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Spring Awakening: Overview

Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening (2006) is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name. Sheik and Sater adapted Wedekind’s landmark expressionist drama into a musical, creating a contemporary pop/rock score to drive the action of the play. Like Wedekind’s original work, Sheik and Sater’s Spring Awakening is episodic, the story evolving over a series of scenes, drawing together the interactions of various characters in a small town in Germany c. 1891, scenes that are ruptured by musical interludes that draw the characters out of the 19th century and into the present. The songs offer the audience a look inside the characters’ minds, revealing their inner thoughts and feelings.

A coming-of-age story, Spring Awakening looks at the complications teens face as they navigate a world defined by boundaries established by parents, teachers, and religious figures, trying to learn (as opposed to being taught). There is a spirit of rebellion on one level, as the characters question their society and its values, often spurred on by the hypocrisies, big and small, that they observe. As counterpoint to the cross-section of adolescent experience, various adults figure into the storyline. In the original Broadway production of the musical, all adult roles were played by 2 actors (1 male, 1 female), a feature that UNH’s production is observing. The adults are thus distanced from the children—seeming on one level like a unified voice of conformity; yet, the characters are more nuanced than such a strategy would suggest on its surface. The play encourages audiences to ask how children can make informed decisions and behave responsibly if their elders do not offer them honest and open answers about their questions.

Many of the taboos Wedekind dared to address in 1891 are issues that audiences in the 21st century still find challenging—suicide, sexuality, rape, violence, abuse, and profanity. (Wedekind’s play was not staged in his native Germany until 1906, and then only with several alterations to the original text.) As a result, Spring Awakening is for mature audiences only. Recommended for ages 17+. The graphic nature of the play sometimes overrides the compelling questions the play provokes. The creative team does not see Spring Awakening as a play that is simply about sexual awakening. Rather, the play turns a critical eye on society, encouraging audiences to look at power structures and the importance of honesty and open dialogue. Other topics that the play encourages audiences to think about are community, respect, desire, education, self-awareness, love, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and much more. 

Director Rachel Anderson–Rabern writes, “I believe theater is a medium that promotes dialogue by telling many stories, and by celebrating many voices. By definition, that diversity is not always comfortable. Sometimes the most crucial and relevant stories are the most painful ones, and I think that we as audiences owe it to ourselves - as citizens of the world with the power to change that world - to come face to face with stories that challenge us. Spring Awakening does not make light of its subject matter, it seeks to bring a great deal of darkness into view. It deals with the oppression and shame of young men and women who are growing up in the shadow of oppressive authority. It deals with the seductive danger of power, and the tragedies suppression of knowledge and dialogue can unleash. For these reasons, I think it is an eminently suitable performance for our campus. The musical is based on a play that was written in 1891. After over 100 years have passed, the topics the play deals with are still relevant, and still frightening. That suggests to me that we can view this performance as an opportunity to think about why that might be, and what we as individuals wish to do about it. I do not want to suppress the topics of this play by discarding the performance; I think that would substantiate the culture of silence and shame that the play seeks to combat.”