When the musical “Spring Awakening” made its way to Broadway in late 2006 after multiple workshops, it quickly entered the somewhat rarified group of popular plays that thoroughly embraced a rock score. It followed the footsteps of musicals such as “Hair,” “The Who’s Tommy” and “Rent.”
“Spring Awakening” played on Broadway for more than three years and collected eight Tony Awards. A 2015 revival won three more Tony Awards. All that for a production based, of all things, on a German play written by Frank Wedekind in 1891.
The music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater modernize Wedekind’s look at a restrictive society of adults facing teenagers dealing with sexuality, their education and other challenges.
UNC School of the Arts drama seniors will present the show over two weeks, starting Thursday night at the Freedman Theatre on campus. “Spring Awakening” is directed by guest artist Gary Griffin, with music direction by Steven Freeman and choreography by Krisha Marcano.
Griffin has been recognized for his critically acclaimed work in musical theater, from Broadway (including “The Color Purple”) and off-Broadway to London, and at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, with 10 Joseph Jefferson Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, and four Drama Desk Awards.
Freeman is familiar to local audiences as guest musical director for the School of Drama’s popular musicals “Company” in 2017, “Side Show” in 2016 and “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2015.
Marcano is the assistant dean of UNCSA’s School of Drama.
In the story of this musical, set in a provincial German town, the central characters — Melchior, Moritz and Wendla — are trying to come to grips with two clashing worlds: the confining, repressive society around them and their own world of sexual awakening, curiosity, confusion and pain. Themes that the story and music explore include teenage angst, self-discovery, sex, violence and abortion (which is why this production is recommended for mature audiences only).
“The adolescents in ‘Spring Awakening’ are trying to understand and survive what they’re feeling — the hell they’re negotiating,” Griffin said. “And in any good musical, when the characters’ feelings are so heightened that they can no longer speak, there is no other way to express what’s in their minds and hearts except through song and dance.”
Sheik’s music — along with Sater’s stunning lyrics — come from a contemporary place where the vehicle for expression is rock ‘n’ roll. Sheik first became known as a composer for his 1996 hit, “Barely Breathing.”
“As we probably recollect from our own lives,” Griffin said, “it’s the music of our youth that gives voice to our feelings and lets us work them out.”
Because the actors in UNCSA’s staging (seniors in the School of Drama) are close in age to the characters of “Spring Awakening,” Griffin wanted them have input into certain aspects of the play.
Costume designer Melina Hernandez says, “Gary and I talked about giving the performers in school uniforms agency to make choices about details of their costumes, like if their jackets are buttoned, if their socks are rolled down, or if their neckties are uneven,” she said. “The boys’ looks aren’t about what they wear, but how they wear it.”
Similarly, as choreographer, Marcano encouraged the actors to create “moves” that would translate the characters’ anxiety, frustrations and confusion into expressive dance.
The cast of “Spring Awakening” includes Ainsley Seiger (Wendla); Emma Davis (Ilse); Trey Fitts (Melchior); Chase Dillon (Moritz); Deychen Volino-Gyetsa (Martha); Zion Jang (Hanschen/Rupert); Carlo Feliciani Ojeda (Ernst/Reinhold); Liz Steinmetz (Anna); Kate Pittard (Thea); Lance Smith (Otto/Ulbrecht); and David Ospina (Georg/Dieter). Justine Marler plays Adult Women and Jasper Keen, Adult Men.
From the School of Design and Production, the design team includes Kevin Lee McBee (scenic design), Nico Schiavone (lighting design), Kiersten Bowman (sound design), Harley Haberman (wigs and makeup), Morgan Ochs (production manager) and Samantha Leahan (production stage manager).
Griffin hopes that audience members will find their own ways of connecting to the play and perhaps be reminded of what it was like to be a teenager — however painful or exciting or confusing it might have been.
“I hope you’ll see that the most challenging, most difficult, most obnoxious person in the room is the one who is hurting the most,” Griffin said. “As the director, I owe you something for coming to see this play: for you to be moved or provoked or changed in some way. But I promise you this: You won’t leave empty-handed.”