Tony nominees include daring, even oddball, subjects for musicals

CRITICAL EYE

June 10, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

NEW YORK -- It's been a swell season for Broadway musicals. Not only did an impressive 11 new musicals open, but two of the leading contenders for top honors at tonight's Tony Awards ceremony are as unconventional as they are seemingly uncommercial.

Consider the source material alone. Spring Awakening, widely regarded as the frontrunner for best musical, is an adaptation of a formerly banned 19th-century German play about adolescent sexual angst.

Grey Gardens, based on a 1975 documentary, focuses on two of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' reclusive, eccentric relatives, who shared their run-down East Hampton mansion with rabid raccoons and more than four dozen cats.

Furthermore, the creators of both shows have taken bold liberties with their sources, grafting new material onto proven products. In Spring Awakening, composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist / librettist Steven Sater pair a modern rock score with German playwright Frank Wedekind's period play. And in Grey Gardens, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) has crafted a first act that takes place three decades before the documentary.

Granted, these daringly artistic shows got their start on more adventuresome stages off-Broadway. But the fact that both transferred to Broadway, where they've not only stirred up audience interest, but a passel of Tony nominations -- 11 for Spring Awakening and 10 for Grey Gardens -- speaks well for the broadening tastes of the Great White Way.

Here's a closer look.

Awakening'

Along with the risque subject matter, the presentational style of Spring Awakening is audacious. As Sater explains in the notes to the CD, the show's songs don't advance the plot the way songs do in traditional musicals. Instead, they are interior monologues, windows into the adolescent brain.

Most of the actors wear hand-held microphones concealed in their jackets. When their feelings threaten to overwhelm them, they pull out the mikes and vent their emotions in song. No wonder so many young people identify with this musical. Not only are the characters their age, but who hasn't felt like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, acting out fantasies of rock stardom?

So, when Jonathan Groff's Melchior becomes infuriated at his teacher's treatment of a friend, Melchior belts out a defiant, "All That's Known" ("You watch me -- / Just watch me ... And one day all will know.") And when the friend, Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), is overwhelmed with confusing sexual stirrings, he launches into "The Bitch of Living" and is quickly joined by his equally unsettled classmates.

In the frenzied production number that results, the boys leap on or roll off chairs and in one case, even climb the walls (OK, a ladder on the wall). All the while, the gap between adults and adolescents is accentuated by the teacher's frozen obliviousness. The highly stylized choreography is by MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Bill T. Jones, in his Broadway debut; the crisp direction is by former Marylander Michael Mayer. Both are nominated for Tonys.

The show's central intertwined stories concern the tragic outcome of Moritz's growing despair, and Melchior's relationship with a girl named Wendla (Lea Michele), whose pleas to have her mother teach her about sex go unanswered, to the girl's peril.

Indeed, so much of this musical is about the dangers of repression that the young people's musical outbursts form the perfect antithesis -- wild, unfettered expressions of inner turmoil and longing that even the strictest constraints cannot curb.

And, even a century-plus after Wedekind put pen to paper, the topics he explored -- including incest, masturbation and abortion -- can make the prudish squirm. But that's partly the point. Although the final number seems a bit too optimistic, Spring Awakening is a cautionary tale. It was when Wedekind wrote it in 1891, and it still is today.

Gardens'

The movie Grey Gardens is at least as eccentric a source for a musical as the pair of eccentric, down-at-heel aristocrats it is about. Though ostensibly part of a trend of movies adapted into musicals, Albert and David Maysles' 1975 cult documentary would not seem the most natural vehicle.

But composer Scott Frankel recognized something inherently musical in the material -- Edith Bouvier Beale (Jackie O's aunt) saw herself as a chanteuse in her youth, and her daughter, "Little" Edie Beale, engages in a fair amount of dancing, and even marching, in the film.

The next stroke of inspiration was beginning this account of mother-daughter co-dependency nearly 30 years before the documentary. Act One of Wright's script shows the two Edies in their prime. Their East Hampton mansion is as glamorous as the setting for a Cole Porter musical or a Noel Coward play as Big Edie makes the final preparations for a party celebrating her daughter's engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr.

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