Rock of Stages: Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Lust

Nina Shen Rastogi
Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele as Melchior and Wendla - photo by Joan Marcus

Can Duncan Sheik -- assisted by a fleet of 100-year-old horny German teens -- save the rock musical from itself?

If you are of a certain ilk, a love for musical theater, like that of Star Trek, Billy Joel, or the Rainforest Café, must always be placed firmly within quotation marks. Musical theater, after all, smacks of nothing so much as blandly comfortable childhoods and longstanding virginity. A collection of original cast albums makes people in your office wonder if you might also be a closet Ren Fair jouster. The format oozes poor taste. It is decidedly un-rock.

Hair: generally considered the ur-rock musical.

Still, since Hair first shook its love beads in the late '60s, plenty of mad artists have tried to graft rock music with musical theater. Some of their unholy creations have been sublime (Hedwig and the Angry Inch); others, decidedly less so (Via Galactica, a "musical of the future" about funky asteroid-dwelling rebels, which ran for just seven performances in 1972).

Musical theater's attraction to rock music is easy enough to understand. Rock offers a genre saddled with a reputation for corniness a fresh aesthetic legitimacy -- not to mention a heady whiff of sex and danger, which is key to attracting the crucial but ever-elusive youth audience. Rock's attraction to musical theater... well, that's a little harder to understand.

Or is it? After all, anyone who's seen the Flaming Lips or Gorillaz live knows what can happen when a rock band decides to put on a show, as opposed to just another concert. The experience can be galvanizing. I recently saw singer-songwriter Tim Fite perform in a basement room in Brooklyn, and as I watched his show -- which was more like performance art than anything else, as the antic Fite adopted a vaudevillian stage persona he called "The Man with Itchy Legs" and danced in front of a screen projecting comic book-style illustrations -- I realized why most rock concerts feel so anemic to me these days.

In a weird way, the rock musical also seems strangely reactionary, a traditional-minded throwback to a time where musical artists could legitimately be considered auteurs. In a culture where music is increasingly downloaded a la carte and song lists can be shuffled and pasted to the listener's liking, the rock musical, like the concept album, shifts control back to the artist. A musical is not only an opportunity for a musician to flirt with other artistic forms, such as staging, dance, literature, and multimedia. It's also a chance to orchestrate a total experience, one that asserts the artist's right to dictate how a song will be listened to, in what order, and in what context. Each song is woven into a greater, organic whole that is then performed for a live (and captive) audience for an experience that's more all-encompassing than a concert, more immediate than film, and more el

Broadway's School of Rock

When it comes to producing credible rock musicals, actors who can credibly perform rock music are crucial. Finding them can be a challenge, though, in an American Idol¬-ified theatrical environment that values robotic bombast over emotional honesty. The young cast members of Spring Awakening, most who are in their late teens or early 20s, generally come from traditional theater or musical theater backgrounds. To break them of their drama school habits, Duncan Sheik has been quoted as having told the cast members to "imagine that you're Thom Yorke... [or] a young David Bowie. Imagine that you're Fiona Apple. And please forget about all the vocal training you've ever had."

Some actors had a head start on that particular lesson. John Gallagher, Jr., 21, plays the doomed Moritz Steifel and is generally considered by the rest of the cast to be "the most rock 'n' roll" of the group. ("He's like the coolest kid in school," one tells me. "You should write that down," another adds.) Though Gallagher had experience singing rock music -- his Rilo Kiley-ish band, Old Springs Pike, recently played a great show at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan -- he fondly recalls how "marvelously ill-prepared" he was when he began his involvement with the show nearly two years ago, back when it was still just a workshop production and he was an actor better known for straight plays. "I was really scared to go in because I didn't think that I would be right for a standard musical theater piece," says Gallagher, who, with his Eraserhead-like show hairdo, has been fielding a lot of comparisons to Lyle Lovett and Robert Smith, though he himself cops to being more inspired by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. "I mean, I'd sung in bands, but I'd just been living in New York acting [for the past four years] and not singing."

"The lucky thing for me," he says, "was that it was such an unorthodox musical, and it lived in such a world that I understood." And while the scruffy, intimate vibe of the Atlantic meant that Gallagher could live a bit more like an actual rock musician during the Off-Broadway run -- "It's not like I was this crazy partying guy that was, like, drinking all the time, but I really didn't buckle down," he admits -- the higher stakes of a Broadway performance has brought with it a new vocal discipline, one that he's excited to bring back to his band. Getting the professional input of Kim Grigsby, the show's musical director, was also key, says Gallagher, "She has no doubt made me a better singer than I was prior this experience, and a more knowledgeable and aware singer."

Other actors, like the 22-year-old Jonathan Groff, didn't come to the table with quite the same, shall we say, chops. "I am so unfamiliar with pop music," Groff says winsomely, the febrile swagger he displays as dreamboat Melchior having vanished completely now that he's sitting in a Times Square lounge, politely ordering a ginger ale. Groff was one of the many cast members who came from a strictly traditional musical theater background; before Spring Awakening, he was playing Rolf in a touring production of The Sound of Music. A way with lederhosen; check. A rock 'n' roll sensibility; not so much. "I went to my first concert at Madison Square Garden and saw U2, like, a year and a half ago. That was the first time I'd ever been to a concert in my life." The fact that I'm surprised to hear this (and I shouldn't be, having known plenty of musical theater actors in my life) testifies to just how skilled a performer Groff is.

The rock neopyhte got a lot of the expected vocal feedback during rehearsals. "Cut out the vibrato, you know, all that stuff of course went into play," he says. Still, the show's director, Michael Mayer, managed to give him some advice that was even more helpful -- advice that plenty of aspiring rock musicians have taken to heart over the years. "Michael always said, 'Sing your songs as if the lights are out in your apartment and you're completely on your own, and you're just singing the song into the microphone.'"

Marianne Faithfull as Pegleg
the devil in Waits' The Black Rider

Some certifiably great rock musicians, after all, have experimented with the musical theater format. Earlier this year, David Byrne presented the first workshop performance of Here Lies Love, a disco "song cycle" about Imelda Marcos that Byrne wrote with Fatboy Slim, which was performed in an Australian arts center rejiggered into a fully functioning dance club. (Some of the songs from Here Lies Love will be performed at New York's Carnegie Hall in February 2007, as part of the Perspectives series Byrne is curating.) Tom Waits, long married to the playwright Kathleen Brennan, has been a notably prolific member of the rock star drama club, with stage shows like 1986's Frank's Wild Years, '90's The Black Rider, '92's Alice, and 2000's Blood Money, the last three of which he collaborated on with legendary avant-garde director Robert Wilson. The flagrantly multidisciplinary Laurie Anderson produced Songs and Stories from Moby Dick in 1999, and next month her partner Lou Reed's 1973 concept album Berlin is getting a full theatrical treatment at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York.

Serious musical artists often camouflage their work behind unruly appellations like "music-theater piece", "multimedia staging", or "sound and performance experiment", but even absent any jazz hands, the fact remains that they're all making musicals. But as any rock geek will tell you, semantics matter: emo is not indie is not shoegazer is not rock is not pop.

Duncan Sheik, music

This is probably why Duncan Sheik, the literate popsmith who first found fame in the mid-'90s with his wistful hit Barely Breathing has referred to his new Broadway musical, Spring Awakening, as an "anti-musical". When Sheik's frequent collaborator, the playwright Steven Sater (he wrote the lyrics for Sheik's lush 2001 Nonesuch release, Phantom Moon), approached him in 1999 about adapting Frank Wedekind's controversial 19th-century drama Spring Awakening as a musical, Sheik initially balked. "I really felt strongly that so much of what was happening in musical theater was not for me aesthetically," he said, carefully, in a joint interview with Sater before a recent preview performance. "Musically, stylistically, in terms of what it was as entertainment -- those qualities of musical theater were just not that interesting to me."

Steven Sater, book and lyrics

Sheik and Sater wanted to write a musical that was more than just "light, fun entertainment". They wanted to create a piece that was "dark" and "real" -- something "with teeth", as Sheik puts it. Well, the pair has found some seriously toothsome source material in Wedekind's brutal Expressionist drama. Published in 1891 but not performed till 1906, after its author had gained widespread notoriety (not to mention jail time) for his scathing anti-government poems and cartoons, Spring Awakening is one of the rare canonical works that can still elicit gasps from shocked audiences 100 years later.

The story of a group of young, provincial German teens utterly failed by the adult systems of church, home, and school, Spring Awakening is a bitter little pill of anti-bourgeois sentiment, making it very rock 'n' roll material indeed. Wendla, the sprightly young ingénue, is kept so ignorant about sexual matters that, believing her mother when she tells her that only married women can have babies, she gets herself knocked up without realizing it. Her hapless young friend, Moritz, is driven to suicide when he fails to advance with the rest of his class; after he shoots himself out of shame – "His brains were hanging from the trees," one character reports in Wedekind's play -- the cartoonishly venal school administrators scramble to ensure that their institution isn't tainted by the scandal. They manage to pawn the blame off on Melchior, a brilliant, anti-authoritarian kind of guy whose expository essay on the very things that Wendla's mother wouldn't tell her about (complete with "top to bottom" illustrations) are found among Moritz's effects and deemed to have been a corrupting influence on the unstable young man. Melchior eventually gets shipped off to a reformatory after his liberal-minded mother, initially set on protecting her beloved son, discovers that her boy was the one who got Wendla mit kind.

"[Wedekind's] play is so full of these unheard cries of young people," says Sater, and in this adaptation the emotional and narrative focus is placed squarely on the teen triumvirate of Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla. (The adult characters are all played by a single man and woman, making the already broadly-drawn grownups in Wedekind's play little more than sounding boards for this trio's teenage angst.) While the musical doesn't spare the adult institutions any mockery or disdain, it replaces Wedekind's acerbic brittleness with a heartfelt lyricism that is considerably warmer and more approachable. "For me, there's an aspect of the show which is [about] your first love, and your first lust, and the beauty and excitement of that moment," says Sheik, "It's important that the music be able to reflect that side of the story, as well."

When Wedekind's play debuted, adolescence was only beginning to be considered a distinct stage of life with its own particular thrills and dangers. Now, of course, teenagers dominate the cultural landscape, remaking the world in its image like so many hormonal, acne-ridden body snatchers. The generational revolt that was fresh and shocking in fin-de-siecle Germany today seems, if not exactly tame, at least conventional. Teenage rebellion has become such a clichéd concept that it has retroactively become an ahistorical idea: an apparently eternally recurring mutiny, like summer overturning the spring, year after year.

And of course, the rise of rock music has been instrumental in that paradigm shift. Like Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge! or Sofia Coppola's recent Marie Antoinette -- which uses a raft of New Wave classics to argue that, Austrian or American, historical queen or '80s teen, girls have always wanted candy -- Spring Awakening mashes up a period setting with a contemporary pop score. "It seems that pop music is the place that kids have found release from those same things that the Wedekind kids are so anguished about," says Sater of the decision to forego historical consistency. "It made a kind of sense to me."

So, at crucial moments in the musical, the 19th-century teens in Spring Awakening pull handheld mics out from their lederhosen and belt songs about "The Bitch of Living" (a melodic stomper about being unable to concentrate on your schoolwork because you're too busy thinking about sex; click here to watch the video) and profess to their crush objects that "we've all got our junk, and my junk is you". The tension between these two performance modes gives Spring Awakening its freshness of form; the show becomes, in Sater's words, both "a classic play and a concert". The concert-like atmosphere is heightened by the fact that Spring Awakening is performed very simply, without a lot of theatrical flash and dazzle. There's no set to speak of, except for a swing-like platform on which Wendla and Melchior's fateful love scene takes place. The band sits onstage, the night's set list chalked on a board behind them, and 26 audience members sit on the stage itself in tiered rows of bleachers. This seating arrangement was also used in Spring Awakening's Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater Company earlier this year, where I first saw the production. In my opinion, they're the best seats in the house; what you lose in sightlines and the occasional muffled line you more than make up for in ambiance.

Perhaps most galling to musical theater purists is the fact that Spring Awakening upends the traditional dictum of the well-made musical, which decrees that all songs must forward the plot least the music become redundant adornment. Sheik and Sater say they deliberately avoided this convention, which is, frankly, the thing that most people find so cheesy about musicals in the first place. The songs in Spring Awakening are either mood pieces or emotional and physical release valves, but they're never strictly narrative. They spring from the action occurring onstage, but like all great pop songs, they're vague enough to apply to a wide range of deeply personal situations. Melchior and Wendla's haunting refrain – "O, I'm gonna be wounded. O, I'm gonna be your wound" -- is reprised to hilarious and scary effect as a love duet between two boys in Act Two, but it could just as easily be the theme song to any romantic relationship ever, whether 19th- or 21st-century. A lot of drama club kids will be mooning to this on their iPods in the coming year, I guarantee it.

And those kid's'll need it. The mainstream theater hasn't given them much in the past several years that has a shot in hell of endearing them to their more pop culture-savvy classmates. Since the freakish success of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! (still playing to packed houses seven years after its debut, and already seen by over 1.3 million people worldwide), Broadway's rock offerings have mostly been limited to other, increasingly bloated jukebox musicals, in which existing pop songs are woven into a dramatic storyline. Sheik, for one, is less than thrilled by the range of artists chosen for such treatment; obvious, boomer-friendly musicians like Elvis Presley, Queen, and the Four Seasons. "When I was a teenager," Sheik says, "I was a really big fan of this artist named David Sylvian, and I would listen to his albums and I would imagine them as soundtracks to these mythical movies that didn't exist. So in a way, I understand the impulse, but the jukebox musical that would work for me would have to be much more alternative than the stuff that's [normally] chosen." (I offer up that I've always wanted to see a staging of Kate Bush's gonzo Harry Houdini/Australian aborigine concept album, The Dreaming. "Oh I could attend that and enjoy it, without a doubt," Sater chimes in approvingly.)

The recent New York flame-out of The Times They Are A-Changin, the circus-themed Bob Dylan musical that closed after less than a month, might mean that these theatrical recycling bins are finally on their way out. If so, then a successful big-budget run for Spring Awakening could be the vanguard that breaks Broadway open to the Billboard crowd, making the stage not just a showcase for good popular music but a source of good popular music. Along with some upcoming cred-heavy projects -- the Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots musical being developed by the Flaming Lips and Des McAnuff, the director of The Who's Tommy; a Rufus Wainwright opera; a possible Ben Folds offering – Spring Awakening could help bring musical theater back to its roots, back to the days when Cole Porter and George Gershwin songs floated easily between the theatrical and popular realms. Who knows -- maybe some of those hip online music kids will be encouraged to come on over to the dork side. Indie rock obsessives and musical theater fanatics: now there are two geek classes that could make some beautiful jazz hands together.

Spring Awakening -- photo by Joan Marcus

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