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Let's talk about sex

'Spring Awakening' has awoken a devotion among young theatergoers and opened up a dialogue with adults about sensitive topics

Boston University sophomore Rachel Lustig, part of a devoted group of ''Spring Awakening'' fans, has seen the show more than a dozen times. Boston University sophomore Rachel Lustig, part of a devoted group of ''Spring Awakening'' fans, has seen the show more than a dozen times. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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In the opening scene of "Spring Awakening," the hit musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, a teenage girl asks her mother how babies are born. This being provincial 19th-century Germany, mother doesn't answer the question - setting off a series of tragic events in the lives of confused high-school kids struggling to navigate adolescence in a muddle of misinformation.

Fast forward more than a century to big-city America, and adults and teens are still not talking about sex - at least not as openly, honestly, or effectively as we could be. That "Spring Awakening," with its provocative coming-of-age story and terrific alt-rock score, has sparked intense devotion among underage theatergoers is no surprise. Adolescent angst is evergreen. That the story is inspiring long-overdue conversations in these ostensibly enlightened and progressive times - that we're still measuring the cost of silence - suggests that for all our sophistication, we're still, somehow, stuck.

"It will be ever thus," says Tom Hulce, an executive producer of "Spring Awakening," which opened in New York in 2006 and comes to the Colonial Theatre April 28. "Here is a story written more than a hundred years ago that feels incredibly contemporary and applicable today. I think it will always resonate, because there is so much personal judgment involved in when and how you empower your sons and daughters."

If empowerment hinges on dialogue, "Spring Awakening" is here to help. The story revolves around Wendla, a girl with a curious heart and few facts, Melchior, the fearless object of her affection, and their friend Moritz, a bundle of hormones who is failing out of school. It touches on sexual desire, depression, homosexuality, pregnancy, abortion, and suicide in a repressed society; nothing short of radical when it was written, Wedekind's play was banned around the world and not performed in its original form until many decades later.

The musical softens a couple of plot points and adds a good deal of tunefulness, but deals with the material in frank terms. (Broadway Across America has posted an "Age Appropriateness" message on its website, notifying potential ticket buyers that the show includes "nudity, strong language, and sexual situations.")

It's also funny. And response from young people was instantaneous.

Rachel Lustig, a 19-year-old sophomore at Boston University, has seen "Spring Awakening" 15 times, or maybe 16. She's lost count. Lustig is part of a group called the Guilty Ones, a network of local fan clubs-turned-guerrilla marketing teams, whose members spread the gospel of "Spring Awakening" in exchange for swag, show tickets, and invitations to cast parties.

"The first time I saw it I walked out with tears streaming down my face," Lustig says. "It was about everything I was going through - parent issues, school issues, finding my sexual identity. What is love? What does that even mean? I really think it's an important show, because the more you bottle things up the bigger they become, and when you don't talk about things the darker they get."

The simple act of sharing information isn't simple at all when it comes to sexuality and the exchange is between adults and teenagers. Ideally, conversations about life's fundamental experiences would be a natural extension of the parent-child relationship, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early childhood education at Lesley University and author of "Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids."

But in many homes it's not, and "one of the problems is that the culture is having a stronger and stronger influence on young people," says Carlsson-Paige. "They get so many messages they didn't used to through television and the media in general, and children need more help processing, not less."

One can reasonably argue that the sources kids turn to on a regular basis - MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon, magazine ads, pop songs, blogs, "Gossip Girl," PG-13 movies - are more prurient than "Spring Awakening." Yet the musical seats the generations together in a theater, inviting or even imposing discussion about images and ideas that old and young don't generally consume side-by-side.

And while Steven Sater, who wrote the book and the lyrics for "Spring Awakening," says he set out to address and explore "the longing and doubts and fears and joys" of youth, he didn't anticipate the cross-generational discussion the show would spark, or the need to launch an online parents' guide (parents.springawakening.com) featuring written and videotaped testimonials from theatergoers of all ages.

"It's almost like everyone who watches the show, no matter what age, experiences it as a young person," Sater says. "And when you're a parent you have this weird doubling back. 'Wait, I'm the parents' age.' I have children, and you so want to protect them from all the hurt in life. But I was very aware that by starting the show with Wendla asking her mother a question and her mother not answering, a scene that happens much later in the original play, I was saying that the seeds of the whole tragedy were parents not speaking honestly."

Anyone who's curious to see the scene the way Wedekind wrote it can do so at Boston Center for the Arts, where the Zeitgeist Stage Company is presenting a new adaptation of the play - complete with date rape, an S&M scene, and an all-teenage cast - through May 9. Director David Miller, who scheduled his production as a counterpoint to the musical, says that while it would have been easy enough to hire 20-somethings, he felt that casting young actors living through adolescence in real time would bring poignance to the work.

Miller says he met with the actors' parents in advance, made sure they read the script, invited them to rehearsals, and encouraged them to contact him if they heard anything from their kids that made them uneasy. Jane Goodman - mother of Newton South sophomore Gabe Goodman, who plays the role of Hans - has no misgivings about her son's participation in the play.

"Gabe is very professional," Goodman says. "He's been acting since he was 7 and he's been in things with heavy scenes, like 'The Cider House Rules.' Of course the subject came up of him kissing another boy, and I was a little afraid of people making fun of him, but the crowd he hangs out with is pretty mature and supportive."

Miller has had a similar experience working with the kids in his cast. "These teenagers are much more enlightened than I was, and obviously that's a healthy development. The real challenge," he says, "was to get them into an 1890s mindset, when an average People magazine would have been considered pornography."

Indeed. According to Duncan Sheik, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who composed the music for "Spring Awakening," "11- and 12-year-old kids are having those conversations among themselves, for better or worse." Sheik's own aunt and uncle grappled with the question of whether to bring Sheik's pre-teen cousin to the Broadway show.

They did, and Sheik says that his relatives - like many parents - were ultimately grateful for the opportunity to answer the questions their daughter peppered them with afterward.

"All of these things are out there," says Sheik, "and 'Spring Awakening' deals with it in a pretty elegant or pretty comedic way. My attitude about it is if someone goes to 'Spring Awakening' and they have trouble with the material, they need therapy."

The psychotherapy industry, it hardly bears noting, is thriving. So is "Spring Awakening," which won eight Tony awards, will open in 18 countries this year, and is being developed into a feature film. Therese Provenzano, chorus director at Weston High School, will be bringing 40 of her students to see the musical in Boston - one of five shows she attends annually with school groups. Permission slips from parents are required for every theater outing; several called Provenzano with concerns about "Spring Awakening," but only one student is not being allowed to attend.

"This kind of experience can open up a whole world for kids," says Provenzano. "Theater is a way to express your feelings, but also a place to see that what you're feeling is timeless, and that you're being recognized. They think they're alone. But they're not."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

SPRING AWAKENING the musical, runs April 28-May 24 at the Colonial Theatre. Tickets are $25 to $92 at 800-982-2787 and www.ticketmaster.com and the Colonial Theatre box office.

SPRING AWAKENING the play, runs through May 9 at Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets are $25 and $35 at 617-933-8600 and www.bostontheatrescene.com