THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Director Tommy Wedge Guides Pit & Balcony on an Exploration of Teenage Romance in this Tony Award Winning Contemporary Rock Musical
Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre, From Issue 789 By: Robert E Martin
17th April, 2014 0
“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. I would there were no age between ten-and-three and twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child and wronging the ancientry.” - William Shakespeare
“The only sexual abnormality in life is the incapacity to love.” – Anais Nin
2014 has proven to be an important year for Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Theater, as they have managed to break into fresh terrain with significant works such as A Raisin in the Sun, and cast a broad net spanning generational parameters with productions such as Young Frankenstein; and now with the final production of their 82nd season, innovative & topical musicals such as Spring Awakening, which will run from May 9-11 & 16-18th.
A contemporary rock musical that premiered on Broadway in 2006, Spring Awakening is based upon the controversial German play of the same name that was written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind and was banned in Germany because of the frank portrayal it gave to many serious issues surrounding the carousel ride of inner & outer tumult that is part of the process of teenagers discovering their sexuality in a world colored by the often cold, atrophied, and indifferent codes and hypocritical platitudes of the adult world.
Set in late-19th century Germany, the musical incarnation of this play was created by Duncan Sheik with a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, whom decided to re-state and revisit this poignant tale by integrating alternative rock into the folk-infused narrative, and ended up winning eight Tony Awards in the process.
Spring Awakening also represents the directorial debut at Pit & Balcony for SVSU adjunct theatre professor Tommy Wedge, who hails from a small town in South Dakota that he tells me had a graduation class of ten; and then went on to earn a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of South Dakota in directing; and has been teaching at SVSU for three years now.
When asked what he feels distinguishes Spring Awakening from traditional musicals, Wedge points to the modern & contemporary appeal of its structure. “When I graduated from high school in 2001 the play Rent was the musical of my generation; and I think that Spring Awakening is the rock musical for the generation after me. When it premiered in 2006 it gave Lea Michele from ‘Glee’ her big break and in all honesty, it is the music that drew me to this production.”
“It’s a really interesting show in that most musicals tell their story through the music, but because most of the scenes in this story are set in 1891, whenever the songs are introduced it transforms the play into a rock musical,” he explains.
“The original title of this play was Spring Awakening: A Childrens’ Tragedy and was banned after only one performance because it is one of the first plays to deal with teenage sexuality. But when Sheik and Sater revisited the narrative to create this musical version, I feel in some ways it is softer and in others more risqué than the original version. I have seen both versions and one thing that I like about what they did with this musical is transform it more into a journey about the characters moving from adolescence into adulthood. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of repeating what they did back in 1891, but the authors shied away from that when composing this musical version.”
One of the things that I find innovative about directors such as Baz Luhrman, who did Moulin Rouge, Romeo & Juliet and most recently The Great Gatsby, is that he takes period pieces and remains truthful to way they were originally rendered, but throws in contemporary twists and music to engage newer audiences. Does Wedge feel the same is also true with Spring Awakening?
“Most definitely,” he smiles. “What’s most challenging for me as a director on this production is the controversy that surrounded the original production, which included a rape at the end of one of the acts. With the musical production this is changed to a more consensual situation, but my main challenge with Spring Awakening is to define what really fuels the story and defines the characters. I believe audiences are smarter than we often give them credit for.”
“Another challenge centers around navigating from these very tightly structured real life scenes straight into rock musical songs that volley back and forth,” continues Wedge. “There is something very poetic in these songs and often with musical theatre the song does nothing really to move along the story line. With Spring Awakening the scene is propelled with dialogue delivered through the song – in effect the actors are singing the text that tells you what they’re really feeling, which carries the story line. And this show does that in a slightly different way that is both exciting and engaging.”
As a director are there elements that Wedge is attempting to emphasize or bring out more from the original book and score? “That’s a great question that I’m not sure how to answer,” he admits. “I always try to be faithful to the script, but there is a lot of stuff that I’ve tweaked. This production contains all the same words, but our Set Designer Jerry Dennis created these wonderful flats that I can choose how to illuminate through different lighting and configuration, so when the play shifts into Rock & Roll land, it makes it more of a fluid transition. I’m taking a very theatrical approach to this musical, which I truly enjoy. I love musicals and here the locations shift very fluidly, which is great.”
“There is no nudity in this production,” states Wedge, “but we’re still leaving the profanity in and keeping the text as it was written, although I am embracing the love story that is involved as much as I can. This play deals with a lot of adult subjects that kids encounter as they move into adulthood, so there is a huge challenge in doing that artfully and I think it works best by focusing on the love itself that drives the story between the two characters.”
Wedge says that auditions for Spring Awakening went well, with 40 actors turning up for a play that contains a cast of only 14. “Actually, it was written for 13 actors but I added one because they had so much talent,” he notes. “We have a very young cast with some ages 15 and 16 and some almost 30, but this play has presented an opportunity to bring new faces into the fold to see what Pit & Balcony has to offer.”
“Ben Hendricks and Meagan Eager play the roles of the two principal characters and both are in their 20’s. Meagan has a BFA in Music Theatre from Western University and the two of them together have great chemistry,” continues Wedge. “Both have great voices and are phenomenal singers. Plus there are two adult roles in the original production that are supposed to be performed by an older man playing 9 different roles and a female doing 7 different characters, and I cast both of those with younger people in this production because I thought it would be interesting to have them portrayed by younger people.”
In terms of draw and appeal for audiences, Wedge comes back to the fact that Spring Awakening is at the root a phenomenal musical. “It goes from a rock soundtrack to a lighter pop soundtrack with beautiful ballads and harmonies,” he explains. “It’s not The Sound of Music or My Fair lady but it is something not typically seen. These musicals don’t come along very often. I love musical theatre but many follow the same pattern because they know what works with audiences, so they don’t stray too far from away from the template. But this offers something to those that love musical theatre and also will appeal to Joe Six-Pack who doesn’t see plays, but likes good music and will come to see it for that feature alone.”
As for P&B Board President Martha Humphreys, she is equally excited about the fact that Spring Awakening is closing out a very successful season for the venue. “Spring Awakening started in its original form as a critique of the sexually repressive culture of the 19th century and by today’s standards it is relatively benign; but I feel it forges an important and exciting work from an often overlooked period of history. It features a fabulous libretto and I feel it poses a really strong finale to the season for us.”
“Out of the entire cast of 14 individuals performing in Spring Awakening, only one has worked at the Pit before,” concludes Wedge, “so I think that this production brought a lot of new talent that was already living in the area into the fold at Pit & Balcony. We have a lot of theatre in this three-city area of the Great Lakes Bay, so it’s a small large theatre community that tends to network and spiderweb amongst itself, but it’s nice to augment the considerable pool of talent that P&B has already created with fresh new voices and talent.”
Tickets for ‘Spring Awakening’ are available by calling 989-754-6587 or by going to PitAndBalconyTheatre.com
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)