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Awakening’ brings new life to musical genre

Analise Lipari | Monday, April 23, 2007

“Spring Awakening,” a new Broadway show written in part by ’90s singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, is probably unlike anything you’ve ever heard coming from a musical.

The music is fresh, the harmonies are sublime and the subject matter is surprising and unexpected. The play, based on an 1891 work by German playwright Frank Wendekind that was banned in its home country for decades, is a nuanced and complex look at youthful innocence, burgeoning sexuality and the fallout between the two.

“Spring Awakening” takes place in Wendekind’s stifling original setting of German society, and from this repression a lush and beautiful score springs forth – a collection that stands solidly on its own as an album.

“Spring Awakening” chronicles a small set of German youths that, due to the sudden, unexpected advance of puberty, are fumbling through adolescence. The inquisitive Wendla Bergman (Lea Michele), the quietly rebellious Melchior Gabor (Jonathan Groff) and the tormented, but sweet Moritz Steifel (John Gallagher Jr.) make up the conflicted trio at the play’s center.

Michele and Groff play the central young lovers and Gallagher as Moritz, Melchior’s best friend, is a figurative lost boy who finds himself falling victim to thoughts and feelings he doesn’t understand. As these characters grow in knowledge and experience, tinged by both destruction and growth, the play deftly describes their journeys through Sheik and writer/lyricist Steven Sater’s haunting, joyous and downright beautiful music.

The soundtrack opens with “Mama Who Bore Me,” Wendla’s confused musings to her traditional mother. The play’s female characters then take up the song again, with increased energy and a faster pace, in a reprise that highlights the irony of a generation of mothers who chose not to teach their children about the most human of urges – sexuality. It’s not the first time on a soundtrack that the music voices criticism of society, and “Mama Who Bore Me” sets that precedent well and with subtlety.

Another early number, “The Bitch of Living,” is a frenzied, frenetic explosion of the frustrations that Moritz, Melchior and their fellow schoolboys feel in their stifled environment. The song is anchored by quick, energetic guitar riffs and the impassioned, strained voices of each boy’s struggles. Its female counterpart, the subsequent “My Junk,” describes the girls’ increasing sexual awareness as they crush from afar. While taking a more exuberant tone than “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” continues in a similar vein of misunderstanding and confusion.

As the play continues, the music subsequently grows darker and more complex. Decisions are made, deeds are done and consequences are sometimes harshly faced or violently avoided, and the soundtrack aptly reflects this evolution of theme and sound.

Moritz’s manifesto of independence and depression, “Don’t Do Sadness,” is coupled with the mournful nostalgia of social rebel Ilsa’s (Lauren Pritchard) “Blue Wind.” “Totally F***ed” takes up the play’s earlier sense of irony as its “blah blah blah” verses and powerful vocals express the youths’ feeling that life’s forces are working against them. The play’s final track, “Purple Summer,” is a genuine, lovely and lushly written hymn of exultation.

What really strengthens the play’s soundtrack is the fleshing out of each song by most (if not all) of the cast members. Each track is carefully written with sophisticated harmonies, adding to the commonality of their struggles

Each song simply works. The music is both energetic and contemplative in turn, and the layering and sophisticated sound, when coupled with straightforward, emotional lyrics, create a seductively addicting collection.

As a Broadway musical soundtrack, the “Spring Awakening” album is probably unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet familiar and engaging at the same time. It is, in a word, wonderful.