THE BLOG

Jonathan Franzen Rips B'way Spring Awakening

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Any doubts I ever had about Spring Awakening's chances on Broadway can
now be officially laid to rest: it just recouped. But it was no sure
thing. In previews it reportedly lost $700,000 of its initial $6 mil
investment. What saved it? Apparently, says NY Post's Michael Riedel,
the "yutes":

For one thing, Spring Awakening really did manage to tap into an
audience that's much younger than the typical Broadway crowd. And it
did so largely through the Internet.

A clip of the show on YouTube, illegally swiped from the Tony Awards
in June, has received more than 100,000 hits. And there are video and
audio clips from the show all over MySpace.

MTV, which pays scant attention to Broadway, did a major piece on
Spring Awakening that, says Pittelman, sent the box office soaring.

And even through the ups and downs of the doldrums of summer, it's
been playing strong to full houses.

So there you have it. Instead of infantilizing geezers with cotton
candy, we have young audiences flocking to challenging 19th century
German source material to a rock beat.... Is Broadway growing up, as
it were? Well, not so fast, if you remember what had to be done to
Wedekind's original Frühlings Erwachen to make it play on the Rialto.
And who else should come along and remind us about that than...
Jonathan Franzen?

It's true, Jonathan Franzen has just written his own translation (soon
to be published) of the original 1891 Frank Wedekind play (yes, he
apparently knows German, it's not a lazy "adapt" job) and writes a
very insightful introduction about the piece. Including a number of
zingers calling out the current musical! At length. To wit:

One example of the ongoing danger and vitality of Spring Awakening was
the insipid rock-musical version of it that opened on Broadway in
2006, a hundred years after the play's world premiere, and was
instantly overpraised. The script that Wedekind had finished in 1891
was far too frank sexually to be producible on any late-Victorian
stage... And yet even the cruelest bowdlerizations of a century ago [i.e., the early censored versions] were milder than the maiming a
dangerous play now undergoes in becoming a contemporary hit.

The hand-wringing young Moritz Stiefel, whom Wedekind had kill himself
over a bad report card, is transformed, in the musical version, into a
punk rocker of such talent and charisma that it's unimaginable that a
report card could depress him. The casual rape of Wendla Bergmann by
the play's central character, Melchior Gabor, becomes a thunderous
spectacle of ecstasy and consent. And where Wedekind showed the young
sensualist Hansy Rilow resisting masturbation -- reluctantly destroying
a piece of pornography that threatens to "eat away" his brain -- we in
the twenty-first century are treated to a choreographed orgy of
penis-pumping, semen-slinging exultation... As for the working-class
girl Martha Bessel, who in the original play is beaten by her father
and ardently envied for these beatings by the bourgeois masochist
Wendla Bergmann: what else could she become in 2006 but a saintly
young emblem of sexual abuse? Her supportive, sisterly friends join
her in singing "The Dark I Know Well," an anthem to the sorrow of
being carnally interesting to grown-ups. Instead of Martha's appalling
matter-of-factness about her home life... there is now a dense modern
fog of sentimentality and bad faith.

and then...

A team of grown-ups creates a musical whose main selling point is teen sex (the first Broadway posters showed the male lead mounting the
female lead) and whose female teen characters, shortly after wailing
to their largely grown-up audience that they are bad-girl
love-junkies, come forward to sing of how terribly, unfairly painful
it is to possess a teen sexuality that fascinates grown-ups. If the
path from Bratz dolls through Britneywear finally leaves a girl
feeling like somebody else's piece of meat, it obviously can't be
commercial culture's fault, because commercial culture has such a
rockin' great sound track and nobody understands teenagers better than
commercial culture does, nobody admires them more than it does, nobody
works harder to make them feel authentic, nobody insists more
strenuously that young consumers are always right, whether as moral
heroes or as moral victims.... In the end, the only thing that really
matters to teenagers is that they be taken very seriously. And here,
among all the ways in which Spring Awakening would seem to be
unsuitable material for a commercial rock musical, is Frank Wedekind's
most grievous offense: he makes fun of teenagers -- flat-out laughs at
them -- to the same degree that he takes them seriously. And so now,
more than ever, he must be censored.

First of all, I think this is
first lengthy serious analytical response to the musical Spring
Awakening
I've seen in print. And since it's a notable phenomenon on
B'way, it's worth paying this much attention to. That it's by a famous
literary fiction author is also heartening, since we need more of this
"crossover" and conversation between artists of all media and genres.
We need the arts to pay attention to each other, in other words.

Franzen's views on Wedekind and the musical are highly personal, of
course. While I tend to agree with most of his diagnosis of the
musical's watering down the play, I actually don't for a moment think
these changes were made purely for commercial reasons. I mean, no one
would even start writing a musical of Spring Awakening if they wanted
to make millions. I really think that for the personnel most
responsible -- Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater, and director Michael
Mayer -- they genuinely like their version better.

(True, the act one finale, the rape/non-rape scene, seems to have been
tinkered with extensively between the first staging and Broadway
previews. Perhaps some commercial pressure was brought to bear on
that.)

I don't think it has to do not with conscious "selling out" so much as
the current sensibility of American theatre artists as opposed to a
German rebel from a hundred years ago. As Americans are we so
inculcated with the cultural and narrative values sanctioned "family
entertainment" that we crave more. And when faced with a radically
different vision from another time, we rush to assimilate it to the
more familiar, and less threatening.

One thing I do agree with Franzen about is that the current version
may be explicit but it is not disturbing. A great production of the
real Spring Awakening would fascinate teenagers, but also challenge,
not flatter them.

As opposed to (as Riedel reports):

Walk by the stage door after any performance, and you'll see hordes of
kids waiting to meet the cast. Once upon a time, they would have
thrust out their Playbills for an autograph. Now, they whip out their
cellphones and take picture of themselves with the actors.

I haven't read Franzen's translation yet, by the way. But I'm curious.
He claims it's the first "complete" English version that restores all
the parts cut by censors over the years...

PS. After my printing of the extended quotations on my Playgoer blog
Thursday, NY Post picked up this story in the Labor Day edition of
Page Six.