The cast of Northwestern University's Spring Awakening (© www.justinbarbin.com)
Nine weeks into a busy (and oddly warm) winter quarter full of rehearsals and tech weeks, I had the opportunity to catch an outstanding production of Northwestern's Theatre and Interpretation Center's staging of the Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. The musical is based on the 1892 German play by Frank Wedekind, which was then turned into a hit rock musical in 2006 with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater.
The controversial subject matter combined with a rock score has attracted a diverse audience, and I sat down with director Geoff Button, and cast members Alex Nee (Melchior) and Jessica Kahkoska (Wendla) to chat about the show.
FRANKLIN BENNETT: Geoff, before Spring Awakening, what was your involvement in the Northwestern theater community? GEOFF BUTTON: I came here to get my MFA in 2007, and studied directing. While I was here I directed a production of Angels in America: Millenium Approaches and The Who's Tommy, and a reading for the American Music Theatre Project. I had an amazing time at Northwestern which totally changed my life coming here and it was really a great thing for me.
FB: What was your connection with the musical Spring Awakening? GB: Well, actually, I'm a huge fan of the piece. I loved the play; Frank Wedekind wrote what was at the time, a wildly political, controversial, and provocative play that depicted this aggressive, sort of overt teenage sexuality at a time when that would have never occurred on the stage, and performed it, which was a big deal. When they made the musical of it, I was, of course, almost immediately obsessed with it. So when the rights finally did become available, TI (The Theatre and Interpretation Center) snapped them up because they knew it would be popular with the student body, and they knew I would be coming back to teach some classes, so it sort of fell into my lap in a miraculous and wonderful way.
FB: So, why do you think Spring Awakening is so popular? Why has it connected so well to the theater world? GB: One of the things that is powerful about the musical is that is uses a modern day vernacular of telling the story of kids living in 1891. What is exciting about it is that in a lot of ways, it comments on how growing up hasn't actually changed, and the use of rock music in the show says that every vulnerable, anxious, scared teenage kid has an inner rock star waiting to get out.
FB: Alex and Jessica, when the musical came out, what was your response? ALEX NEE: I loved it. I saw the first tour. I wasn't able to see it on Broadway; I got the opportunity but my parents wouldn't let me see it. (laughs) They weren't exactly sure what it was about, but it had the rep for being this edgy, new show. But I saw the tour and fed my secret...well, not so secret love for music theater. JESSICA KAHKOSKA: I remember lying on my bunk at arts camp and listening to it and thinking to myself, "Oh...my god. What is this?? I wanna do this!" It was a really distinct moment I remember everything about.
FB: The graphic nature of suicide and sexuality is a vital part of the show's reputation. How did you prep to work these more intense scenes? GB: The question I had was, "Why does it need to be this graphic?" Putting the love scene on stage is a political act. The statement of the play is if you give children only a little bit of knowledge, they won't make the right choices. The adults in their life don't empower them and respect them. It is necessary to handle this as an honest and clear depiction. AN: I wanted as quickly as possible to tackle the harder parts of the play and get them into my body comfortably as an actor so I could start to handle the discomfort of the character. JK: In rehearsal, I stayed with Geoff and Alex, mentally… there was just not that much that could go wrong.
FB: Geoff coined the term "theater magic" in rehearsal… has there been that moment for you during performance? JK: It's just been a cool six weeks for me… I don't even know where to begin. AN: We have a lot of direct contact with the audience, like they are our scene partner. The fact that we are actively connecting is really special for me.
Thanks again to Geoff, Alex and Jessica for sitting down and talking about this outstanding production.