Every now and then, critics get a chance for a do-over. Case in point: "Spring Awakening," the rock-music reimagining of Franz Wedekind's 1891 broadside against the sexual hypocrisies of provincial Germany. When it opened off-Broadway this summer, I could barely wait to get home and type the following:
"'Spring Awakening' is the most thrilling rock musical of the last decade."
Six months later, as so often happens, passions have simmered. Opinions have deepened and clarified. So allow this cooler head to modify the above sentence. "Spring Awakening" is, in my measured opinion, the most thrilling rock musical ever.
Perhaps not the best rock musical ever: Other works can lay a firmer claim on the grounds of historical significance ("Hair"), stylistic versatility ("Rent"), or iconoclastic muscle ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). But until their somewhat muddled ending, veteran pop composer Duncan Sheik ("Barely Breathing") and lyricist-bookwriter Steven Sater capture the melancholy and mortification of adolescence with all of the intensity it deserves and none of the condescension it so often receives. They have written at least a dozen sublime pop songs, any one of which would constitute a highlight in most Broadway musicals, and director Michael Mayer has assembled a superb young cast that meets every one of the considerable demands made upon them.
The result is, with apologies to Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson's masterful pas de deux of codependency in "Grey Gardens," the musical event of the year.
As before, "Spring Awakening" traffics in human sexuality in nearly all of its forms masturbation, a chilling instance of S&M, wet dreams, homosexuality, and a sexual interlude that teeters on the verge of rape. Guided only by vague and proscriptive information from the adults (all played by Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, who avoid most of the material's reductive tendencies), the confused teenagers stumble into these acts with the furtive shame of people who genuinely believe they may be condemning themselves to hell before, after, and while doing them.
Of the three lead characters, only the worldly, atheistic Melchior (Jonathan Groff) has even the vaguest understanding of these impulses. His tormented friend Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.) and the restless Wendla (Lea Michele) each look to Melchior for guidance, and each suffers as a result.
During the haunting opening song, "Mama Who Bore Me," Wendla introduces virtually the show's only piece of choreography, a swaying, sinuous, totemic series of movements from modern-dance icon Bill T. Jones. It is both provocative and protective an ideal expression of adolescence and it resurfaces throughout the musical: fast and slow, tentative and furious, triumphant and terrified.
"O, I'm gonna be wounded," several characters sing to prospective partners. "O, I'm gonna be your wound." The boundaries between knowledge (particularly of the carnal variety) and ignorance prove permeable and potentially lethal. But these young men and women are not naifs. Mr. Sater's lyrics may lack specificity at times with the exception of the volatile Moritz, the characters all employ a disconcertingly similar vocabulary but they bespeak a level of self-awareness that is both precocious and completely in thrall to barely understood longings:
Window by window
You try and look into
This brave new you that you are.
The idea of teen sexuality as an utter mystery is difficult to impress upon today's youth, so the creators have conjoined the period's archaisms with contemporary trappings. Broadly put, the characters speak in the 19th century and sing in the present. Period brica-brac vies with multicolored neon on the exposed back wall. A student reaches inside his school uniform, complete with breeches and long socks, and pulls out a handheld microphone. A smattering of rough-hewn seats have been placed on either side of the stage, turning audience members into a useful bridge between past and present.
Any concerns about whether Mr. Sheik's orchestrations, with their flashes of electronica and swoops in and out of dissonance, would fit comfortably in the much larger Eugene O'Neill Theatre have been put to rest. (The original five-piece band has been increased by two members.) In fact, the Javits Center might not be big enough to contain the flood of passion that explodes from songs like "And Then There Were None" and the gorgeous ballad "Left Behind." One particular rock anthem the title of which cannot be printed in this newspaper bursts forth with a cathartic power that lingers in both the head and the gut for days.
I listed the entire young cast the last time, and would like to do so again. In alphabetical order, they are: Skylar Astin, Lilli Cooper, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick, Jonathan Groff, Brian Johnson, Lea Michele, Lauren Pritchard, Phoebe Strole, Jonathan B. Wright, and Remy Zaken. (In addition, four new singers flesh out AnnMarie Milazzo's stirring vocal arrangements. As their characters exist only within the modern-day idiom of the score, the four are positioned among the onstage audience and outfitted in contemporary clothes another example of Mr. Mayer's unobtrusive but deft staging.) I am confident that several of these names will emerge as important stage actors, just as "Rent" served as a springboard for so much young talent in the past decade.
Unfortunately, "Spring Awakening" also shares with "Rent" some skittishness about how to manage the downbeat ending of its source material. Wedekind's original conclusion an awkward mix of whimsy and portent involving a headless ghost has been upgraded only slightly, as a graveyard confrontation segues into a beautifully sung but emotionally hollow celebration of community and "the glory of the spring." The only other misstep is an obvious ballad about sexual abuse that Ms. Cooper and Ms. Pritchard perform while bathed in lurid red neon light.
Some theatergoers would rather not watch a young man masturbate to a picture postcard while speaking of Othello's Desdemona, and it's hard to fault them for that. But work this accomplished warrants the attention of anyone interested in seeing the Broadway musical move forward. Messrs. Sheik and Sater, to say nothing of the cast, would deserve recognition for making such promising Broadway debuts except that any such promises have already been emphatically and joyously realized.
Open run (230 W. 49th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-239-6200).