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As Long as We Remember...

June 12, 2009

All About Sex

Roy Meachum

On stage at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre until a week from Sunday is a Tony Award winner for Best Musical. "Spring Awakening" is all about sex, not simply among teenagers but all human beings. It is a 21st Century production that provides the question, answered in "Hair" 40 years ago.


In fact, the concept and the play were born in the 19th century's last decade with San Francisco-born, German author Frank Wedekind who traveled on a U.S. passport for most of his life. "Fruehlings Erwachen," translated entirely accurately as "Spring Awakening," was published in 1891 but not performed publicly for 15 years. As you can imagine, the author was frustrated.


Meanwhile, he went on to write and publish other works that inspired Berthold Brecht, whose "Three-Penny Opera" mirrors Mr. Wedekind's mission that art must comment on not simply reflect life. Herr Brecht wrote the words for "Mack the Knife" that became an American standard; readers might remember.


Above all, the Wedekind-Brecht approach detested supercilious morality. And that's what the Hippodrome's current show deals with most of all. As the 20th Century approached England's queen gave her name to a Victorian era notable for a triple standard: the usual double rule grafted onto depravity of the lowest degree. Brits produced a body of literature that really left the French version almost chaste.


I have never read or heard of smut from the period Kaiser Wilhelm ruled; I suppose it existed. But in all my years of claiming some knowledge of German, it's remained invisible, except in the works of Freud and Jung; they were Viennese. As educated men, they spoke "echt Deutsche" (true German).


Pioneers in psychiatry chronicled the sexuality awakened in the Hippodrome's show that won an amazing eight Tonys. The really big prizes were taken; of course, I was pleased to see Kevin Adams was named for his lighting. The cast lifts up the material with a truly ensemble performance; Kyle Riabko is the first among damned-near equals because he did the lead on Broadway. There is simply not a false note all evening in any element; along with the players the production crew does a superb job. It's all a youthful group. Reading through the credits in the Playbill, I was not surprised to discover some are still working for their degrees.


But the "spring" in the title is not about the season; it means the age of boys and girls on the lip of adulthood, when "youth and blood are warmer." Testosterone floods in aspiring men and juices flow in the almost-women approaching motherhood. The floods and the juices were unnaturally repressed until the age of "Hair," notable for its "Let the Sunshine In."


The song calls for the routing of darkness, especially in attitudes toward sex that reached a zenith when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in the White House: hippies and free love came almost immediately after, fueled by reaction against the war in Vietnam.


In the Hippodrome's offering, it is the absence of war that makes musings on hypocrisy possible; the Prussians had taken Paris exactly 20 years before the original work was published. Almost as important, the Germanys had been united by Iron Chancellor Bismarck. For the time since their ancestors came out of Asia during the Migration of Nations, descendents of the Teutons were under no threat.


In the situation, Germanic philosophers flourished; the nation's educational system became the model for the western world and composers, notably Richard Wagner, turned out masterpieces. Catholic Munich flourished as an arts center; Lutheran Berlin tried to keep up. To emphasize Mr. Wedekind's lesson, a character dressed in the distinctive collar of an Evangelical pastor presides over a funeral. The story adheres to Christian teaching: all major offenders wind up punished: a girl in a botched abortion, a boy by his own hand and even Mr. Riabko's lead must spend time behind bars for inciting all around him to cast off hypocrisy.


When you first hear "all about sex" for a musical, you had think of what Hamlet called "country matters." And there is a song entitled with a word I can't repeat here. But the production is too thoughtful and well-conceived, in the heritage of Frank Wedekind; the production cannot be written off as a smutty joke.


Everyone connected with "Spring Awakening" – including booking Broadway Across America – should stand very tall; they are a credit to everyone connected with theatre, including this aging critic.


After a week from next Sunday, the spotlight and the pride move on to somewhere else.


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