Back when the musical version of Spring Awakening was still finding it’s footing on Broadway, author Jonathan Franzen published a new translation of Frank Wedekind’s original 1891 German play. In his introduction to the 2007 volume, Franzen excoriates the musical adaptation, calling it “insipid,” “overpraised,” and sullied by “a dense modern fog of sentimentality and bad faith” (the introduction is excerpted in this Huffington Post article).
The Hollywood Fringe festival currently features a staging of Franzen’s translation by the Lonesome No More! theater company, allowing interested fans to compare and contrast the straight play to the musical. Having taken in a performance on Friday, I’d say that, frankly, Franzen doesn’t get it. And this is coming from someone just 3 years younger than the celebrated author not 30.
Missing from Franzen’s bitching about “commercial culture” is any consideration of form, not just content, and the emotional impact the musical has that the straight play can only aspire to. Franzen complains that Moritz is transformed into a charismatic rocker, but ignores the despair that is so viscerally expressed in songs like “The Bitch of Living” and echoed by Melchior later in the rollicking “Totally Fucked.” And Martha’s abuse may not be roundly envied in the musical, but who can deny the insistent carnality that saturates the haunting “Dark I Know Well?” And the swirl of teenage sexuality – profane, silly, overwrought and all-encompassing – finds voice in a whole series of songs (“The Word of Your Body,” “My Junk,” “Touch Me”) that Franzen might find reductive but that effectively embeds itself in your brain along with Duncan Sheik’s powerful melodies.
This is not meant to demean the current Fringe festival offering in any way. The production expands the boundaries of the simple black box in innovative ways, particularly in the addition of a peakapoo backstage area where some of the show’s action plays out. Directors Dana Murphy and Patrick Riley have instructed their actors to spit out most their dialogue with near-frenetic intensity, adding a layer of angst on top of the text. The performances, particularly Jennifer Allcott’s assertive Wendla, are first-rate, and the masks (designed by Lori Petermann) that set the adult characters from the youngsters lend a spooky surreality.
The play falls short of the musical in other ways. For instance, it minimizes the victimization that the children feel at the hands of the adults, making the schoolmasters and parents seem just ridiculous compared to the callous and malicious characters in the musical. And certainly, the musical soft-peddles Wendla’s masochism where the play pushes it front and center. But arguments about plot points and subtleties of focus overlook the main difference between Franzen’s play and the Broadway production – the songs. And it’s those songs that give Spring Awakening a vitality that cannot be diminished by the cranky grumblings of an author, regardless of his literary stature.