A couple of times a year, my family heads up to New York to check out the latest Broadway shows or do other touristy things. This trip, the two shows we saw were both an interesting contrast and oddly similar.
It was nearly twenty years ago that my wife and I saw a touring company of Les Misérables, the now-classic musical based on Victor Hugo’s doorstop of a novel. It was recently revived on Broadway, so we decided to give it another look. The show is as epic and sweeping as ever. While nobody applauded the set like they did back in the day, the massive barricades and the turntable stage still inspire awe.
The cast is excellent with both Valjean and Javert having strong booming voices. In the Playbill I caught some familiar faces. I had seen Megan McGinnis play Beth March in Little Women and Ann Harada who was Christmas Eve in Avenue Q was the hilarious Madame Thénardier. However, we were disappointed when we found that Fantine, normally played by Lea Salonga, was being done by an understudy. Not nearly as disappointed as the women next to us that had bought a bouquet of flowers to give to Lea. After the show we got stuck under a marquis while a thunderstorm blew through. My son overheard a different woman sigh that she was so glad to finally see Lea on stage. My son burst her bubble about the understudy. He was confused how someone that claimed to be a fan of Lea Salonga since the age of 14 could mistake the pasty blonde on stage with the Filipina that starred in Miss Saigon.
The next day we caught the matinée of the show we were really up there to see, multi-Tony winning Spring Awakenings. I have a hard time describing this show to people that don’t follow theater. It’s a rock musical update of a 19th century play about a group of hormonally charged German teenagers. The songs are by indie rocker Duncan Sheik, who I hope has a better Broadway career than schlockmeister Rupert Holmes.
To say that Spring Awakenings is edgy is an understatement. The show touches on a whole phalanx of teen sexuality issues including masturbation, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and abortion. Or as we call it in the Yellojkt household, “family entertainment”. After all, when my son was fourteen we took him to see Avenue Q, but in that show it was only the puppets having sex on stage.
A big sign outside the theater warns that the play contains adult themes, language and brief (partial male and female) nudity. That sign and a whispered comment from a theater manager did not deter one mother from bringing her ten-year-old son. The two left just after the first act. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since by then the deed had been done, both dramatically and metaphorically. If you are going to have to explain to your kid what a character is doing with his hands under his nightshirt or why two of the guys kiss each other, a theater lobby is not the place to have that conversation.
To my taste, the show is a little emo-ish ballad heavy, but the uptempo numbers really rock, complete with flashing neon and fist-pumping beats. Two of the more memorable numbers can’t even be spelled out fully on the soundtrack album cover. My son loved the show and we got both the soundtrack and the school-safe souvenir tee shirt. The drama geeks are going to be so jealous.
With its single set and simple special effects, Spring Awakening seems as far away from the bombastic Les Miz as possible, but they do share some intriguing similarities. Of course, both involve ill-fated romances, but the ones in Les Miz are much more chaste. Oddly, each features a dramatic suicide as well as singing ghosts. Also, in both shows the main character is confronted with an ethical dilemma. Jean Valjean sings:
If I speak, I am condemned
If I stay silent, I am damned!
In Spring Awakenings, Melchior, the atheist rabble rouser realizes that he has been set up and declares:
There’s a moment you know…you’re fucked –
Not an inch more room to self-destruct
And the chorus confirms:
Yeah, you’re fucked all right – and all for spite
You can kiss your sorry ass goodbye
Totally fucked – will they mess you up?
Well you know they’re gonna try
Totally Fucked - Song Not Safe For Work (Duh!)
Both shows won Tonys for Best Musical and Best Featured Actor among other awards. Les Miz was part of the 80s British invasion that brought similarly overwrought and lavishly produced shows like Cats, Phantom Of The Opera, and Miss Saigon. Perhaps Spring Awakenings will bring in a new era of shows that rely on energy and rock intensity instead of massive sets and operatic crescendos. Let’s hope so.
Here's a video clip (also NSFW) from the official site:
BlatantCommentWhoring™: Do you like your musicals big and bold or dark and edgy?