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?

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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.

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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

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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?

 

Meet the Eligible Shows (Part 4)

The final category in our eligible shows round-up are the shows potentially up for Best Revival of a Musical. These shows have graced the Broadway stage in previous years, but have been given a new lease on life for the 2015-2016 season.

Able to be entered for Best Revival of a Musical

The Color Purple colorpurple240

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple was originally produced in 2005. Following the life of Celie as she struggles living as a black woman in the 1930’s South, the musical showcases the bonds of sisterhood, hope, and how having strength in the face of adversity is one of the most powerful weapons one can wield.

Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
Run: December 10 2015-

 

 

Dames at Sea dames-at-sea-logo

While the show originally debuted Off-Broadway in 1968, the 2016 production of Dames at Sea is the first to make it to Broadway. Set in the style of the large and flashy movie-musicals of the 1930’s, the plot parodies the genre as a “tap happy gem”, which centers on a play within a play: the titular Dames at Sea.

Where: Helen Hayes Theatre
Run: October 22 2015- January 3 2016

 

 

Fiddler on the Roof 13908_show_portrait_large

Originally produced in 1964 and following a movie-musical of great success, Fiddler on the Roof follows the little town of Anatevka in 1905 Imperial Russia. The protagonist, Tevye deals with marrying off his daughters on the eve of the Russian pogroms against the country’s Jewish population.

Where: Broadway Theatre
Run: December 20 2015-

 

 

She Loves Me she_loves_me_key_art_with_billing

Produced on Broadway in 1963, She Loves me goes in line with this season’s 1960’s revival trend. Inspired by Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, the show revolves around two shop employees in Budapest, who in spite of constantly butting heads, are unaware that each is the other’s secret pen pal who they’ve met through “lonely heart ads”.

Where: Studio 54
Run: March 17 2016-

 

 

Spring Awakening spring-awakening-large-643x441

Though the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening only opened in 2006, the 2016 revival has brought a Broadway first to the stage: a company full of deaf and hearing-impaired actors. Produced by California theatre company Deaf West, Spring Awakening takes the trials of 19th century German teens with the music of Duncan Sheik and translates it for a whole new audience.

Where: Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Run: September 27 2015- January 24 2016

 

 

MITM Musing: Are you familiar with any of the musical and play revivals this season? With so many already earning critical acclaim, what’s your personal favorite?

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