By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007
NEW YORK A musical-theater collaboration need not start with love of the show tune. For Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, composer and lyricist of "Spring Awakening," Broadway success began with a Buddhist chant.
They had their contemplative meeting of minds a decade ago, when pop guitarist-vocalist Sheik was touring after the release of his second album and Sater, a poet and playwright, left Sheik a message about his arts group, which is part of a Buddhist lay organization.
"He called back immediately to say he would love it if I could come over and we could chant together," Sater recalls. "And it just happened. We got so engaged in conversation. We just hit it off in this profound way."
Neither man envisioned how their shared faith would entwine their fortunes and bring them to a most unlikely place: the stage of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Here, "Spring Awakening," Sater and Sheik's rock adaptation of a century-old German play, would not only become the most acclaimed musical of the current season but also be regarded as the front-runner for the Tony in an unusually crowded year for new musicals.
Indeed, when the theater world gathers next Sunday for the annual ceremony honoring the best of Broadway, Sater and Sheik's rollicking exploration of teenage angst, rage and sex enters with more chances to win than any other production. It received a pack-leading 11 nominations, including nods for director Michael Mayer, choreographer Bill T. Jones and two of its young stars, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr.
And, of course, for Sheik's music and Sater's words, which commingle in one of the most evocative and melodically inventive scores that audiences have heard in years. Unlike a lot of what emanates from Broadway orchestra pits, the music of "Spring Awakening" sounds of this very moment. Although the piece remains set in a provincial German town of the late 1800s, the songs, such as "My Junk," "Touch Me" and "The Bitch of Living," oscillate in the cool cadences of the 2000s.
So if the theatrical musical is ever prospecting for relevance, for fresh veins of talent to invigorate the form, then in pop proponents such as Sheik and Sater it seems to have hit pay dirt.
Not that "Spring Awakening" has risen effortlessly. The show, which opened at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theatre Company last June and transferred to Broadway in the fall, has been doing solid if not spectacular business -- although the box office got a big boost after the Tony nominations were announced last month. Flaunting convention, the leads are unknowns, and the source material is as close as Broadway comes to frank explorations of sexuality among the dewy set.
Like Frank Wedekind's play of the same title, the story that the musical tells is redolent of adolescent alienation, and some of its sexual content can have parents biting their fingernails: One scene reveals the hero, Melchior, played by Groff, flagellating his girlfriend, Wendla (Lea Michele), with a branch. At other interludes, teenage boys masturbate under bedclothes and girls describe unwanted nighttime visits from their fathers. A boy kills himself. A girl is sent to an abortionist.
Still, it seems, scenes such as those have not been staged for sensational effect as much as for what they convey about the struggles of the young over identity, happiness, sexual freedom -- the sort of turmoil the authors are saying is common to every generation.
"It seemed to me that Wedekind's play was so full of the unheard, anguished cries of young people," Sater says. "And the place where young people have found release for the past few generations has been in pop music."
In a commercial climate that has Broadway fixated on finding formulas for monster musical hits -- rather than on nurturing the idiosyncratic artists who can push the form in new directions -- it's astonishing that "Spring Awakening" has found a home. Less surprising, perhaps, is that this unconventional show took nearly eight years to reach completion.
"It's just the craziest idea: 'Let's take one of the darkest, most disturbing masterpieces of expressionist literature and let's try to make it an exhilarating, sexy musical,' " Tom Hulce, the stage and film actor ("Amadeus") and one of the show's lead producers, says with a laugh. "It's just the hardest thing to pull off."
As Hulce points out, the process that the writers set for themselves -- coaxing the music out of an old play of wrenching and scandalous themes -- was destined to be a lengthy one. All along the way, they were told that the material was unsuitable for a musical. Even the creative team had doubts.
"I responded to it because it was intense and bizarre and racy," says Sheik, composer of the breakout hit "Barely Breathing," which was nominated for the 1997 Grammy for best male vocal pop performance (and which lost to Elton John's "Candle in the Wind"). "But I still had questions in my own mind: Is this really something I can pull off?"
Sater presented the project to Sheik after their friendship bloomed and he had begun writing lyrics for Sheik. In one of those cosmic convergences, Mayer (whose Broadway credits range from "Side Man" to "Thoroughly Modern Millie") was approached separately about directing an as-yet unwritten adaptation of the play. And then, Mayer recalls, Sater, an old friend, called him with the very same proposal.
The repercussions of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School were being felt as Mayer, Sater and Sheik began debating what form their musical might take. For a time they toyed with shifting it to the United States in the 1950s, a period that might suggest the traumas of Wedekind's teenagers could be transposed to any repressed era. Ultimately, however, they decided their contribution would be the musical style rather than the time and place.
"I had the crazy idea to keep the play and honor the truth of it, but let the songs be completely contemporary," Mayer recalls.
Somehow, the notion of German teenagers of the early 1890s rocking out made for a thrilling artistic coup. Envisioning each song as an interior monologue, Sheik and Sater allow the teens to spill their timeless secrets. In, for instance, "The Dark I Know Well," two girls sing a poignant ballad to their fathers' nocturnal violations. "Don't Do Sadness," sung by Gallagher's troubled Moritz, foretells one boy's slide into despair.
The goal was to create a score that might have an appeal beyond the traditional theatergoer. "From the beginning, we conceived of this as a piece of theater and as a record," Sater says.
Sheik adds that he had a new audience in mind: "I don't want to call them hipsters, but there are regular music listeners who, frankly, you couldn't pay them to see a musical. I think that was our project, Steven and I: We wanted to bring them into the theater."
You do see some of those people every night in the Eugene O'Neill. Some can even be spotted up there under the lights, in two rows of seats perched on each side of the stage. At the smaller Atlantic space off-Broadway, Mayer says, this setup "was a clever way to make up for lost seats." Now, the audience-on-stage is fully part of the experience. "I liked very much the idea of the square being surrounded by the energy and human beings from right now," he says.
That makes a lot of sense, because "Spring Awakening" is as right now as Broadway ever gets.