Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A True Awakening

The Tofu Muchacha and I saw Spring Awakening on Thursday (as you know from my Friday blog). To say that I was highly anticipating it would be putting it mildly. I discovered the soundtrack last year, late... I know, and pretty much was captivated. There have been other shows where I've fallen in love with the music well before I'd seen the show... Parade, A New Brain (still never seen it), Children of Eden. For some reason, this one felt a little different. The music is seemingly disconnected… the lyrics more complex. It's a little hard to figure out what's happening in the story just by listening. Maybe on the surface, that's not a good thing, but I think that ultimately it's one of the qualities that makes the show so fantastic. I'll get to that in a bit.

I've probably listened to the album about a hundred times in the last 8 months. The things that typically draw me to musical scores aren't that prevalent. There's no ballad that I want to sing over and over. In fact, there aren't really any solos at all. Still, the music is magnetic. It's spell-binding. Despite the fact the plot isn't carried by the lyrics, I was forced to listen hard, they made me want to know more. I ended up doing a ton of internet searching for plot summaries and video clips, scarfing up whatever I could find.

All of that is sort of "set-up" to explain how spectacularly I was looking forward to seeing it. I could just say... a shitload.

The set is there with no curtain. There's a simple center "staging" area with the band and piano upstage. The stage right and left sides are flanked by "bleachers" with audience members filling in most of the seats. The only construction is an upstage wall filled with odds and ends, almost like an old TGI Fridays on crack. The lights... they come from everywhere. Seriously everywhere.

You know… I'm not going to go through the whole thing. I could. I can remember every moment like I've seen it a dozen times.

What I want to focus on is that I've seen a lot of pieces of theater in my life. I've seen good, bad, weird, funny, sexy, dumb. Literally hundreds of productions at dozens of theaters performed by thousands of actors, and very few of them have stunned me. Very few have made my heart beat fast.

Spring Awakening stunned me. My heart fluttered throughout. I sat watching choice after choice, performance after performance and I couldn't believe how creative and how breathtaking every single moment was. Maybe the best way to put it is that it made the unexpected choice at every chance.

It's not a big show in the way Wicked or Ragtime are BIG shows. There are only 14 or so performers. There's very little in terms of large set pieces and showy tech. About the extent of it is the hayloft that rises on ropes out of the floor, and the chair on the wall that Melchior uses. Slight movement takes the focus. The incredible staging. Every moment is meticulously planned and perfectly executed. Fully committed.

I think what strikes me the most as I watch is that this show could have been done incredibly traditionally... With a curtain and set pieces and body mics throughout. It would have been watchable. I mean... People fucking LOVE Wicked. It's not like there hasn't been success with more linear, more old school productions of late. The public isn't demanding more avant garde theatre. For the most part the most popular shows are the revivals and things like Mamma Mia and Legally Blonde and Spamalot. And please... don't take that as I slight. I fully support the need for shows like Wicked and Shrek. They're wildly entertaining, and people need to be wildly entertained. Spring Awakening is probably too dark for mass appeal. Actually… to call Spring Awakening "dark" would be like calling the Grand Canyon "deep". It's not for everyone, but I think that's what I loved about it the most.

Not that I need to like things outside the mainstream. I’m not some emo poseur who can’t enjoy a good comedy. That's definitely not it. I just fucking love that the people who sat down to conceive this show saw two paths and took the truer one. The one that takes this incredibly dark show to a place that may not necessarily appeal to everyone, but the place that would ring the deeper emotional toll.

They do so many interesting things I never would have thought of… The singers alternate between traditional body mics and pulling hand-held mics from seemingly nowhere. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what the differences are... why the different mics are used at different places, and I think it has something to do with how the characters are feeling. If they are singing about their feelings, or what they're singing about is something internal, they use the hand mics. I honestly don't know... the fact that I have to think about it at all makes incredibly excited.

Then there's the use of lighting. In school, there was a lot of discussion about lighting design being there to subtly lead the audience to feel something. It helps convey emotion. Lights slightly intensify or fade to lead the audience to the place you want. This show sort of ignores that notion completely and goes the exact opposite direction. The lights are overt. Bright REDS when Ilse and Martha sing "The Dark I Know Well". Greens and blues other times. When Wendla and Melchior sleep together at the end of the first act, and the cast is singing "I believe", the lights warm them, and all of these hidden lights throughout the backdrop and hanging from the ceiling light blueish to give this notion that the stars are lighting their way. It's incredibly beautiful. And then later, when Melchior is at his darkest point, the absence of those same lights shines as glaringly as if they were there. The holes in the wall where the lights would normally be shining show as black chasms more than you'd ever noticed them previously.

The choreography by Bill T. Jones is... perfect. It might give Jerome Robbins an absolute fucking coronary, but he'd watch it and say that it couldn't be more perfect to convey the pain, and angst, and anguish, and chaos of being a teenager. He's a modern dance guy, so there aren't a lot of straight lines. There's a lot of jumping and stamping of feet. A lot of flailing legs. It all makes perfect sense. It a way it seems like chaos, but every twitch of a foot feels perfectly placed. Intentional. Not in the way that every piece of choreography in every show is intentional. I know it is. There was a feeling I had that every movement, despite how busy it is, had it’s exact place.

Remember way back in that first paragraph where I'd said it was cool that when I first listened to the music I didn't know exactly what was happening in the story? I went into the performance on Thursday knowing pretty much every word of every song. It was truly amazing to watch how they all fit in. The lyrics that I didn't totally understand before became completely clear. They're not straightforward. They aren't simple. But they are beautiful, and they compliment the emotions of the characters completely. I guess the best example of this comes with the song "Touch Me". The lyrics are sexy and mysterious, and I didn't understand how they fit. Then I saw the show and it makes perfect sense as the embodiment of what Melchior imagines sex is like. There are so many moments like that in the show.

I know this blog is extremely gushy. I know that's not my style. It's just so rare that I come away with something that know I'll never forget. I left the show completely energized. I wanted to see it again immediately. I've seen Les Mis once. I've never seen Wicked and while I’d like to, I’m not going to fight the masses to get there.

I want to see this one again. Like... right now. I can see myself tracking where the tour goes and seeing if it comes close again. I am hungry for another dose of it.

I can honestly say, looking back at the shows I've seen and the performances I've witnessed that only a very small handful changed the way I view performing or art.

When I saw Windy City at Footlighters in 1992, I remember thinking that I'd never be as excited. The set was one-of-a-kind. The performances were excellent. The experience of putting it together was one that I'll never forget, and I only helped build the set.

When I saw the original cast of Ragtime in Toronto the Summer before it went to Broadway, I remember thinking that I'd never see another production so complete both in performance, tech, and musicality.

When I saw Mystere, the Cirque du Soleil show, I remember being moved for the first time by simple (well... incredibly difficult, but simply constructed) movement. The magnitude and scope of it just blew me away.

When I saw A Piece of My Heart my freshman year at Wright State it made me excited to be starting my life in theatre. It made me want to create something that prompted the raw emotion we felt in the audience that night.

Spring Awakening can be added to that list. I can't recall watching anything so different and yet successful at every innovation. Every choice was perfect. It's hard to imagine seeing anything to hit such a chord again.

But then... it showed me that I could still see something new.

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