Monday, August 16, 2010

Best of the Decade: The Best Musicals #2

There's a moment you know that what you are seeing live in front of you is going to have a profound effect on you personally.  Theatre is great for that; many a theatrical moment has changed the way I've looked at things, felt things, saw differing points of view, but the really profound moments are rare.  Rarer still are those times when you are at a new show and you just know that theatre as you previously knew it has changed.  Only five times in over a quarter century of theatre going have I felt that "life changing feeling": my first Broadway show, Mame, the very first time I saw A Chorus Line, the very first time I saw Cats, and twice in this first decade of the 21st century, which bodes well, I think for the future of musical theatre.  They are my number 1 and 2 Best Musicals of the Decade, which only seems right.

Off-Broadway: The Venue and the Artwork

The moment I knew this show (at number 2) was life-changing was at a late in the run performance of the show off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company, in a space that had once been a church in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.  The show, of course, is Spring Awakening.  The Moment: At intermission, when I literally could not move from my seat.  My mind was reeling; my senses were firing at full levels.  I still wasn't 100% sure that what I was seeing was real.  All I know was that I felt the most bizarre and strong connection to a group of teenage types, all from 19th century Germany.  I could see myself in each and everyone of those characters - the confusion, the desperation, the ignorance, the bliss, the joy, the bitterness, and the ecstasy of developing sexuality.  I was Melchior, Wendla, Ilse, Ernst, Hanschen and, probably most like Moritz. 

Of course, the real treasures came in act two, and the overwhelming pain and sadness.  I wept at the end of the show like I hadn't wept anywhere else, save for a funeral.  I mourned the loss of young lives so unnecessarily taken; I was angry at the adults and the ignorance and the moral self-righteousness that caused it to turn out the way it did.  I have to admit that as a teenager, it would have been wonderful to have had Spring Awakening, and as an adult, I vowed that I would try always to remember these kids and everyone like them before I speak, judge, counsel any of them that happen into my life.

2.  Spring Awakening
Book by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
Choreography by Bill T. Jones
Direction by Michael Mayer

Statistically Speaking:
First Preview: November 16, 2006
Opening Night: December 10, 2006
Closing Night: January 18, 2009
28 previews, 859 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre

There were 17 cast members : Skylar Astin, Gerard Canonico, Lilli Cooper, Jennifer Damiano, Christine Estabrook, John Gallagher. Jr., Gideon Glick, Jonathan Groff, Robert Hager, Brian Charles Johnson, Lea Michele, Lauren Pritchard, Krysta Rodriguez, Stephen Spinella, Phoebe Strole, Jonathan B. Wright, and  Remy Zaken.  There were also two swings.

The Original Broadway Cast also made up the Off-Broadway Cast, with the exception of the two adult roles, which were then played by Frank Wood and Mary McCann.  The Broadway production also added "Ensemble" roles, sung by actors placed amongst the onstage seating for the show.  The original ensemble singers were: Gerard Canonico, Jennifer Damiano, Robert Hager and Krysta Rodriguez. 

The off-Broadway production with
Mary McCann and Frank Woods as the Adults

Between the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of the show, the most significant changes made were a slight song order change and the replacement of "There Once Was a Pirate" with "The Guilty Ones" at the top of Act Two.

Over the course of its run **, there were:
  • 2 Wendlas: Lea Michele and Alexandra Socha
  • 3 Melchiors: Jonthan Groff, Kyle Riabko and Hunter Parrish
  • 3 Moritzs: John Gallagher, Jr., Blake Bashoff and Gerard Canonico
(** - not including understudies or swings)

The Replacements: Blake Bashoff
and Kyle Riabko
(They also starred in the 1st National Tour.) 

Among the other replacements were Matt Doyle - Hanschen (Bye Bye Birdie, bare), Kate Burton - The Adult Women (Hedda Gabler, The Elephant Man, TV's Grey's Anatomy), and Jenna Ushkowitz - Ensemble/Understudy (TV's Glee).

  • Spring Awakening nominated for 11 2007 Tony Awards and won 8: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Steven Sater), Best Score of a Musical (Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (John Gallagher, Jr.), Best Choreography (Bill T. Jones), Best Direction (Michael Mayer), Best Lighting of a Musical (Kevin Adams) and Best Orchestrations (Duncan Sheik).  The nominees were Best Actor in a Musical (Jonathan Groff), Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Christine Jones), and Best Costume Design of a Musical (Susan Hilferty).
  • The show was also honored with 9 Drama Desk Award nominations, winning 4, including Best Musical.
  • Jonathan Groff won a Theatre World Award for his performance.

Kevin Adams' Tony-winning Lighting Design

My favorite "Awakening" moments:
  • The Theatre: Walking into the Eugene O'Neill Theatre the first time, wondering how they would have to change the blocking to accommodate a Broadway stage and not the intimacy of the church space of the Atlantic Theatre Company.  Wasn't I shocked (and pleasantly surprised) that Christine Jones and Kevin Adams painstakingly recreated the environment of the original space in re-designing the sets and lighting for Broadway.
  • The Silence:  The cast would file on stage to cheers and applause.  Lea Michele would step up on her chair and the lights would dim.  We became instantly silent and into the show.

The Original Cast: "The Bitch of Living"

The 1st National Tour: "My Junk"

  • "The Bitch of Living"/"My Junk":  Never before has masturbation been so succinctly and accurately described.  And neither has the all-consuming rush of teenage love.  (Any guy or girl who tells you differently is not being honest.)
  • "Touch Me":  Not so much because of the truth in the song, of which there is plenty, but because of the gorgeous vocal arrangements and performance of the song.

Original Cast

  • "The Word of Your Body": Not since "The Line" pose in A Chorus Line has a single image been so identified with a show and has had the ability to sum up the entirety of it with that single image.
  • "I Believe": Passion, lust, needing... and the urgency of peer pressure all rolled into two young lovers on a strung up platform surrounded by a cast of characters singing in stunning harmony and rounds.  A jarring juxtaposition and a shocking end to act one.

Original Cast

  • "I Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind": The stark staging - especially that neither actor ever looked at the other, leaving how it might have looked up to the viewer - matched the stark reality of what was happening to these two misguided and misunderstood young adults.

The 1st National Tour

  • "Totally Fucked":  The joy of reckless abandon of youth jumping and dancing and cursing against the very adult truth of the song's lyrics is funny and sobering.  And they managed to work it into their Tony Awards number!


  • "Those You've Known":  I wept at the waste of two lives and the ruination of a third.  I thrilled to the chilling theatricality of the staging.
  • "The Song of Purple Summer":  Who cares if you don't really totally get what everything means in the lyrics?  The song is full of beautiful imagery, it is staged simply, and it is sung gloriously.  The perfect ending.
  • Seeing the show from onstage:  Glad I had seen it from the front first, but watching these people work from their point of view was worth 5 times what they charged, at least.  And Skylar Astin smells very good...

Since Spring Awakening opened:
  • The Cast Recording won the Grammy for Best Show Album.
  • There was a very successful First National Tour, and a non-Equity tour is going around the country now.
  • The London productions was nearly unanimously praised but had a short run.  Nonetheless, months after it closed, it won the Olivier for Best Musical.

Artwork from the London Production

  • There have been dozens of worldwide productions in as many languages.
  • A film is in the final planning stages, with casting to begin soon.

Artwork from the Brazilian Production: 
Can you imagine ads like this on Broadway?

  • The show was among the very first to exploit all online/social media, including email blasts to newsletter subscribers, which gave advance notice of tickets specials and onstage seating opportunities.

The Original Cast in the Media Blitz

  • Lea Michele has been nominated for an Emmy for her role in Glee.  Jonathan Groff  and  Jenna Ushkowitz are both in the popular TV show as well.
  • Groff also originated the role of Claude in the revival of Hair, and is preparing to make his London debut in a revival of Deathtrap.
  • John Gallagher, Jr. heads the cast of the Michael Mayer-directed American Idiot.  The cast also includes Gerard Canonico and Brian Charles Johnson.
  • Jennifer Damiano has been Tony nominated for her performance in next to normal and will be Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming mega-musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the DarkGideon Glick is also in the cast.
  • Krysta Rodriguez has since appeared in A Chorus Line and currently stars as Wednesday in The Addams Family.
  • Jonathan B. Wright co-starred in the film Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, while Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole co-starred in the film Hamlet 2.

Hunter Parrish and Alexandra Socha (left)
Kyle Riabko and Christy Altomare

  • Kyle Riabko starred in the National Tour and went on to replace Gavin Creel in Hair.
  • Hunter Parrish continues to co-star in the Showtime series Weeds.
  • Alexandra Socha co-starred in the critically acclaimed revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Forbidden Broadway and TV's 90210

  • Spring Awakening  was the centerpiece of Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening.
  • Spring Awakening was the school musical which figured heavily into the plot of the first season of the CW's 90210.

The Evolution of the Window Card:
TOP: The Original Broadway Windowcard
MIDDLE FOUR: From the Tonys to Closing
BOTTOM: The Non-Equity Tour

Sources: Websites for Atlantic Theatre Company,,, Wikipedia

Production Photos: Joan Marcus

Other Photos: Vanity Fair, The Spring Awakening site, The Tony Awards site.

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  1. I'm also a big fan of Spring Awakening. I saw it in July 2007. It was a Wednesday matinee, the last show in my seven musicals in five days marathon. And I was just blown away by the originality, the electricity.

    The set was terrific. I felt like I was in a little club somewhere listening to a cool new band. I loved the choreography in "Totally F***ed" and "The Bitch of Living."

    I loved the other six shows I saw but this one was so unique, so unlike the others. And I was choked up at the end.

    The crowd at the stage door was huge, lots of young people and even though it was a matinee, everyone came out and signed. They were very gracious with their time.

    The last person to come out was John Gallagher Jr. and it was about 45 minutes later. I was beginning to think I'd lost my chance and almost everyone had left. But he came, his hair still wet from a shower. I congratulated him on his Tony Award and asked for a picture. He was so sweet, so polite. His parents raised him right!

    I also saw the tour in Providence and loved it there, too. But seeing it on Broadway with the original cast (minus Stephen Spinella, who was out) was so memorable.

    I've always thought it would be great if the Spring Awakening cast would reunite someday and do another show together!

  2. As a producer of Spring Awakening, on behalf of the entire cast(s) and creative team, I'd like to say thank you for putting our l'il show-that-could so high on your list. Everyone involved with the show cares so much about it and it means so much that others feel the same way. We could never have expected for the show to be so successful, on Broadway, on tour, and around the world. We hope that in some way we were able to expand the art form and to inspire a new generation of musical theatre lovers. Keep up the great work with the blog.


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