Psychopathia Universalis: Spring Awakening Comes to Utah

Bygones are never really bygones. Whether recalling a previous era or an earlier stage in life, we need the past in order to gauge who we are now.  Where do we come from, how far have we come and how have we changed?  Could our lives have been otherwise?  We all ask these questions.  Or so claims Courtney Markowitz, star of Spring Awakening, a rock musical soon to hit Utah.  She says the show explores “the results of what happens when such questions are not answered.” 

Spring Awakening has captured the national imagination and won an impressive array of honors, most notably three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. First staged in its current form in 2005, Spring Awakening began as a drama presented in 1891 as Frühlings Erwachen by playwright Frank Wedekind. Wedekind’s play outraged audiences because of its frank presentation of then-unspeakable subjects, including not just hetero-, but also auto-, homo- and other crypto-erotic behaviors of the sort treated in German psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebbings’ comprehensive handbook Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Over a century after its debut, writer Steven Sater and musician Duncan Sheik collaborated to transform Wedekin’s scandalous play into a hugely successful rock musical. Markowitz says, “Duncan Sheik allows 19th-century children to become rockstars on stage.  In the show, we play the part of repressed German students, but as soon as the music begins we become contemporary actors singing directly to the audience. We literally have members of the crowd on stage with us. We finish a big production number and we can feel them breathing.”

I mention to Markowitz that a show set in repressive late-nineteenth-century German culture, one in which actors sing openly about forbidden desires and actions, can’t help but recall the work of another psychologist, Sigmund Freud. I ask if the play, or the performing of it, bears any resemblance to self-analysis. “[Spring Awakening entails] stripping yourself of experiences you’ve had as an adult, everything you’ve learned and remembering what is was like to be naive again. Imagine what it would be like to know nothing and to have no one to talk with. Many teens today do have a parent to talk with, but for those who don’t, our show opens a gateway,” she says.

To anyone tempted to consider such a play (for historical as well as thematic reasons) deliberately decadent, Markowitz insists the opposite.  For her, the play is emotionally charged, but never melodramatic. “Frank Wedekind would see a production of the original play and say, ‘That is too heavy.  This is not a tragedy.’  Then he’d see a production that was too light and say, ‘This is not a comedy.’”  Nor is the play mere sensationalism.  According to Markowitz, everything in the show can be seen on the evening news or Glee. Although the production includes partial nudity, Markowitz says the nudity is done for a reason. It also happens to be choreographed and timed with the music.

Though Markowitz admits Spring Awakening can be a challenge to perform in certain cities, she insists that the nudity has never been a great concern, even for small-town audiences. She says, “We are there for only one or two nights, and the people who are there really, really want to be there.  We haven’t had a show without a standing ovation.” 

The success of the show in general, and in particular of its use of nudity, must in large measure be attributed to renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, who won a Tony for Best Choreography for Spring Awakening.  “Interestingly, the show’s not very dancey,” Markowitz says.  There are no pirouettes and high kicks, but [the choreography] works in the same way that the music does, using storytelling elements to advance the plot.  Instead of dance steps, we talked in rehearsals about the characters’ thoughts and the motivations for their movements.”  Markowitz says this is a way to dance that is new to American theater.   “Our cast is made of singers and actors, not dancers, so it’s a perfect way to approach the choreography.”

Another innovative aspect of the show is its use of only two actors to play all the adult roles. “Originally it was Michael Mayer’s idea,” Markowitz says. “These actors perform a specific function. The story is told from the perspective of a diverse group of teenagers, but it contains only one generic man and woman, who play multiple parts.”  I offer that these figures are like embodiments of the horrible parental trombone voice from the Peanuts television specials. Markowitz laughs and doesn’t disagree, but she says that these adult figures do develop over the course of the drama. “You feel things can get better,” she says.

Spring Awakening will be performed on January 14 and 15, at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.