Two hands resting on straw
Two hands resting on straw

A Dazzling New Spring Awakening Dawns on Broadway

The best musicals inspire audiences to take a fresh look at contemporary life through the prism of the show’s characters. Case in point: Spring Awakening.

Winner of eight 2007 Tony Awards and an instant hit for its marriage of a 21st century pop-rock score and a 19th century tale of teenage sexual repression, the show attracted a fervent fan base before closing in 2009. Now Spring Awakening is headed back to Broadway in a revival hailed as triumphantly moving. What’s new? An ensemble of 28 hearing and deaf actors come together to perform in American Sign Language (ASL) as well as sing and speak in English.
Spring Awakening is a show that has a special significance to the deaf community,” says David J. Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, where the production began life last fall. Speaking through an interpreter before a final casting session, Kurs points out that the musical “is fundamentally about communication, which is a profound subject for deaf people. We are used to overcoming barriers and finding ways to make ourselves understood.”

Based on the explicit, often banned 1891 play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening centers on a trio of schoolmates and their friends who struggle to please puritanical teachers and parents while remaining disastrously ignorant about sex. This time around, cocky hero Melchior is the hearing son of a deaf mother (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin); his true love, Wendla, and best friend, Moritz, are played by deaf actors with hearing counterparts who sing and play instruments in an onstage orchestra.

This new scenario is the brainchild of director Michael Arden, who starred as Tom Sawyer in Deaf West’s acclaimed 2003 Broadway revival of Big River. The company’s previous revivals of family-friendly musicals such as Oliver! and Pippin were staged in what Arden calls “a world between hearing and deaf, where everyone happens to know sign language. With Spring Awakening, we wanted to highlight the differences between deaf and hearing, and to give it more of the feel of a period play than a concert.”

In fact, the 1890s were a particularly difficult time for deaf people after an international conference declared lip-reading and speaking the only acceptable forms of communication. Though the script hasn’t changed, there’s a heartbreaking subtext when Moritz is forced to speak Latin aloud in class or Wendla timidly signs questions about where babies come from to her hearing mother.

The lush melodies of composer Duncan Sheik and poetic lyrics of Steven Sater gain an extra dimension paired with ASL. “When you make the sign for ‘blue wind,’” Arden says, weaving his hands in front of his torso, “it feels bigger than the words alone.” Kurs reports that a team of four ASL masters worked for more than a year to translate the score’s 16 songs, including “Totally F–ked,” “The Bitch of Living,” and “My Junk.” Limiting themselves to authentic 19th century signs, “we went through every song word by word to make sure the translations matched the rhythm of the music.” Choreographer Spencer Liff, whose credits include Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, brought a balletic quality to the production that wowed L.A. critics.

From an acting perspective, Arden knows firsthand the challenges faced by both halves of the show’s cast. Hearing performers must become comfortable adding sign language to a workload of acting and singing, a task he laughingly compares to “patting your head while rubbing your stomach.” Deaf actors perform in tandem with music they can’t hear, which is not as difficult as it might sound for those in their teens and twenties. “There has been a huge shift the deaf community’s relationship with music,” explains Kurs. “People can buy high-powered headphones or software that allows them to see music in waves or colors. They can stand in front [of a speaker] when the bass is thumping or put their hands on an instrument and feel the rhythm.”

A key component in bringing the company together, according to Arden, is the ability to listen “not necessarily with your ears,” he says, “but with your eyes and your body — to be open to your scene partner and the emotions being expressed.” It helps, adds Kurs, that deaf people “are naturally better actors because they are able to communicate things physically through their hands, their expressions, and their body language. It’s something we’ve been doing our whole lives.”

Since its 2006 Off-Broadway debut, Spring Awakening has inspired fierce devotion, which comes as no surprise to Arden, who confesses seeing the original production 15 times, including the first preview at Atlantic Theater Company. “Everyone can relate to a character in this play,” he says. “I was that kid in Texas, growing up gay and Southern Baptist and wanting to rip open and sing a rock song to the boy I had a crush on in my class. It’s ultimately about a group of people who are denied a voice, which is perfect for this production.” The show, he adds, is best for ages 14 and older. “There is nudity and sex and language, but none of it is gratuitous. It’s a morality play about what happens when people don’t tell the truth.”

The revival’s seamless mix of acting, musicianship, choreography, lighting, and sign language make Spring Awakening more exhilarating than ever. Original stars Jonathan Groff and Skylar Astin offered their support in a Kickstarter fundraising video for the L.A. debut, and Tony-winning director Michael Mayer and the composing team have also been warmly supportive.

“We did this in a 99-seat house and now we’re almost on Broadway,” marvels Kurs, who sees Spring Awakening as the latest step in his company’s mission of building bridges between the deaf and hearing communities. “I believe in the power of art,” he says. “This is a tremendous opportunity for deaf artists, but it’s not targeted simply to deaf people or people who know sign language. I want everyone in the audience to be open to the possibility of experiencing something brand-new.”