Andrew Panton’s new production of Tony award winning musical, Spring Awakening, was a triumph when it opened at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow last week. It was probably co-incidence, but the first night of this ambitious co-production between the RCS and Dundee Rep also coincided with the twenty-second anniversary of the Dunblane massacre, when a lone gunman went on a shooting spree, killing sixteen pupils and their teacher.
As the show’s young cast of musical theatre students prepare for this week’s run at the Rep itself, it may be worth considering the fact that writer Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s study of troubled youth has its roots in similar tragedies. Following the recent shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Sater and Sheik’s play also has a renewed resonance.
“When I began the show in 1999, it was in the wake of the terrible shootings at Columbine High School,” Sater explains, “and my aim and my direction was to touch the troubled heart of youth. Now, with the Parkland shootings, some of those remarkable young students who survived, and who are speaking out in the Never Again movement, it turns out they’re rehearsing a school production of Spring Awakening.”
Sater is talking about Cameron Kasky, the seventeen-year-old who started the Never Again movement with other drama kids, including Emma Gonzalez. While Gonzalez made an inspirational speech calling out the politicians who refuse to introduce regulations on guns, Kasky publicly asked an American senator if, in the wake of the shootings, he would not take any more donations from the National Rifle Association. In Parkland, Kasky is playing Melchior Gabor, the show’s troubled lead in a play that shows what can happen when grown-ups overseeing a repressive society don’t make the world safe for young people. As a recent article in the New York Times makes clear, it is sex rather than guns that is the show’s unregulated weapon.
Even so, as Sater observes, “You feel you’ve created something that’s become part of the social fabric.”
The origins of Sater and Sheik’s take on Wedekind’s play date back to Sater’s own schooldays growing up in America’s mid-west. Sater was ill a lot as a child, and was forced to stay home a lot.
“I discovered my imagination early on,” he says. “I wrote plays, and would put them on with kids in the neighbourhood. I saw plays when I came to New York when I was about 13 or 14, and loved them.”
A friend of Sater’s was kicked out of a play at high school, and his teacher asked Sater to step in.
“When I tasted the Kool-Aid,” he says, “that was it.”
Sater also spent a lot of time in libraries, where he discovered Spring Awakening.
“I thought it was the most extraordinarily scandalous thing,” he says, “but it stayed in my head.”
While at university, Sater suffered severe injuries after being forced to jump from his balcony in the midst of a fire in his apartment.
“I was laid up for a long time,” he says, “and I felt that what I’d been doing up until ten was ephemeral. I wanted to do something that would last.”
Sater taught himself ancient Greek and read Homer.
“I don’t think there’d be a Spring Awakening if it wasn’t for what I learnt from the Greeks,” he says. He also read Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere, Racine and all the other greats.
“I’m a playwright, and that’s what I love,” he says. “Musical theatre I fell into.”
That happened when he met Sheik.
“We met as Buddhists chanting together,” says Sater. “A couple of songs we wrote I put in a play I was doing, which Duncan came to see and liked it. I said we should write a play together, and he pulled a face and said, what, musical theatre? I said, if we do something cool it might work. The original play of Spring Awakening was full of the pains and joys of young people, and one of the things young people today find solace in is rock and pop music.”
It took eight years to get Sater and Sheik’s version onstage.
“Three of those we couldn’t get arrested,” says Sater, for whom vindication came following the show’s huge success on Broadway a decade ago.
“It felt like an answered prayer,” he says, “especially when people were ready to write off the younger generation as being post-literate. I wanted Spring Awakening to be like a concert and a classic play, so audiences could see both on the same night. It’s literally post-modern, and it touches people because it strikes chords about first love, loss, friendship and fighting the system.”
More recently, Sater has worked with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian on a musical of Prometheus Bound, as well as a collaboration with Burt Bacharach on a piece called Some Lovers. Based on an O. Henry short story, the show is Bacharach’s first original score for theatre since Promises, Promises half a century ago,
“Burt is the most amazing man,” says Sater. “He’s turned 90, but he’s still the coolest person in the room.”
One of the songs from Prometheus Bound, The Hunger, was recorded by Edinburgh-born singer and front-woman of Garbage, Shirley Manson.
“I saw Prometheus as being the world’s first prisoner of conscience,” says Sater, “and Amnesty International came on board as the show’s partner. At the end it became an activist event, and I thought we should release a single to make some money for Amnesty. My agent knew Shirley, and she said yes to singing it, and I’ve met her a few times now.”
While the success of Spring Awakening has clearly opened doors for Sater, “I wish I could say it’s made my life easier, but in the world of commercial theatre, I’m still the guy writing Greek tragedy with the guy from System of a Down.”
However Sater sees his canon, it’s a spirit that continues to make Spring Awakening such a breath of fresh air that has tapped into the spirit of the age.
“Here’s the thing,” he says. “It’s a sad truth that Frank Wedekind’s play is as resonant now as it was when he wrote it. It’s not just about guns. It’s about listening to young people and trusting them. It’s telling that the UK has the strongest regulation on guns, and now here in America these young people have dared to stand up to what’s going on. Because of their determination, I hope and pray that things will change because of them. I feel at once tremendously sad that things haven’t changed since we first did Spring Awakening, but I also feel proud to have a voice.”
In this sense, as audiences in Dundee this week should see, Sater’s show goes beyond specifics to create something universally recognisable.
“I think Spring Awakening touches your heart, whatever age you are,” says Sater. “You have all these young people onstage offering you their hearts. It’s full of the anguish of being young, but also the heady joy, and for older people watching it, it takes you back to that time, and you still identify with these young people and the pain they’re going through. Out of that that comes a sense of responsibility and empathy through remembering what it was like.”
Spring Awakening, Dundee Rep, March 22-24.
The Herald, March 20th 2018