Dylan van Rensburg, centre, as Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening
Dylan van Rensburg, centre, as Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening
Image: Claude Barnado

Described in superficial terms, the premise of Spring Awakening may seem familiar. Boy and girl grow up in a strict society that is anathema to youth and freedom. Boy and girl fall in love, or lust. With their pals, they seek independence and self-expression despite the strictures of repressed and oppressive adults. Add a comic resolution and it’s Hairspray. If it ends in tragedy, it’s West Side Story.

As Johannesburg audiences are about to discover, however, Spring Awakening is like neither of these — and indeed, like nothing you’ve seen before. Here, the boys and girls straddle two worlds: 19th century Germany and 21st century America. They inhabit the houses, classrooms and landscapes imagined by avant-garde German playwright Frank Wedekind when he wrote the play Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) in 1891. They wear the same clothes, they are tormented by the same schoolmasters and priests, they suffer at the hands of the same parents.

But they also carry hand-held microphones, always ready to adopt an iconic rock pose; when they burst into song, they sing about The Bitch of Living, My Junk and being Totally Fucked. While the transhistorical mode adopted in this show attests to something universal about teenage rebellion, idealism and libido, when Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik created their musical adaptation of Wedekind’s play, they were acutely aware of their immediate context.

The US was reeling from the massacre that had been perpetrated by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. For Sater and Sheik, this seemed to crystallise the simultaneous vulnerability and violence that accompany adolescence: an extreme instance of what in Spring Awakening is described in more lyrical terms as the dynamic of “bruising” and then “being bruised”, “wounding” while “being wounded”.

Of course, the fact that Americans seem to have become inured (or at least resigned) to the horror of mass shootings over the past two decades speaks to the particular confusion that arises from their country’s cultural wars and ideological divisions. In Spring Awakening, the young protagonists imagine going to the US as a means of liberation from the constraints of puritanical, hypocritical, jingoistic Germany. It is ironic that today these are taken for granted as characteristic of large parts of the US.

The virulent masculinist expectations that undoubtedly informed the pathological mindset of the Columbine shooters — as with most “crazed gunmen” — also cast a shadow across Spring Awakening. Ultimately, it becomes a story about two male friends (Melchior and Moritz) struggling in their separate ways to be free from fathers and from the suffocating patriarchy in which both the men and the women around them are complicit.

Spring Awakening starts with a focus on Wendla, the young woman whose sexual curiosity is stifled by her prim mother; its tragic climax is Wendla’s needless death, caused by the same social taboo. Yet, shaped by Wedekind’s narrative and the German literary tradition of the bildungsroman, it ends as a tale of a young man finding his way into adulthood, surviving misery and misadventure, emboldened by a love lost. Even the transgressive non-heteronormative love scenes in which “boy meets boy” reinforce this male-centredness.

Spring Awakening ensemble cast
Spring Awakening ensemble cast
Image: Supplied

In this production, however, one has a sense of community and equality between young men and women who are united across differences of gender and sexuality in their intergenerational challenge. Regardless of the story’s conclusion, watching the show feels like a vindication of youth over age, a victory of juvenile energy over dour authority.

No doubt this is attributable to the excellent cast, comprising mostly current and former students of the Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy. The current run has its genesis as a 2023 “student” show directed by Sylvaine Strike that blew Cape Town audiences away and seemed destined for a return as a “professional” production. That there is such a fine (in fact, indiscernible) line between the two is a testament to the quality of the academy’s artistic and educational offering, as well as to the impact that the institution has had on the SA performing arts scene.

The future of our musical theatre is in good hands.

• ‘Spring Awakening’ is at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino from April 12 to May 5. 

This column was originally published in the Business Day. 

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