When the updated, musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening debuted on Broadway in 2006, it was a breath of fresh, risqué air. With music written by ’90s pop star Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sayer, the new version was as catchy as it was frank, detailing the sexual awakening of a group of 19th century German teens and their parents’ struggle to deal with the consequences. Song titles in the 19-tune musical include “My Junk,” Touch Me,” and “Totally Fucked,” and the plot spans everything from uncertain adolescent sexual fumbling to parental deception to abortion to suicide.
The original 2006 Broadway production was a smashing success, breaking box office records and taking home nine Tony awards. It was also a musical that Blair Cadden, the artistic director of Charleston’s 5th Wall theater company, became addicted to in her teens. Now, more than 10 years after its debut, Cadden is directing a version of Spring Awakening for 5th Wall.
“This show is very personal to me,” she says. “I was 15 or 16 when it first came out, and I blasted that soundtrack in my car every day for a year, at least. It hit me at the right age and it felt like that was my life. They got what I was going through; the anger, the frustration, everything. And when something hits you at the right moment in your life and becomes a formative experience I think it really sticks with you.”
It’s also a work that confronts various social issues and has distinguished itself from the typical Broadway musical, two characteristics that 5th Wall looks for when they’re choosing their material.
“I think in general, we like to do work that hasn’t been around for a while,” Cadden says. “The shows that are less established are a little fresher. I’m not even a giant musical person. I like watching them but when it comes to what I want to produce and direct, musicals aren’t often at the top of my list. So I look for shows that have something challenging to say or challenging questions to ask. And as a rule, older musicals really aren’t about that.”
So Spring Awakening was an apt choice for 5th Wall, but not one that doesn’t carry some pressure with it. “You feel the weight of the phrase, ‘Tony-award winning musical,'” Cadden says, “and knowing that some of the stars (including Glee‘s Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, who later went on to perform in Hamilton) have gone on to widespread fame. But it’s not about replicating what’s been done previously.”
In fact, Cadden believes that 5th Wall’s stripped-down presentation actually suits the energy of Spring Awakening perfectly. “It’s a rock and roll musical and we’re embracing that punk-rock ethos of putting things right up in your face,” she says. “So it’s nerve racking to have the audience so close but we want to embrace it. It’s a black box setting where the actors are literally inches from you and that gives it a different feel. What we had to do was get really creative with using our space, with using every square inch of the stage, and with using the fact that the audience is going to be basically close enough to touch the actors. It’s about using that energy.”
One of the most interesting quirks of Spring Awakening is that many of the actors play multiple parts. In fact, the 14 adult speaking roles in the musical are played by just two actors. In 5th Wall’s production, those roles will be handled by Jamie Young and Emma Scott.
“They’re both really great character actors,” Cadden says. “Jamie is a genius at voices and accents, and they’re both able to differentiate characters vocally so they don’t all blur together. They’re great at those nuances and quirks but they have to be able to drop their inhibitions and have a little fun, so they can both also achieve that cutting loose when it’s called for.”
As for the 11 teens that serve as the main focus of the story, Cadden had to find actors who could project youth and naivete but that were also actually old enough to perform the material.
“I think the very challenging starting point is getting actors who look like teens but can handle the adult content, which sounds superficial,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s not just about being able to capture that youthfulness and uncertainty that comes with what these young people are discovering but that essential teenage rebellion. You have to be able to tap into what you felt like when you were 16 and it seemed like the world was against you. It’s about the vulnerability, the energy and the connection between them.”
But ultimately, the musical’s subject matter is what matters most to Cadden. “The questions this play raises are important to me,” she says. “I think that when we withhold information from our children, we think we’re protecting them and most of the time we’re not. And that’s what this play doesn’t back down from and shows the consequences of. It’s something we haven’t gotten better at in parts of our society, and it’s something to poke at and question.”