Previously a play written in Germany, 1891, by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening’s musical adaptation reached much wider audiences once produced by creatives including Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. Both versions tell the story of teenagers exploring the ins and outs of adolescent sexuality without the guidance from adults or education expected today. For a concept originally written in the 19th century, the story and its characters remain surprisingly sound. Furthermore, the stories they tell have yet to age in their importance.
The musical follows Melchior Gabor, a radical enthused with agnostic ideals and made curious by the subject of sex. He gets involved with Wendla Bergman, a former childhood friend of his who had been separated by the gendered schools at the time, while she is also grappling with her own questions concerning life and love. Their story includes many subjects that prevail into today’s world, including the extent to which shame brought on by religion influences feelings about sex, the very real harms of not educating children on these matters, and raw discussions on discovery, maturity, and growth. Their interactions heighten in intensity throughout brilliantly written scenes and the songs Word of Your Body, I Believe, and The Guilty Ones.
Though not nearly as suffocating as they were so long ago, these themes haven’t gone anywhere. Religion still innovates shame for those who find themselves not fitting that particular mold, and education fails to fully inform beyond what’s necessary.
Another character of importance is Moritz Stiefel, Melchior’s close friend who is haunted by intrusive thoughts and the looming possibility of failing out of school. These worries coupled with the adults in his life applying unrelenting standards drive him to consider suicide. This character arc is one even more urgent and startling in its refusal to stay in the script. The songs he sings to encapsulate his sadness, hopelessness, and festering feelings of failure speak for countless individuals sharing his struggle. And Then There Were None and Don't Do Sadness may have been derived from the play and inspired by other works of art, but first they were thought up because the emotions behind them are near universal. Though couldn't have felt more alone, Moritz wasn't alone. Still isn't.
Suicide rates amongst teenagers are horrifically persistent to the point where at least in the United States, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for that age group. Taking this into account, suicides amongst POC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized individuals continue to grow.
Hanschen Rilow and Ernst Robel are friends of Melchior and Moritz as well, with their own character foils to Melchior and Wendla’s relationship. While Melchior and Wendla overstep each other’s boundaries and stumble into dangerous, uneducated territory, Hanschen proves how he perhaps knows himself and how to interact with the world to his advantage the best, and opens a new world of opportunities for Ernst that he hadn’t seen before. Homophobia, along with many other opinions in the same vein made it extremely dangerous to even speculate same-sex relationships during this time period. Nevertheless, the play and the musical both feature Hanchen and Ernst’s love for one another. The musical approaches this in the Word of Your Body (Reprise), where they discuss their feelings for one another and perhaps embrace their chance for a happy ending unlike the other characters in the show.
A relationship of this nature portrayed in such a beautifully honest manner may beat some of the modern portrayals of queer characters. Hanschen and Ernst, influenced first by the original Spring Awakening play, have escaped the craze of stereotyping LGBTQ+ characters. This has left them much more accessible to audiences and so human for it.
Lastly are Martha Bessel and Ilse Neumann, both respective victims of abuse by their parents. Throughout the show, there are several moments where the adults— played by one woman and one man, both portraying seven to nine characters consisting of varying parents to teachers to represent how teenagers viewed adults as all thinking the same and lacking that individuality youth so seems to highlight— wrongfully use their power. The teachers often threaten the students with physical punishment, the parents do not hesitate before hitting their children. But the vile fathers of Martha and Ilse are characterized for their sexual abuse in The Dark I Know Well.
Another issue worth speaking more about that doesn’t seem to be vanishing despite how disgusting the thought of it occurring is. Both girls sing about their experiences in a moment of connection not only to each other but to an audience where another victim may be watching, reassured by the message that they aren’t alone in the dark.
Deeply intentional writing as well as remarkable composition has granted Spring Awakening its place in a number of people’s hearts. It challenges the foundations society was rooted in without actually trying too hard to do just that. In making the story driven by characters whose problems are still relatable to some, the radicalization appears to be more human than artificial, as it is in modern media. Nowadays, many projects aim to please over the goal of simply telling a story. To pull amazement from an audience over making them feel something. Spring Awakening defies this and only communicates the narrative, illustrated in lovely music and compelling dialogue.
The most beautiful part perhaps, is the final song that ends the show: The Song of Purple Summer. As spring lapses into summer, new flowers growing in, new growth settling over the roots long embedded in the soil, the sun beating down harder, shining light on those who have come to bravely mature. It’s warm. It’s hopeful. Though the show ends on a sad note, every character changed in one way or another, this song leaves room for change. There is always room for change. These characters and all the limitations brought on by the time that binds them, hope not for what is good, but for what is better. We are where it is better. With the purple summer, we can push for the good now.
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