‘Spring Awakening’ changes teenage portrayal in theater

*This article contains spoilers about the musical Spring Awakening.*

In light of Lea Michele taking on the role of Fanny Brice in the revival of Funny Girl on Broadway, the internet is exploding with deep dives into her previous works. Many have been focusing on one show in particular, “Spring Awakening.” So what’s the deal with the musical that changed the landscape for teenage portrayals in theater, many many years ago?

Debuting in 2006, “Spring Awakening” won eight Tony Awards in its time on Broadway. (Image courtesy of Playbill)

Set in industrial Germany, “Spring Awakening” tells the story of a group of teens. Yep, that’s it. There is no hero’s journey to follow. It is simply the story of students at a religious school, growing up and becoming themselves. And it is wonderful.

The musical opens with the ballad “Mama Who Bore Me” sung by a principal character, Wendla Bergman, originally portrayed by Lea Michelle. Here she explores her body and emotions, wondering why her mother failed so deeply to explain romance and love. Next, we meet Moritz Stiefel, a character grounded in fear, insecurity and reality. Moritz is failing school, which his family equates to failing life. His Latin is poor, and in 19th-century Germany, that just won’t do. He is best friends with Melchior Gabor, the leading role in the show, originally portrayed by now-famous Jonathan Groff. Together they sing a song about how much they hate latin with handheld mics, which remains to be an iconic moment in musical theater history. 

Infographic by Sarah Goody

Melchior and Wendla strike up a forbidden romance, engaging in pre-marital sex, which leads to Wendla getting pregnant. When she shares this information with her mother, she is taken to a doctor who performs a botched abortion on her. She dies. Concurrently, Moritz finds out that he has failed his exams and decides to take his life in response to avoid having to tell his father. And here it ends, with Melchior Gabor without a best friend or lover. 

Considering this play was written in 2006, its themes are eerily connected to our current world. “Spring Awakening” presents themes of restrictive abortion legislation, the dangers of religious extremism, judgment of homosexuality and child abuse. In modern society, we face the ever-present conflicts arising from these teenage plot points. 

Performing at their reunion benefit, the cast of “Spring Awakening” gathers to sing “Those You’ve Known.” (Image courtesy of HBO)

Apart from the political significance of this musical, the music itself had a lasting impact on the world we live in. While a more minor impact, “Spring Awakening” was one of the first contemporary rock musicals to be successful on Broadway. The reason for that: the music is incredible. Boiling over with teenage angst, the songs are clearly written with an accurate view of what being a teenager is like. They are dripping with pain, sorrow and anger while concurrently being upbeat and scream-along able. From emotional ballads to yelling profanities, the music of this musical is unlike other productions — it doesn’t exist to further a singular storyline, nor does it have the conversational tone that musicals tend to create. 

“Spring Awakening” stopped performing on Broadway over a decade ago. Nonetheless, the show remains timeless as its storylines are constantly relevant to our lives.