The Boston Globe | 2007.june.10
NEW YORK There's a moment near the beginning of Spring Awakening, one of those we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments, when you realize that the dreary flatlands known as the rock musical have gone Technicolor. The setting is Latin class in a strict German boy's school, circa 1891. Students dressed in knee socks and knickers are writing on chalk tablets. One of them pulls a microphone from his jacket pocket.
"God I dreamed there was an angel who could hear me through the wall/ As I cried out, like, in Latin, 'This is so not life at all,' " the boy sneers, rolling his eyes. The band, on stage in full view, plays fuzzy riffs. His classmates fish mikes from their wool vests and trousers. In a melee of stamping feet and musical chairs (choreographed by the inimitable Bill T. Jones), 19th century Germany dissolves into a timeless tableau of teen angst, and The Bitch of Living erupts into that most elusive of mergers: Broadway showstopper and electrifying rock concert.
It's about time. Rock musical is for all intents and purposes an oxymoron, two words and two worlds separated by a gaping divide in aesthetics, audience, and mission. Broadway's aim is to fill seats, to satisfy most of the people most of the time. Rock wants to stir and provoke. Tourists in Times Square want a feel-good bang for their vacation buck and a catchy melody to hum on the trip home. A quick glance back at the origins of the term rock 'n' roll offers a neat insight into its fan base: the word rock, meaning to disturb or incite, was combined with the word roll, a centuries-old metaphor for sex.
Spring Awakening, adapted from Frank Wedekind's 1891 play and nominated for 11 Tony awards, is a disturbing story about sex. Specifically, it's about the mysterious, explosive dawning of adolescent yearning and its dark counterpart, repression: the twin pillars of youth and the very essence of rock 'n' roll. Part of the reason it works is because the subject itself is so well-suited to a rock score. The show, mirroring the genre's rebellious roots, breaks all kinds of rules. Between scenes actors sit among audience members on the side of the stage. Occasionally they sit at the piano and join the band. Characters wear period costumes and speak in 19th-century dialect and then they slip out of time into contemporary songs. Written by alt-rock musician Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater, the music sounds like songs on the radio, not show tunes embellished with an electric guitar.
Moreover, the songs have nothing to do with narrative arc. They don't further the plot; they're exclusively interior, an outlet for raw or melancholy emotions. It shouldn't work, this flagrant betrayal of time and place. But bucking convention breaking free of history's and society's constraints is the story of rock music and the story of Spring Awakening. That the show has been lavished with so many Tony nominations, including best musical, speaks to the remarkable balancing act its creators have achieved between mainstream appeal and real edge.
Across town at the Public Theater, a show called Passing Strange is further reinvigorating the rock musical serendipitously, in the very theater that produced Hair 40 years ago. The book and lyrics were written by Stew, an indie-rock troubadour and founder/frontman of the psychedelic pop band the Negro Problem. He and bassist/girlfriend Heidi Rodewald composed the music, and Stew stars in the show, narrating the (mostly autobiographical) story of his life from behind a podium as a six-person cast and four-piece band cobble an ingenious portrait of the artist as a young man, wandering from a middle-class black family in LA through the druggy haze of Amsterdam and the political underground in Berlin on a mission to discover his musical voice.
Passing Strange is smart, funny, noisy, and eclectic, and like Spring Awakening it trades in an essential currency of youth and rock: the urge to find out who you are. That demands a level of authenticity that rock musicals have tried and repeatedly failed to nail. The central irony and disappointment of High Fidelity, based on the excellent Nick Hornby novel and subsequent movie adaptation, was that the show featured vinyl snobs singing cheesy mock rock that vinyl snobs wouldn't stoop to alphabetize. Following a Boston run, High Fidelity closed after 11 days on Broadway.
And the recent spate of jukebox musicals (or perhaps those shows' patrons) have suffered still more. Hanging a narrative on first-rate catalogs by John Lennon (Lennon), Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations), and Johnny Cash (Ring of Fire) might read on paper like clever emotional shorthand, but those shows invariably sacrifice the music's original spirit in the quest for a mass-appeal blockbuster. Even the great choreographer Twyla Tharp, who set a full-length narrative dance to Billy Joel's music so successfully in Movin' Out, managed to suck the life out of Bob Dylan's repertoire in The Times They Are A-Changin', one of this season's biggest flops.
Duncan Sheik and Stew aren't the first composers from the popular music world to try their hands at musical theater. Elton John is a seasoned hand, although his theatrical compositions (The Lion King and Aida, among others) are as unconnected to a real rock sensibility as Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar or Jonathan Larson's Rent.
That's not to say that those shows aren't worthy pieces of theater. Rent in particular was ground-breaking for its evocation of bohemian life in all its glory and tragedy, and for introducing the MTV generation to the joys of theater. But musically it's a muddled mix of the traditional and the contemporary, and over time both the songs and the story have come to seem dated.
By the same token the most talented songwriter doesn't ensure a theatrical success. Paul Simon created the notorious 1998 flop The Capeman and Randy Newman stumbled on his '90s adaptation of Faust. And the Who's Tommy, a thrilling rock album, has little to do with The Who's Tommy, a buffed-up Broadway musical.
Now a groundswell of pop and rock musicians have theater projects in the works. 10 Million Miles, with songs by Patty Griffin, is in previews at the Atlantic Theater Company, which originally produced Spring Awakening. Joe Jackson recently workshopped his musical about Dracula author Bram Stoker. In February David Byrne performed Here Lies Love, a song cycle about Imelda Marcos that will be expanded into a full-scale production at Carnegie Hall. John Mellencamp's Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country will be in workshops in New York for two weeks in July, and Bruce Hornsby, Rufus Wainwright, and the Flaming Lips all have shows in process.
The timing isn't surprising. With the record industry in decline, musicians are looking for new creative outlets, and with artists like Sheik and Stew turning their attention to the stage, theater music for the first time in half a century is plugged into the sound of popular music. Of course part of the credit goes to those shows' innovative young directors, Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and Annie Dorsen (Passing Strange), who are helping to fashion a fresh set of values for the rock musical.
Interestingly, it may take a little time for the theater kids to catch up. At recent auditions in Boston to cast Broadway replacements and a future touring company of Spring Awakening, young hopefuls were asked to sing 16 bars of a folk-rock or alt-rock song. No show tunes were allowed, so they belted songs by Switchfoot and Oasis, Ben Folds and Regina Spektor, cramming in as many big-money notes and glissandos as humanly possible. The casting agent had two constant refrains.
"Try it again with no vibrato," she instructed. "And make it messier."