Michael Mayer, the Tony Award-winning director of Spring Awakening, remembers people looking at his show and saying things like: “You can’t be unconventional.” “That’s choreography?” “This is a musical?”
And Mayer is just fine with those questions.
“We didn’t set out to break rules,” Mayer says. “The idea was to tell this story, and this is the way we figured out how to do it.”
The “we” in this case is book/lyrics writer Steven Sater, adapting a late 1800s German play by Frank Wedekind, composer Duncan Sheik, choreographer Bill T. Jones and a passel of producers.
“We weren’t looking to Broadway,” Mayer recalls of the long gestation period for Spring go from play to pop-rock musical. “It took us seven years to produce this fucking thing. The goal was not to do a Broadway musical but to do Spring Awakening as a musical. It is miraculous and fantastic that Broadway became the final destination. Against all the odds, too, because this show plays by its own rules. Completely.”
Spring Awakening, about German teens coming of age and discovering sexuality in a highly repressive society, is sort of a play with a rock musical mixed in. Scenes stop, young actors whip out handheld microphones and launch into gorgeous, occasionally raucous, songs.
“The music functions differently here than in other musicals,” Mayer says. “It’s not a conventional musical where songs are concerned with character and logical storytelling in a narrative sense. There is an intentional dichotomy between the scenes and the songs.”
Some of Jones’ choreography, as in “The Bitch of Living” or “Totally Fucked,” is incredibly energetic – leaping of chairs and desks, jumping, spinning, chaotic flinging – and it feels somewhat dangerous. Mayer likes that.
“If the number feels safe, it’s not as exciting,” he says. “That said, we don’t take it to the point of injuries. Bill and I are constantly striving for the kids to push to the edge so it feels dangerous. Being careful in this show is only good in the scenes when you’re aware of how careful the characters need to be so they don’t transgress against the watchful eyes of adults. The story is all about transgression, but even then, `careful’ isn’t one of our watchwords. Au contraire. Try to be as risky as possible – emotionally, physically, musically.”
For the national tour of Spring Awakening, now at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre through Oct. 12, Mayer and his team scoured the country for fresh young performers, many of whom are making their professional debut.
“It’s tricky,” Mayer says. “We need the kids to deliver a professional show but still have the raw quality that is so important. The work is in some ways easier because they’re so close to who the characters are – they can relate.”
Undoubtedly, Spring Awakening will hit audiences young and old the way it continues to do on Broadway.
“I think what we love, all of us, is how bold the whole conceit of the show is and how brave it is for the performers to put themselves out there in such an extreme way,” Mayer says. “It pays off, and it’s personal. I ask for a deeply personal investment to be made in the song so that we almost get the sense of who the performers are as people through the song as opposed to just who their characters are. I feel like the audience can fall in love with these actors during this song as well as care about the characters’ journey. That’s why the audience gets so invested.”
One secret to the show’s success, something that took “weeks and weeks and weeks” to get right, according to Mayer, is the sound design.
“It’s very complex, and so much of the show is the band and the sound of the voices,” he says. “Once we got it right, you add in the audience response, and it’s completely not like any other show. It just isn’t.”