Spring Awakening and the Evolution of the Language of Theatre

Originally staged in 2006, Spring Awakening is actually based on a 19th century play of the same name. From that base, Duncan Sheik created a rock opera about the struggles of 19th century German teens which rang true enough with modern audiences to garner 11 Tony nominations. This time around it’s only received 3. So what sparked this re-staging, and how does a critically acclaimed revival get so little attention from the Tony Awards?

Deaf West, the company who revived Spring Awakening, is housed in San Francisco, and their mission is directly attached to their name. Composed primarily of actors who are deaf or hearing impaired, Deaf West incorporates American Sign Language into their performances. Michael Arden (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bare, Big River) felt that at it’s heart, Spring Awakening was about the dangers of miscommunication. Much of the conflict in the script is due to the divide between the struggling teens and the adults who refuse to listen.

Michael Arden and Deaf West felt that what better way to intensify that gap than to layer in a language divide between the characters?


The revival of Spring Awakening features 8 deaf actors, 8 hearing actors, and 7 on-stage musicians. Every line of dialogue and lyrics are accompanied by American Sign Language. But how does this affect audience members who do not understand the language?

It’s a simple concept, and yet fits in another layer of metaphor: every deaf actor also has a “voice”, who is an on-stage musician. The hearing actor speaks and sings for the deaf actor while they sign.


Wendla Bergman (Sandra Mae Frank) and her “voice” (Katie Boeck).

While this may sound somewhat chaotic, it intensifies the feelings of Moritz and Wendla, both played by deaf actors. They, most of all, feel lost, and though Wendla can sign to her mother and her mother can sign back, there is still a disconnect between parent and child. In the opening scene as Wendla’s mother struggles to explain to Wendla where babies truly come from, Wendla looks to her “voice” actor to help her make her mother understand her desire for knowledge and maturity. The audience grasps immediately this lack of communication will lead to conflict down the line.

The only actor of the company who does not use sign language in any fashion is the headmaster of the boys school. His lines of dialogue are projected onto the chalkboard instead. The reason for his lack of conformity becomes clear- he attempts to mold the boys into the school’s version of adept students and adults, with no room for deviation.

Watch a trailer for the revival opening: HERE


This revival is the first to feature deaf actors on the Broadway stage, as well as a cast member who utilizes a wheelchair (not hearing impaired). Michael Arden has been nominated for Best Director, and the production itself has garnered a Best Revival of a Musical nomination. So why has it missed so many potential nominations?

Opinions are splintered, but the leading thought is that it’s due to the 2015-2016 season was absolutely flooded with new productions. And this is true- only 5 out of the potential 16 eligible musicals were revivals this season.

So many have asked, was Spring Awakening simply overpowered by the bombshells of Hamilton and Shuffle Along? Or did critics simply like the original staging more?

If the former is true, it once again raises the question of just how many of the award categories need to be separate? As it stands currently aside from the separations of play and musical, only Best Musical/Best Revival of a Musical are separate. The trend in recent years has seen the nominations swing in the direction of the majority, either revivals or originals. The work it takes to produce and original show vs. a revival contain far different components, so maybe it’s time for the administration committee to ask themselves why they largely compete for the same awards?

Finally, if the latter is true, then once again the opinion of the public and the critics are split. Audiences saw to it that this production of Spring Awakening was highly profitable, so much so that a National Tour has been announced for 2017. So it seems that the audience’s opinion is currently the one that matters.

MITM Musings: So which line of thought do you think is the most valid? And if you had the chance, would you like to see a Deaf West performance?



One thought on “Spring Awakening and the Evolution of the Language of Theatre

  1. Pingback: @thewritealice – Spring Awakening and the Evolution of the Language of Theatre — Magic In The Making – thewritealice MLS – Let Us Write You The World In Our Eyes.

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