Frank Wedekind’s banned 19th-century classic, now a youth rock musical, is back on stage – with a young cast who came of age in the pandemic
No one saw Spring Awakening for the first 15 years of its existence. Written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, a former cabaret performer, the German play about a group of randy teenagers trying to figure out themselves and their desires was outlawed for obscenity. Criticising and satirising bourgeois oppression, moral convention and the lack of anything close to comprehensive sex education, it was deemed entirely inappropriate for audiences. Sexual assault, abortion and suicide are all central to the plot. But they’re not there just for the shock of it. This is a show that takes the concerns and fears of teenagers seriously; and being 130 years old, Wedekind’s play was arguably one of the first to do so. As late as the 1960s, the show was still being censored in Britain.
But Spring Awakening has prevailed, and when the play was first transformed into a heady rock musical in 2006, with Glee stars Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, it became an instant hit, winning eight Tony awards including best musical. Now that version musical is being restaged at London’s Almeida theatre, under the hand of artistic director, Rupert Goold.
Goold’s cast is primarily made up of recent drama school graduates. The day after their “stumble through”, where the show is put on its feet for the first time, six of the cast are squashed on to old sofas and battered armchairs, talking over each other about how they don’t even want to think about the last night of the show. “If I look at you,” one says to another, “I’ll cry.”
With music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, the scandalous musical packs in a generation’s worth of teenage tumult and sexual exploration. “You’ve got that rocky vibe,” says Taylor Bradshaw, 23, who is in the ensemble. “That’s the fun bit of it, uptempo. But when you listen to the lyrics, you’re like: ‘Oh, damn, your character’s really going through it.’”
Bradshaw was appearing in Mamma Mia! as Eddie, friend to the show’s love interest Sky, when the pandemic swept everyone off the stages. “I was on my way to warm up and they said you can’t do any shows today,” he says. “Or tomorrow.” He became a receptionist at a dance school, where he then asked to teach, and recently finished performing in Chichester Festival theatre’s production of South Pacific. He describes the energy of the young Spring Awakening cast as “hungry”: for most of them, it’s their first big show since the pandemic. “We want to make sure it bangs,” he says. “And we want to make it our own.”
The cast collectively apologise for being “a bit crazy” and “very high energy”; as they talk, they verbally leap over each other. For most of them, this is their first time giving an interview; at one point, 24-year-old Bella Maclean swears and then claps her hand over her mouth, and asks if we can cut that bit out. For Maclean, Emily Ooi and Joe Pitts, this is their professional stage debut. “It’s a dream,” says Ooi, 27, who’s another member of the ensemble, “but it’s intimidating as well.”
It’s all about hope. It’s about moving forwards and what’s next, and what it’s like to become a young adult
Ooi is the most recent graduate of the team, only finishing drama school two months ago. Having originally trained in biochemistry and worked for three years, she ditched a career in nutrition to follow her desire of studying musical theatre – even though it meant retraining during the pandemic. “I cried every time I had to go to work,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t defer; I thought, it’s now or never. And now I’m here.”
She discovered Spring Awakening when she was 16: “I remember listening to the score and feeling like someone had read my diary.” Having risked a stable career at the most uncertain of times, she says her decision feels just right. “It’s like everything’s clicked into place.”
Both she and Maia Tamrakar, who plays Anna – a loyal and level-headed character amid the chaos – had the unmooring experience of attending drama school during the pandemic. “It was hard,” says Tamrakar, 23. “We would do stage combat online and pretend to fight your partner through the screen.” Ooi nods: “And when we did our summer show, we were only allowed an audience of 26 [because of Covid restrictions]. It’s going to be a bit of a shock to the system performing to a full house now.”
They hope the show’s message and music chime with a new audience, one that is actively engaged with protest. As a performance about young people who feel they’ve been restricted and held back from the world, there are obvious contemporary resonances. “This play is an explosion of angst,” says Maclean. “We’re playing 14, 15, 16-year-olds – that age who were stuck in the pandemic going through it all in their bedrooms. It feels like it’s coming at the perfect time.”
“The world is changing,” Bradshaw adds, “and young people are at the forefront. We were talking in rehearsals about Greta [Thunberg], Malala, John Boyega at the Black Lives Matter protests, how they’re saying what they need to say.” And being listened to, he says, comparing their calls for change to the radical roots of Spring Awakening: “It’s really nice to have a piece of art that’s going with time.” “And one that has stood the test of time,” Ooi adds.
“We’re so lucky,” says Pitts, 25, who plays Georg, a teenager obsessed with his piano teacher. “That this is the first thing we’re doing out of a really difficult time, a show that is all about a need to connect and communicate.”
Pitts and Maclean graduated from Guildhall in 2020. They had planned to leave school early for Spring Awakening, when it was originally due to run before the pandemic. “Our teachers were going to come and mark us in it,” says Pitts. Two weeks beforehand, lockdown hit. “Everything was so uncertain,” he says. “People were losing jobs left, right and centre. I felt lucky that there was this potential.”
Their freshness means there are no expectations, adds Carly-Sophia Davies, 25, who spent the pandemic shooting her film debut in Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter. In Spring Awakening she plays Ilse, a character running from a cycle of abuse. “It’s not like audiences will know us from our last TV show,” she says. “We’re all discovering ourselves … in a [production] that’s about discovering yourself.”
The cast’s lack of experience also means “there are no hierarchies” in the rehearsal room, Maclean says. “We’re willing to say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Tamrakar adds. Davies likens their team to a group of musicians: “It’s like we’ve all come with an instrument. Together we make an orchestra.”
The show may deal with heavy, difficult topics but underlining it all, the cast say, is a pulse of hope. “The kids keep on striving,” Bradshaw says. The final song, The Song of Purple Summer, is a harmony that moves from a single voice to encompass the whole company, Tamrakar notes: “It’s all about hope. It’s about moving forwards and what’s next, and what it’s like to become a young adult.” Maclean hums in agreement: “And not being defeated by the past.”
All that chimes with their experience of emerging into the theatre scene during a pandemic. “You don’t know what’s coming next,” Ooi says, looking at her team, “but you cling on to hope.”
Spring Awakening is at the Almeida theatre, London, from 7 December to 22 January.