When Spring Awakening first came out, I was a teenager in high school. My mom and I heard great things about the show, but as I was at the awkward phase of not wanting to spend a few hours sitting next to my mom while watching actors my own age experience sexual awakenings, we never saw it on Broadway. Two years ago, a production played in a community theater that my mom went to go see with some of her friends. She loved it so much, she saw it a second time with me in tow the following weekend. I bought her the soundtrack, where she complained that the Broadway original cast wasn’t as good as the community theater production we saw. I’ve also made my mom sit through multiple seasons of Switched at Birth, so when I heard that Deaf West and Michael Arden were bringing Spring Awakening back to Broadway, I knew it was a must-see event in my household.
To say that the revival is brilliant is an understatement. Taking an already great show and adding the world of Deaf culture is inspired and yet seems like such an obvious choice. There are so many moments that using Deaf actors really enhances the show’s material and adds extra layers to the storyline and character arcs. I’ve often remarked how so many of Steven Sater’s lyrics are so poetic, so to see the artistry of Emmy nominated (and future Tony nominee?) Spencer Liff’s choreography mixed with sign language was just extraordinary. The production itself was beautiful. I loved how they incorporated text projections it’s the tiny things like font changes for different characters that make you realize how thought-out every moment of brilliance was. I will be okay if Michael Arden decides never to act again if it means he’ll continue putting on inspired productions like this.
Despite having 25 actors making their Broadway debut with the production, the cast is full of superstars. In particular, the trio of should be award-nominated Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz, Austin McKenize, Sandra Mae Frank/Katie Boeck, and Daniel Durant/Alex Boniello were extraordinary and all left me devastated. It’s a shame that a cast recording will never be able to capture the magic that happens on the Brooks Atkinson stage. While I’m glad the production just announced a two-week extension, I truly hope it moves theaters to become an open-ended run because I need to see the show at least six more times and everyone should see this show to be a better individual. I often think of Broadway as the height of art and culture in New York, even though it’s still a business trying to make money at the end of the day. There are some shows that are a great time at the theater, but it’s true art like this production of Spring Awakening that makes you think and questions things while staying with you long after the show ends. A week later, I’m still thinking about the production, and I’m itching to go back to see it again.
There are so many brilliant little moments in the show that highlight the Deaf world: Ilse’s parting words to Moritz said behind his back, so he doesn’t realize she has left; the white light that envelopes all sound after “Don’t Do Sadness;” hearing actors covering their mouths while singing “blah blahs” during “Totally F****ed;” the doctor requesting a private word with Frau Bergmann. It are these moments that make it seem like Spring Awakening was written with Deaf actors in mind. I feel like every other production I’ll see of Spring Awakening using just hearing actors will feel empty and incomplete.
I love that the “Voice of X” weren’t just voices for the sake of the hearing audiences, but the character’s internal beings personified. They didn’t just provide the voice, but were a separate character, a friend, confidante, secret-keeper, sounding board, the physical representation of an internal happy dance. And they weren’t just representations of their inner selves, but kick-ass musicians and rock stars at that. And the idea of leaving your voice behind is such a powerful image and concept. Bravo, Michael Arden, bravo. Any time a Deaf actor pushed away their character voice to open their own mouth and real voice was such a powerful punch in the gut.
This is one of the most diverse casts assembled on Broadway. In addition to all the Deaf actors finally getting their chance on the big stage, the cast also includes the most visible plus sized actress in Hollywood, a cancer patient currently undergoing treatment (continue to kick cancer’s ass Krysta Rodriguez, because you slayed me in the role of Ilse), and the first wheelchair-bound actor to appear on Broadway. That statistic absolutely boggles my mind, but congratulations to Ali Stroker for making history and blending in so seamlessly that will hopefully open the doors for more in the future. If that wasn’t enough, I happened to attend TDF’s Audio Described Performance, which meant that many audience members were also vision-impaired, so it was a the most inclusive audience I have ever been a part of.
As for awards season, I know it’s very early in the 2015-2016 season and everyone is betting on a Hamilton sweep, but if there is any justice in the world, Spring Awakening will be a force to be reckoned with, starting with Best Revival. I truly hope Michael Arden gives Thomas Kail a run for his money for Best Director, because this interpretation of Spring Awakening is just utterly brilliant and I fear no other production will ever live up to this one. I would be shocked if Ben Stanton doesn’t win for his Lighting Design. And it’s a shame that Sound Design hasn’t been reinstated because it’s shows like this that make you truly appreciate how integral Sound Design is to a show. To Gareth Owen: you win the Tony of my heart.
I would be remiss if I didn’t single out Andy Mientus for helping to develop the show and for being a hilarious Hanschen. I like this new trend of his character staying alive at the conclusion of the show!
Finally, to the Deaf actors: Thank you. When the lights go dark or you leave the stage and are unable to see the audience, I hope you all realize how much the audience is cheering for you. Not just a polite clap, but a raucous applause filled with whoops and hollers. It seems unfair that you miss it and are unable to experience just how appreciative and generous the audience is for your performances. I hope that you can all find other projects worthy of all your talents. You’re all superstars in the making. Even if Spring Awakening closes on schedule in January, I hope you’ll all be back soon. Broadway is a better place because of your presence.