Theater Review: A Signed (But Not Silenced) Spring Awakening

From Deaf West Theatre's Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. Photo: Joan Marcus

The fall Broadway season unofficially begins tonight with the opening of Spring Awakening, the first of six revivals in a row. It’s not surprising that with so many déjà vus, and more to come, people are asking whether we really need to have Fiddler on the Roof for the sixth time, or The Gin Game ever again. Didn’t The Color Purple just close? And it’s true that, too often, old shows are remounted merely because some stars are available to squeeze the last juice out of them. But other times the motives are purer, if never pure: We get revivals not because we “need” them but because artists do, or because a perfect alignment of interests provides a unique opportunity. Occasionally — and Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening is a superb example — something latent in the material meets the mood of the time to make a revival not just a necessity but a great pleasure. 

This was in no way a foregone conclusion. The original production of the musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) opened on Broadway in 2006; by the time it closed in 2009 it seemed to have created the conditions of its own obsolescence. The direction (by Michael Mayer), the choreography (by Bill T. Jones), and the look of the production (especially the set design by Christine Jones and the lighting design by Kevin Adams) so quickly changed the feel of Broadway musicals that what had started out groundbreaking was soon the new normal. Several of that production’s young leads — Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr. — were stars within a year or two. Even the theme of teenage angst brought on by the furious discipline of a repressive society seemed old hat as “I Kissed a Girl” and “Call Me Maybe” took over the pop charts. The theme and most of the story were, after all, carried over from the source, a play by Frank Wedekind written around 1890.

As such, this revival would have been unjustifiable were it not for the brilliant idea of placing the story in the context of deafness and using many deaf actors to tell it. That context is not random. At the time of Wedekind’s play, and for decades after, controversies about the teaching of sign language (versus lip reading and speech) were creating the same kind of atmosphere of repression that Spring Awakening addresses in a broader community. As the director, Michael Arden, points out, many deaf people of that time were even sterilized — which is not much of a leap from the fate that befalls the teenagers in the story. Wendla, who is 14, is kept so profoundly ignorant of sex that she barely even knows when she has actually had it, or what the dire consequences will be; Moritz, tortured with anxiety over failing to meet his father’s standards, is driven to madness by his erotic urges. Only Melchior, who has read about sex in books, seems to understand his feelings and channel them sensibly, but even he is eventually undone by the hypocrisies of a society that silences the natural questioning of the young. In their struggle to be heard in their own language, the teenagers of Spring Awakening were all but making a Deaf-power argument even without that context.

Amazingly, not a word has been changed to bring out the theme. Or rather, not a spoken or sung word has been changed. Instead, translators at Deaf West, which is based in Los Angeles, have rendered the story in American Sign Language, accompanying and sometimes replacing the English. The deployment of ASL, and the casting of deaf actors, has been intricately worked out so that, however much work it may be for the performers, who are often doing several things at once, it is simple for the audience to follow. The main characters played by deaf actors — notably the two tragic ones, Wendla and Moritz — use ASL but are also doubled by hearing actors who sing and speak their roles. (Many of these doubles also play guitar or other instruments.) The main characters played by hearing actors — notably Melchior — are always translated for deaf audience members either by signing or projected titles. Appropriately for a story about sexual exploration, the choreography, by Spencer Liff, builds on the beauty of ASL to create a dance world dominated not so much by legs and feet as by hands. 

Deafness is not, in other words, a random overlay on Spring Awakening or a trendy gimmick hatched to sell it; as a self-conscious expression of a musical’s themes it would not make much sense for Hello, Dolly! (though I’d love to see that production). But it is nevertheless timely. As color-blind casting begins to become established practice in the professional theater, this production promotes a vision of community that is even broader, not just onstage, where the cast includes Ali Stroker, a terrific performer who uses a wheelchair, but in the audience. (Deaf theatergoers are immediately evident after every number, when their hands rise and vibrate, like a grove of aspens.) As a hearing person, I was strangely moved by the notion that some of what was going on was not meant for nor understandable by me, which seemed only fair. (Though I did learn how to sign “Bethlehem” and “devil” and “totally fucked.”) Likewise, the visceral rawness of the cast — all of the deaf actors are making their Broadway debuts, and most of the hearing actors are as well — amply makes up for occasional lapses in characterization and pitch. An old pro like Marlee Matlin, and a young pro like Krysta Rodriguez, terrific as the outcast Ilsa, in no way show up the work of newcomers like Sandra Mae Frank, who in expression and sign brings an unformed Lillian Gish innocence to the role of Wendla. This, too, is a kind of diversity, one we rarely see on Broadway.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything notable about Arden’s take on Spring Awakening arises from the controlling metaphor of deafness. There is much that is simply a beautiful way of expressing the story’s inner life. (The final image is a knockout.) At some point, though, it becomes impossible to separate the idea from the rendition, which is one reason I liked the new production better than the original. That Spring Awakening was plenty exciting but very slick, as if it were trying to trying to glide over its own contradictions. The musicalization, for instance, is lovely but problematic. In the second act especially, sweet song after sweet song, with poetic lyrics that comment generally rather than advance the action specifically, pile up into a screen that all but blocks access to the unfolding tragedy. And there is a conceptual problem in making a story about merciless repression believable on a Broadway stage, which is basically where repression goes to die. The original, with its kaleidoscope of moral outrages — rape, free love, sadomasochism, illegitimacy, homosexuality, abortion, suicide — was banned for years, and was still being censored in England as late as the 1960s. Now, you can do almost anything in a show without raising an eyebrow; there’s even a musicalized masturbation scene, with jazz hands. When characters are suggesting onstage what pop stars do much more explicitly on Instagram, it can be difficult to believe that a story about sexual repression has anything left to say.  

And yet, just as there are always new generations of teenagers needing to rebel in some new way against new generations of parents, the theater, when it is alive, lets new kinds of artists into the room to tell the old stories and make them sing. Or, even better, sign.

Spring Awakening is at the Brooks Atkinson through January 24.