Spring Awakening

Sorry folks, removed the video because of the automatic play–you can go here to watch it.
I saw the musical Spring Awakening last weekend. Jos also saw it, so we’re both going to share our thoughts in this post.
From Miriam:
Growing up I was a big fan of musical theatre, and saw pretty much every Off-Broadway production that came through my town. Since then I haven’t seen one in a few years, but I was excited to catch Spring Awakening when it came through DC. This new musical has been getting all sorts of attention and praise, including 8 TONY awards. You get a sneak peek in the video above, but it’s pretty spectacular. Innovative music (by Duncan Sheik! Anyone remember him?), super young cast, and extremely relevant themes.
Although the play that this is based on was written in 1891, the topics they hit on are really relevant. Teenage sexuality, sex education, pregnancy, abortion, academic pressure, homosexuality, it’s all there.
The one thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the portrayal of the main character, a boy named Melchior. He’s the stellar pupil, super smart forward thinking guy. He also has a romance with the other main character, Wendla. I don’t want to give too many details, but the way their relationship unfolds and the way he is portrayed as a hero of sorts at the end bothered me.
From Jos:
I also got the chance to see Spring Awakening a couple weeks ago. I loved the music, loved the staging, and loved seeing a musical about the need for comprehensive sexuality education. The show is a melodramatic (not a criticism – this is a musical after all) examination of what happens when young people do not have access to honest, accurate information about sex and sexuality.
I appreciated the handling of a first heterosexual experience with kink. The frightened, curious exploration of links between violence and desire felt honest and contemporary. The gay love scene was probably my favorite part of this particular performance. The two actors made a lot of small deliberate choices that had me laughing hysterically while also appreciating the sweetness of the moment.
I agree with Miriam’s complaints about Melchior. I thought the sex scene between Melchior and Wendla had the same problematic approach to consent we see over and over again in movies – the woman says no until she’s been pressured enough and then she says yes. Also, the show was obviously written by men, given the lack of dealing with menstruation, a topic I expected would get at least a mention.

Other’s who have seen the play have thoughts? For those who haven’t I totally recommend it, it’s a really fun show. You can see upcoming tour dates here.

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15 Comments

  1. XXLAshley
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Is there a way for you to embed this so that it doesn’t automatically play? I had to frantically go through all of my open “daily blogs” tabs to find the source of the randomly playing music. It sounds cool and looks cool, but I’d like to be listening to it when I’m actually intending to.

  2. Mighty Ponygirl
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    +1 to this … I’ll be backing off of Feministing for a little while until this is fixed.

  3. Miriam
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Sorry about that–just removed the video.

  4. antoni9
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I saw this last summer with my then-seventeen-year-old sister after having just seen Passing Strange, which was truly SUPER and SO Much fun. I appreciated the frank depiction of teenage sexuality, but Passing Strange so much more fun, it was also deeper and had way better music. So I guess I’m saying that it was a bit of let-down.

  5. miriamng
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I disagree pretty strongly about your assessment of the sex scene.
    For one, I thought the musical gave a really fresh voice to the female characters in terms of naming and acknowledging female sexual desire and the internal conflict that girls frequently experience when confronting their own sexuality, given that girls are socialized to believe that sexual desire is abnormal. The first sexual contact between Melchior and Wendla is actually intiated by Wendla, if you count the whipping scene, and (in the version that I saw) I found that scene really fascinating and thought-provoking. There is a sense, in that scene, that Wendla herself can’t quite believe what she is asking Melchior to do. Unprepared to set limits and confront their own desires thoughtfully, they both sprint headlong into what is basically an advanced S&M scene and (unsurprisingly) thoroughly freak themselves out.
    As to the scene when the relationship between the two mains becomes penetrative, I read it totally differently from the way you two did. I read Wendla’s intial refusal as a manifestation of her socialization–because she is a girl, she’s not allowed to want it, she’s not allowed to be ready for it, so she initially refuses. Melchior doesn’t badger her or physically pressure her. He stops, looks her in the eye, and tells her, “It’s just me.” Then SHE passionately kisses him, giving (what I read as) nonverbal consent. I read that as an acknowledgment that here, in this space, with someone who loves her, she doesn’t need to be constrained by what she has been told she is not allowed to feel. She *can* want to have sex with her boyfriend.
    I find it so limiting to read every interaction like this one as the girl always “giving in” to male pressure. It limits the agency we are allowing women–they can change their minds. They can have mixed feelings about sex, IN THE MOMENT, and that’s okay. They *might* have been refusing for reasons that they aren’t entirely sold on. Or, shocker, a woman CAN give in to sexual pressure and have it be ultimately a positive, growing, or learning experience. This is NOT an excuse to rape, but what Melchior did wasn’t rape.
    Here’s the thing: Sexual desire, for all genders and all sexual orientations, can be uncertain and gray. It follows, then, that sexual *coercion*–yes, rape–can also be gray. I want to disclaim the hell out of this statement by saying that it is ALMOST NEVER GRAY. I was about to write that sexual pressure is really a problem when one approaches a sexual encounter from a place of selfishness and entitlement. But do we ever approach sexual encounters feeling ONLY one particular way, especially when we’re 16? Melchior loved Wendla. He also wanted to bone her. She wanted to bone him, but she had mixed feelings. (I use “bone” in a gender- and sexuality-neutral sense :) ) Without intending to hurt her, he gave her a verbal push in one direction, and based on that, she made a decision. Did he do something wrong? The point I want to make here is that sexual encounters are almost never perfect marriages of desire, particularly for young people with the best of intentions who are still trying to figure out what they want, what they’re ready for, and what they really want to get out of a sexual relationship.
    Thoughts?

  6. Adam Hopps
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I am a longtime fan of Spring Awakening the musical and the original play by Fred Wedekind.
    I am consistently astonished by Wedekind’s relevency in portraying sex-education, kink, abortion, and spiritual awakening and think his drama is one of most under-appreciated works to come out of the Expressionist movement. And the musical sticks to the expressionist experience especially used with it’s demonstration of Angst, through dance.
    Due to what he does include, and how relevent his views remain, I think the author should be completely forgiven for whatever he does not include whether its menstruation, the lack of education for women or the absence of racism (Yiddish hairstyels are used in the Broadway version, but the extreme anti-semetism of the period is not referred to). Because the musical attempts to stay as close to the original text as possible, I forgive it as well.
    Additionally, the complaint made my Jos and Miriam about Melchior seems to be the most consistent complaint about the play and musical and I fear it is a complaint about the movement of expressionism rather than this specific play or musical. Expressionism, which focuses on emotional experiences over physical or cultural realities, tends to produce cliche, shallow or flat characters who are charged with carrying out a specific idea or philosophy. Melchoir is the hero of an expressionist play, since he is the only one willing to break free from bourgeois norms – when Wendla is saying ‘No’ to his sexual advances, she is saying no to sexual freedom and no to the freedom that Melchoir, the 14 year old atheist, enlightened profit can give her. I understand completely how this can be seen as a forced sexual act but I view it as a metaphor for freedom as I view all the characters not as real representations of individuals but as emotional ideas.
    Also, if viewed realistically, the forced advances of Melchior can be seen as much more. As Jos mentioned about kink and the relationship between violence and desire: Wendla forced Melchoir into a kink relationship first before he forces her into a sexual one. Her experience was violence, his was sexual desire and the two are juxaposed symetrically in the first act. The irony of the play of course is Melchior’s sexual freedom is far more dangerous than Wendla’s secret desires for violence.
    Thank you Feministing for discussing this extremely important musical.

  7. jak
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    *Spoiler alert*
    I saw this about 8 months ago, so my recollections might not be perfect.
    A lot of my friends really love this show. I like it sort of, but particularly when I saw it, parts of it really grated on me.
    I think the thing that really bothered me was the way the Wendla is, ultimately, the one punished for sexual exploration. (SPOILER- she gets pregnant and dies, in a botched abortion, I believe- END SPOILER). Yes Melchior is mildly punished as well, but ultimately, she is the one who “pays the price” for sex.

  8. philososaurus
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Aside from what you pointed out about the sex scene, I thought the play was wonderfully adapted from its original German context. It addressed so many issues still pertinent to young teens.
    I’m a huge fan of the musical, the young actors, and the difficult situations they are confronted with.
    Yes, Wendla is the one punished for sexual exploration, but that is often still the case. It may not be pretty, but its true. Such can be said about the way their sex scene was initiated. While it may not be nice, pretty, or the way things OUGHT to be, its still true, and another way to interpret these scenes is that it is pointing out this very fact. It happens. Still. Yes, in 1891 Germany, but in 2009 USA.
    Adam Hopps: loved your evaluation of the juxtaposed position of desire and violence. Your review of the play was right on par.
    Thanks for bringing attention to such a wonderful play!

  9. Lisa
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The main characters are only 14 and 15. Wendla is 14 and Melchior is 15.
    *Some spoilers*
    The main problem with that scene was Wendla had no clue what sex was. She did not find out until the very end of the show. She only knew it felt good without knowing the consequences. Melchior on the other hand knew what could happen. He did push her into it but she did want him to touch her. Did she want him to have sex with her? Who knows.

  10. Lisa
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen the show 15 times since I got into the show almost 3 years ago. I’ve read the original play multiple times.
    *May have Spoilers*
    Sater, who wrote the musical, pretty much took Wedekins text pretty much word for word. The sex scenes and the grave yard scene are the only ones that have been changed drastically. In the original play, Melchior rapes Wendla. You are not supposed to see Melchior as a good guy. He is an ass to say the least. In the musical it is more consensual but it is still not supposed to be great. Melchior and Wendla are not on the same level when it comes to sex. Neither of them know what they are doing. However Melchior understands what sex is and that he can get Wendla pregnant. Wendla has no clue what sex is. She is just going along with what Melchior wants because it feels good. It does play out as Wendla giving into Melchior. However you could look at is as Wendla giving into her own desires. When you get to the second act, The Guilty Ones, makes it sound like both of them were giving into their desires. In Whispering, Wendla is happy about what has happened and wants to bring their child into the world.
    In the end, Melchior is not supposed to look like a hero. He is supposed to be a frightened kid who just had his dead friends convince him not to commit suicide. He is taking back control in his life and pretty much telling the world “fuck you, I am going to live my life the best as I can.”
    If the show had to have a hero, which I don’t believe it does, then it would be Melchior.

  11. Shinobi
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to agree with Lisa, though I don’t see this show as having any heroes at all. If anything I think the show is about kids who are victims of their society’s desire to keep them ignorant about sex. They all suffer as a result of this, and the only reason Melchior has any redeeming qualities is that he manages to pull away from the exsiting paradigm and live his life, unlike his friends who payed a much larger price.
    Ultimately I think there ARE a lot of things wrong with the play if you are looking at it as a model of how things SHOULD be with regard to teenage sexuality. But I don’t really look at any part of the show as that, I see it as a cautionary tale of sorts, not for teenagers who might have sex, but for adults, and societies that may want to try to protect their chidren’s innocence.

  12. Kate
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    In the NON-Musical Version of Spring Awakening, there is no “sex scene.”
    It is flat out rape, and is acknowledged as such by everyone. I’ve never seen the musical version, but when I went to see the play, people laughed at this scene.
    My boyfriend said the director then came into the green room, confused, saying “they laughed….at the rape scene….” Apparently my audience was the only creepy one thus far.

  13. nestra
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    If it was just one audience, I don’t think I would read too much into it. During a live performance, a single glance caught by only part of the audience can change the entire tone.
    I was once involved in a production with a heavy scene (death, not rape), that also provoked a hearty laugh from the audience. It ruffled the actors and made the rest of the scene a lot more lighthearted than anyone intended. No one could explain it. The music director caught one of the pit musicians laughing at the mysteriously funny point and asked him why. Apparently one of the actors, instructed to look quickly and wistfully down a hallway, appeared to be doing a lustful doubletake directed at an actress in a nightgown. When that single motion was taken out, all the laughter stopped and for the rest of the performances the scene had the intended gravity.
    I would hypothesize that since it was just laughed at during one performance, there was some stray and unintended humorous gesture or expression.

  14. Eileen
    Posted August 1, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    My favorite lines in the musical come after Wendla has died, and one of the girls says, “Poor Melchi.” And then another girl immediately says, “Poor Wendla!”
    The musical isn’t perfect. I get sick of women’s experiences being secondary to those of StarBoy, and this show does fall into that trap. That might be a leftover from the source material. It could have been much worse though, and I think the musical is strong enough that it can make young viewers really question these issues for themselves. So I give it a qualified thumbs up.

  15. Kate
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Oh, totally. Just a weird anecdote.
    Not sure if you know the play, but in the last scene of “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” one of our audiences could not stop laughing. I glared at them from the stage. It was in character. ;)

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