ReDISCoveries: Spring Awakening
(2006 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. I continue this week with the 2006 Original Broadway cast recording of Spring Awakening.
This week I return to much more familiar territory with the Grammy-winning recording of this Tony-winning score. I had the good fortune of seeing the original production twice on Broadway, as well as the 2015 Deaf West Broadway revival (also twice) and a nearby non-Equity tour stop. I also listened to this recording almost nonstop when it was released (I had a very long commute at the time!), so it’s safe to say that, probably like many of you, I know these songs very well. Nonetheless, I haven’t listened to it all the way through for quite a few years, so I thought it was time to take it off the shelf for another visit.
My impression of the music remains much the same as it did almost 17 years ago. This score is basically a genre unto itself, neither “Barely Breathing”-style middle of the road pop nor standard Broadway fare. It has hints of both of these styles, of course, but as I listen now I’d characterize it as a collection of Romantic-sounding art songs with a modern folkish tinge.
And this score really is basically a collection of songs, rather unlike the typical post-R&H musical where the story is driven by the songs. Instead, the songs famously express the characters’ internal reflections on what’s happening around them, allowing composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater wide latitude. The lyrics in particular are laden with sometimes inscrutable imagery - unless you happen to have read Sater’s own book explaining them. The effect is enchanting, and almost as enjoyable on a recording as it is in the theater.
I could probably write a whole series of posts on this score, but in what follows I’ll limit myself to one or two observations (not all of them terribly original) that I had upon revisiting each of the songs.
I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two stars (**).
*Mama Who Bore Me: The first time I saw the show on stage, I was a little disappointed that the short string introduction to this song was only added for the recording. Many visits later, of course I realize that the “cold open” is just as perfect for the live musical as those few bars are for the recording.
Mama Who Bore Me (reprise): It’s quite a move to reprise your opening song almost immediately, but this choral version definitely rocks in its own way! Using the same lyrics to music that overlaps only slightly with the first version, it’s a nice transition from the stark opening scene to the meat of the show.
All That’s Known: It’s very important that we know who Melchior is and what makes him tick as we later witness his world crumbling around him. This “I Want” song casts a spotlight on his dedication to learning and to creativity by juxtaposing it with the stultifying classroom he’s currently stuck in. It’s a very concise way to introduce the character and his ideals.
*The Bitch of Living: This is the first song I heard from the show, and I was infatuated after the first few iterations of the opening vamp. With all due respect to Jonathan Larson and the title song from Rent, this song as close to authentic grungy angst as Broadway has ever come. Moritz may not be the lead role, but it’s the barely contained volatility of John Gallagher, Jr.’s vocals that is the driving force on this recording for me.
My Junk: I have to admit that I didn’t care for this song when I first heard it; it seemed far too light and frivolous in the context of the rest of the score. My opinion changed significantly when I saw it performed on stage, where it’s the perfect accompaniment for a variety of mostly humorous stage vignettes.
Touch Me: This song represents Spring Awakening at its most Spring-Awakening-iest, with most of the male characters chiming in with their own thoughts as Melchior and Moritz discuss anatomical drawings. I love the soaring music of the “where I go” sections, but the lyrics here really are quite difficult to decipher.
**The Word of Your Body: I haven’t heard many people discussing this song over the years, but I think it’s a high point of the uniquely beautiful style of this score. Not quite a duet, it’s rather more like two parallel arias sung by people who are physically right next to each other but psychically worlds apart. Of course, the breathtaking vocals of Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele really help to sell it, too.
The Dark I Know Well: The lyrics here are, for once, not abstract at all; in fact they’re frighteningly direct. This song is chilling enough on the recording, but it’s even more disturbing in the context of the story as told in the stage musical.
And Then There Were None: This isn’t one of my very favorites, but I think this song is exceptionally well crafted. The alternation of the spoken correspondence and Moritz’s increasingly alarming responses is an economical way of characterizing his descent into despair without violating the “rules” of the score.
The Mirror-Blue Night: This trippy little ballad is full of colorful imagery that seems to speak of a desire for sexual release on the part of Moritz and his friends. For me, it’s probably the most forgettable song in the score - indeed, it’s the only one I couldn’t place when I read the song list before listening to the CD.
I Believe: This song deftly conjures a (perhaps spurious) sense of well-being and communal togetherness for the central couple. It gradually spins off into a haze of musical psychedelia not heard on Broadway since Hair.
*Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind: This sequence, which poignantly sets Moritz’s nihilism (“Don’t Do Sadness”) against Ilse’s thoughtfulness (“Blue Wind”), is another brilliant demonstration of the show at its best. When the characters talk to each other, they don’t manage to communicate very much; when they sing, they communicate a great deal, but not to each other. Lauren Pritchard shines here as brightly as Gallagher.
The Guilty Ones: On stage, this is the first song of Act Two (before “Don’t Do Sadness”), so it’s slightly out of sequence on this album. It’s sort of a rejoinder to “I Believe,” a personal and communal acknowledgment of the consequences of Melchior and Wendla’s coupling.
Left Behind: Get a tissue ready as Melchior celebrates the memory of his friend, simultaneously driving Moritz’s father to a grief-stricken breakdown. The gentle music and vivid lyrics do their job well here, with the final lyrics (“it whistles through the ghosts still left behind”) foreshadowing the penultimate song of the show.
Totally Fucked: I can certainly understand why this explosion of a song is a popular favorite, and I love seeing and hearing it on stage! Beginning with one of the show’s best punchlines, it develops into a musical orgy of angry resignation, with even the adults joining in. Rarely has the word “blah” been used to better effect as a song lyric.
The Word of Your Body (reprise): At one point I used to think of Hänchen (Jonathan B. Wright) as a rather shallow character who didn’t consider Ernst (Gideon Glick) as much more than a conquest, but this song really gives the lie to that interpretation. In fact, these two are really the only people in the whole show who manage to communicate successfully with each other about what they want. Exceptionally, they even seem to understand each other when they sing.
Whispering: Wendla’s second solo of the evening doesn’t make quite as big an impression as her opening song, but the writers probably thought it important to give this character a reflective scene at this point. I find the music and lyrics slightly pallid in the context of this otherwise vibrant score.
Those You’ve Known: Musically a reprise of Melchior’s first song, “All That’s Known,” here his words draw a path from complete despair to a kind of determination to fulfill his dreams, as he gains strength from the ghosts of his best friends. I have always thought of this as the happiest ending the story could logically have had, although the persistent mournfulness of the music betrays some instability in Melchior’s apparent optimism.
*The Song of Purple Summer: Much more reassuring is this warmest of finales, naturally sung at first by the pure and free spirit Ilse, but soon enough taken up by the full company. For once the varied colors and intricate metaphors that fill the show’s lyrics promise redemption rather than frustration. Even if it all seems a little too rosy in the cold light of day outside the theater, it’s exactly the right endpoint for those of us who have taken this musical journey.
Next time I’ll turn my attention to the 2000 studio recording of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella - or at least the first CD of the three-disc set