by Tim Dang embodies the energy of Spring Awakening from beginning to end. It was certainly reminiscent of what I saw at the Eugene O’Neill but with the East West spirit that included contemporary choreography from Preston Mui, music direction by Marc Macalintal, and a cast that includes longtime East West Players community member and trailblazing Asian American actor Tamlyn Tomita making her EWP mainstage debut alongside stage and screen actor Daniel Blinkoff, who is also her husband.
Thomas Winter takes on the role of the idealistic disruptor Melchior with confidence while Marcus Phillips tackles the role of Moritz with all that he’s got — a role that is emotionally demanding as we see his unfortunate coming-of-age story unravel into suicide.
There is a glaring strength that takes over when it comes to the women-led narratives as they feel disturbingly hyper-relevant to 2023, specifically with the agency a woman has with her body. We see Wendla, played with extraordinary precision by Mia Sempertegui, misguided as she explores her sexual desires, trying to scratch this itch via a whipping from Melchior before she gets pregnant by him. Ultimately, she dies from a back alley abortion curated by her mother.
In a showstopping moment, actors Sarah Marie Hernandez and Madison Grepo attack the song “The Dark I Know Well” with soul only pain can stir up. Hernandez brings the gravitas of a bellowing diva growl with her performance as Martha, while Grepo brings smoky-hued Billie Eilish-esque soulful tones to her performance as outcast Isle. Together, they sing lyrics about sexual assault and abuse that crawl under your skin: “You say all you want/Is just a kiss goodnight/Then you hold me/And you whisper/’Child, the Lord won’t mind/It’s just you and me/Child, you’re a beauty’.”
On paper, a musical like this would probably seem a little strange and silly, but Sater and Sheik packaged it in a way that it can always be performed without fail. The music and lyrics speak for itself. Hearing Wendla and Melchior sing about trying to understand their undeniable attraction to each other in “The Word of Your Body” is one of the best love duets in Broadway history.
Melchior sings “Don’t feel a thing, you wish” which Wendla utters back in a gentle ballad-like whisper, “Grasping at pearls with my fingertips” — lyrics that are haunting and sensual before they finally define the consequences of love and being loved: “Oh, I’m gonna be wounded/Oh, I’m gonna be your wound/Oh, I’m gonna bruise you//Oh, you’re gonna be my bruise”. Seeing Winter and Sempertegui deliver this moment was beautiful and yes, it made me appreciate that it was two non-white performers Hamilton‘ing this moment, but more than that, it made me realize that this production of Spring Awakening goes beyond the hashtag of #RepresentationMatters and the entertainment industry’s neverending journey towards exclusivity.
As we see more and more stories about people of color, queer people, and other historically excluded communities, it’s becoming less about “being seen” in media and more about what we do with that visibility. Although Broadway has own problems when it comes to diversity, the theater community seems to have always been more open to inclusive storytelling more than film and TV — Hamilton just put it into the mainstream.
Spring Awakening is already a bold story, but EWP casting non-white faces adds another element of intrigue and appeal to the traditionally white narrative the same way Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 revival with deaf and hearing actors did.
The EWP production of Spring Awakening felt like an honorable homage to the original, giving fans of the musical what they wanted. The only major gripe I have is that I wish the cast used handheld mics to give us that fantastical rock vibe pulsating through the veins of the musical.
With Spring Awakening, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and Dang knows that. It’s musical that allows you to color outside the lines, but it’s fine if you don’t. From the intensity of Wendla and Melchior’s forbidden sensual desires to Moritz’s downward spiral to Isle and Martha’s narrative of abuse, Dang stays the course.
Even the queer romance between Hänschen (Eric Renna) and Ernst (Genki Hall) is progressive in the way it is framed in the story. The heteros are so concerned with the danger of the straight kids learning too much that they overlook the queer people that are just living their best life while keeping their love for each other wraps while sidestepping the “kill your gays” trope.
EWP’s production was recently extended through December 3 with Jaylen Baham (who currently plays Georg) taking the role of Moritz with CJ Cruz taking over the role of Georg. The cast also includes James Everts, Justine Rafael, and Leianna Weaver.
With the country being subject to book bans and conservative efforts to block access to vital information, body autonomy, and human rights, the rebellious nature and angst of Spring Awakening is a cautionary tale that will always be relevant as long as oppressive gatekeepers in power exist. The fact that it is done with Brown, Black, queer, and disabled talent not only widens the breadth of its audience but also makes the story more powerful as it evolves with time.