Music Review: Various Artists, "Spring Awakening" (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: January 4, 2007
Imagine someone shows you a handful of diamonds, which are to be made into a necklace. You can pick up the stones, hold them up to the light, admire their color and clarity. But how do you respond when someone lauds the necklace? There's no way for you to tell how beautiful the necklace is; it all depends on the setting.
That's the conundrum facing me in reviewing the cast album for the musical Spring Awakening without having seen the stage performance. I googled up reviews of the play, and found statements such as:
"If there is anything like justice on Broadway, Spring Awakening - the breathtaking dissection of what it means to grow up - will become both a high mark of the season and a landmark musical." (Philadelphia Inquirer)
"With its superb rock score by Duncan Sheik, and Steven Sater's fine book and lyrics, this is the show that changes everything we thought we knew about that once-great invention, the All-American Musical." (New York Observer)
"This Spring Awakening may well be the first truly 21st-century musical on Broadway." (Bloomberg.com).
Does this type of revolutionary spirit come across in the soundtrack? No. Which is not to say that the soundtrack is without merit. But the songs are missing their setting.
Spring Awakening is a remake of a German play by Frank Wedekind, originally written in 1891. It was considered too offensive for production until 1906, and even after that was periodically banned.
The story centers on a group of teenagers. Wendla (Lea Michelle) is a beautiful, innocent girl whose mother (tries to) keep her innocent of the facts of life. Moritz (Jonathan Groff) is intellectually curious and a bit of a rebel. Melchior (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a nervous wreck about his classes, his physical changes, and his life in general. These three, along with their friends, have to navigate their own "awakenings" in the face of adults who don't hear them, don't help them, and sometimes even work against them. While some of the storylines are melodramatic by today's standards, adolescence is a melodramatic time, and the themes of alienation and sexuality are still very relevant.
In creating this musical, Steven Slater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) made two decisions that had a huge effect on comparing a cast recording with the staged production: 1) They kept the setting of the play in the 19th century even as they wrote modern pop songs; and 2) they constructed the songs to act as inner monologues, rather than propelling the storyline. The effect of the first decision is, I suspect, a dynamic contrast between the old-fashioned setting and the modern songs on the stage. But in the cast recording, that dynamic contrast is lost. The effect of the second decision is that the contexts of the songs -- which are emotional reactions to the events in the play -- are obscured.
Spring Awakening (2006 Original Broadway Cast)
01. Mama Who Bore Me
02. Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)
03. All That's Known
04. The Bitch of Living
05. My Junk
06. Touch Me
07. The Word of Your Body
08. The Dark I Know Well
09. And Then There Were None
10. The Mirror-Blue Night
11. I Believe
12. Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind
13. The Guilty Ones
14. Left Behind
15. Totally F*****
16. The Words of Your Body (Reprise)
18. Those You've Known
19. The Song of Purple Summer
Now, having devoted significant time to explaining why it's hard to review this album, it's about time I actually addressed the music itself.
If you liked Rent, you'll like this CD. The music is energetic and engaging. There's a variety of styles, from Wendla's opening ballad of "Mama Who Bore Me" to its rousing funk-tinged reprise to the melancholic "Left Behind." The performers belt out their songs with appropriate gusto or nuance, as the individual song demands. Peppy tunes like "My Junk" beg the listener to grab their own hand mikes and sing along.
If you didn't like Rent, this CD might not be your cup of tea. For those who don't care for musical theater, a song like "My Junk" will probably come off as a touch too precious, with a refrain of, "We've all got our junk, and my junk is you." On the other hands, several songs feature racy language (such as "Totally F*****" and "The Bitch of Living") -- enough to warrant a parental advisory notice on the CD. Most likely, the raw language was an attempt to connect to the teenagers' raw feelings, and it is a departure from the standard musical theater format. However, to me those lyrics only emphasized that this was a theatrical performance. The lyrics -- or perhaps the performances -- seemed to flaunt the language as a way to say "look at us -- we're daring!"
As stand-alone songs for the radio, I'm not sure any of these songs would be successful. My pick would either be Ilse's "Blue Wind," a bluesy ballad that wouldn't have been out of place with Joni Mitchell, or my personal favorite, the haunting, hypnotic "The Dark I Know Well," with strong lead singing from teen-age Lilli Cooper. Lauren Pritchard, who plays Ilse, is also featured on "The Dark I Know Well," and it's perhaps not a coincidence that she's in both my picks. While the cast members are all talented, most sound theatrical in their delivery. Pritchard's voice is different, slightly off, slightly less perfect, and in that way is more compelling than the others for a standalone hit.
But I don't see that crossover likely, or even necessary. As a theatrical event, Spring Awakening is apparently a great success, and as a cast recording it's enjoyable to theater fans even without seeing the show. That's legacy enough.