Why Is ‘Spring Awakening’ So Controversial? The ‘Rise’ Musical Deals With Some Provocative Subject Matter
In 2018, the musical Spring Awakening is well-known to theater kids of all ages, but it went through a long and arduous process to get to that point. As the Stanton students on NBC's Rise take their own stab at an iteration of the modern classic, it's important to remember the long and storied past of the production. So, why is Spring Awakening so controversial? The principal of the show's school isn't so excited about the drama program taking the show on.
The musical is actually based on a straight play that, according to The Guardian, was written in 1891. Broadway.com reported that the coming-of-age show hit the stage in 1906 in Germany to some success, but when it transferred over to America years later, it was largely dismissed. The same Guardian article states that a heavily censored version, which cut out plenty of the more mature content, was originally featured for two nights only in England in 1963 — it attempted to return a year later in its entirety, but the National Theatre's board and its creative team butted heads in a major way, nearly causing a permanent split between the entities.
Spoilers for all of Spring Awakening. The subject matter of Spring Awakening certainly is enough to make high school administrators raise their eyebrows if students attempt to make it into a production of their own. In the musical, a young girl named Wendla struggles with understanding her budding sexuality while being raised by a mother who won't be honest with her about sex. She and a classmate — a radical seeker named Melchior — explore their attraction to each other throughout the play, having clumsy sex that eventually leads to Wendla's pregnancy, completely shocking her, due to her complete ignorance of how conception actually works. Melchior is sent away to a reform school by his parents after they discover the pregnancy, about which they don't even tell him. When he finally finds out about Wendla's pregnancy, Melchior escapes to find her, only to learn that she had died of a botched abortion. He prepares to end his own life after discovering her grave, before the ghosts of Wendla and another classmate — Moritz, who committed suicide earlier in the musical after conflicts with his father — convince him to keep living on in their memories.
And that's just the main plotline — other side characters have daunting struggles of their own: classmates Hanschen and Ernst fall in love despite the repercussions a gay relationship could have during this time, and another girl, Martha, endures a sexually and physically abusive father. Obviously, no matter how important these stories are to tell, Spring Awakening isn't exactly a production that a school administration would be thrilled with having underage actors perform, which means that the kids on Rise certainly have their work cut out for them under the watchful eye of their principal.
When the musical did receive widespread acclaim after its long battle, it resonated with audiences in a huge way — even winning 8 Tony Awards —and that's exactly what the showrunners were going for. The controversy plaguing its long past had all been worth it — the show was now changing lives and reassuring teenagers who needed a hand growing up. “It’s a show meant for everyone, but it is meant for kids to see it,” co-creator of the musical Duncan Sheik told Vulture. “It’s kind of naïve to think that kids aren’t really thinking about this stuff and grappling with these issues." Many fans credit the show with helping them come to peace with their own sexual histories, or the hardships they went through on the road to self-acceptance. “I grew up a repressed religious kid,” Spring Awakening fan Janie Bryant told Vulture. “The whole idea of these kids not knowing how to talk about sex. I super-identified with that."
Spring Awakening definitely touches on themes that are nearly universal — almost everyone has experiences with coming to terms with their sexuality as a teenager or dealing with difficult family, and that helps to explain why it blew up so much on Broadway. “I think that Spring Awakening was this perfect storm for a 16-year-old theater geek,” a fan, Ali Elkin, said in the same Vulture article. “When you’re 16 and you are not the most socially confident person in the world, exploring feelings of sexuality can be scary and a forum that is a safe space to explore those feelings feels revolutionary to you.”
Spring Awakening proves to be a backdrop that lends itself usefully to the characters of Rise — the kids performing the show are going through some of the same life-changing years as the musical's protagonists, and likely have some of the same naivety and curiosity that makes Spring Awakening what it is. There's sure to be some pushback as the show progresses — racy productions put on by a high school theater are never without their controversies — but they've certainly chosen one that resonates with its target audience.