The High School spring musical, Spring Awakening, The Musical, based on the 1906 German play by Wedekind, is not only about sexual awakening, but perhaps more so about self-discovery. That perspective has informed the show’s vision, including the cuts I’ve made, the blocking, choreography, character analysis, and much more.
On a cautionary note, the show includes different types of physical and emotional abuse. Families—particularly those with children younger than 8th grade—are cautioned to be aware that the show alludes to sex and also, more explicitly, illustrates both inappropriately sexual and abusive, damaging human relationships. Thus, these topics may be triggering for different members of the community and may preclude attendance at the premiere.
Of course, I’ve enjoyed the irony of a story about intimacy at a time when kids can’t be intimate. But recognizing the darkness of the material, we’ve been sure to support our students’ understanding of it. We’ve held open conversations about the material and kept counsellors on call, relied on seniors to serve as ombudsmen with younger students, and early rehearsals ended with feedback and suggestions for cuts all because we recognized the subject matter was charged. We’ve also taken safety precautions against COVID as we’re filming and not performing live. Of note: The show was conceived by Sater and Sheik in the wake of Columbine as the nation was grappling with fear and tragic loss. Parkland High School performed it last year, not long after the shooting they experienced at their school. Students participating described it as a cathartic experience.
Why Spring Awakening, the Musical at this time?
While the show is about the very mature themes mentioned above, the much-needed messages contained in the program are especially meaningful during this pandemic in which we‘ve grieved death and experienced loneliness and loss. Our young people grieve for lost connections and even lost love. When Melchior meets the ghosts of his friends Moritz and Wendla in the graveyard, they sing “Those you’ve known, And lost, still walk behind you. All alone, Their song still seems to find you.”
At its inception, the show was originally designed for the “upstairs” at The Atlantic Theater Co. in NYC. Actors and audience sat together on a minimal stage—no backdrop, a few chairs, a handful of props. This kind of simple staging is all we could manage at this time under these particular COVID-related circumstances.
Ultimately, however, the show is about love. The song “The Word of Your Body” is the subtext for the entire musical. Sung by Melchior and Wendla, it’s reprised by lovers Otto and Georg, Ernst and Hanschen, and then all the children. The children learn in the course of the show that neither love nor life is easy—that it will involve moments of hurt and vulnerability, but they look optimistically toward spring and loving relationships.
Behind the Scenes
Despite the challenges presented by COVID, we decided to engage our students in a spring musical production because of the meaningful role such a process plays in many of our students’ lives. The challenges were manifold; we began this show in February with Zoom readings of the script, Zoom dramaturgy, learning music on Zoom with Jason Strunk, line by line—and remember kids can’t sing together on Zoom because of audio delay. We even did Zoom blocking.
In the meantime, designers were preparing for sets, lights, costumes, makeup, sound, props. We wrote up a contract with the help of GDS’s COVID experts for parents and students, citing they’d be allowed to participate in theater on campus in cohorts, masked, and socially distanced. Techs built and configured; actors learned their blocking, recorded their lines of music (19 actors, 20 songs) individually, wearing singers’ masks, which look like vulture beaks, with accompaniment by Music Theater International. For performance they lip synced the songs through plastic masks. We rehearsed actors by cohorts on the days they were at school. Those students who were not at school were revealed on large screens on the set, among the live actors. By Spring Break, the Earth began to shift: we were allowed to meld cohorts of actors. Several students who were out of town returned to GDS. That signaled new tactics—we got rid of the projector screens; we choreographed movement and dances with Maria Watson; and blocked the show through April. Simultaneously, kids were recording with our student sound engineers, and Eli Faber ’22 mixed and balanced all the numbers.
As I write this blog we are filming. Students come to the Black Box right after school at 3:15 p.m. and get into costume and makeup, after having attended a Zoom makeup workshop with Anike Oliver. They do their own costumes and makeup with supervision by designers Ryan Schnell ’21, Eve Kolker ’22 and Miriam Akmetshin ’22. They mic themselves with supervision by sound engineers, Aden Sheingold ’22 and Noah Abramson ’21. At the same time I’m working with light designers Ben Adomaitis ’21 and Harrison Lundy ’21, preparing cues for the day’s filming. The sets crew are putting in sets with designers Emmett Freedman ’21 and Nic Moiseyev ’21, and tech director Christal Boyd.
The actors then go to the set, wearing sheer plastic masks. They rehearse under the supervision of stage manager Nick Moen ’19, away from Oberlin for the semester. Then we film with Topher Dunne—sometimes just one take! By about 5:45 p.m. we clean up and depart. Topher and editing crew head Laith Weinberger ’24 will put together the approximate 30 takes, filmed in random order by what set was required, lay in the pre-recorded songs and sound effects; and we’ll premiere May 21 at 7:00 p.m. You can register at www.GDS.org/SpringAwakening—just $5.00 per household and a free ticket for students and teachers. And, if you’d like to run an ad, contact producer Katie Young ’23 through the show’s webpage.
Footnote: Many ideas borrowed from lyricist Steven Sater’s “A Purple Summer” Notes on the Lyrics of Spring Awakening/ A New Musical. Recommended reading for all who care about this show and about the writing process.