Elizabeth Judd first saw “Spring Awakening,” the Tony Award-winning musical about teenagers grappling with sexuality and morality in 19th-century Germany, with her family.
Judd initially worried how her “very conservative” parents would react to the musical, which touches on such taboo topics as abortion, domestic abuse and suicide.
“When we left the show, my dad was in tears and my mom was just so moved,” recalled Judd, who stars in the touring production of “Spring Awakening.” “We got to engage in this conversation about things we had never discussed before.”
“Spring Awakening” has been provoking similar discussions since its off-Broadway premiere in 2006.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play and adapted by lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik, the musical pairs a period setting with a hard-rocking contemporary score.
With its mature themes and occasionally salty language, “Spring Awakening” isn’t for everyone. Still, Judd and her fellow cast members said they see the musical as a valuable teaching tool.
“It’s a great conversation starter with families,” costar Christopher Wood said of the eight-time Tony winner. “From a personal perspective, it’s an amazing, thought-provoking experience. The show allows people to come out enlightened, if not informed.”
Coping with pressures
Set in a small German town in the late 19th centu-
ry, “Spring Awakening” follows a group of 14-and 15- year-olds coping with the pressures of an oppressively close-minded society. Their journey from awkward adolescence to uncertain adulthood is filled with mixed messages from parents and teachers alike.
When innocent Wendla (Judd) asks where babies come from, her mother simply answers that children are conceived when a woman loves her husband with all of her heart.
“She is very uncomfortable about having a real conversation with Wendla and wants her to remain a child,” said San Luis Obispo native Sarah Kleeman, who plays Wendla’s mother and other authority figures. “The whole problem is that nothing is talked about. You can’t throw things under the rug and hope they go away.”
Sensitive student Moritz (Coby Getzug), meanwhile, is plagued by disturbing dreams. Other boys fuel their sexual frustration with erotic postcards and fantasies about a busty piano teacher.
Only charismatic, intelligent Melchior (Wood), who’s gleaned his own ideas about sexuality from books, dares to question the status quo.
“He wants to learn through his own work and his own discoveries,” Wood explained. “He’s completely enamored by the thought that there’s something out there that he’s not getting.”
Melchior’s curiosity, coupled with Wendla’s longings for love and physical intimacy, culminates in the sex scene that concludes the musical’s first act. The second half of “Spring Awakening” explores the tragic consequences of their actions.
While Judd and Wood said they both wrestled with the idea of appearing semi-nude on stage, they ultimately decided it was essential to the story.
“Take any R-rated movie or PG-13 movie and it’s no worse than that,” Wood said, noting that “it’s different having live bodies in front of you than on a screen. You return to the adolescent state. You don’t know if you should watch it or you shouldn’t.”
Sex isn’t the only form of youthful rebellion exercised by “Spring Awakening’s” teenage protagonists. They explore their emotions in exuberant folk-and alternative rock-flavored musical numbers, pulling wireless microphones out of their school uniforms to pour their hearts out in song.
“Back in the 19th century, these kids had to keep their mouths shut,” Judd said. “Through song, they just break out and explode outwards.”
Wood said that using contemporary music makes the story contemporary as well.
“The topics are so controversial in themselves,” he said. “Presenting them in a music that is essentially controversial in itself is brilliant.”
According to cast members, “Spring Awakening” is just as relevant today as it was in 1891.
“It’s the human condition. It’s human nature,” Kleeman said. “It doesn’t matter what year it takes place. Everyone can relate to it.”
So far, positive feedback from fans has been overwhelming, Judd said.
“Realizing how much this show really means to people of all ages is so cool,” she said. “To some people, it’s everything. It changes their lives. I didn’t know a show could do that.”