Harris 1 Jessica Renee Harris April 2011
Broadway: Coping with Controversy
Every style of art fears one major critique when evaluated, and the performing arts are no exception: When a reviewer publically announces that the theme of the performance is inappropriate, word quickly gets around. Eventually, intrapersonal communication allows the message to spread between the misinformed potential viewers. A large number of audience members may take heed and refuse to see the show. Sometimes hundreds to thousands of people refuse to see it if it is a well publicized show. This makes the revenue of the performances drop considerably and can sometimes put the performance, if not the theatre, in jeopardy. However, certain productions that have been victims of harsh critiques have continued to fight and have finally been performed on Broadway. Directors have put their names and reputations on the line in order for these productions to premiere and run for long periods of time. Such shows include Director Michael Mayer’s Spring Awakening and Director Jason Moore’s Avenue Q (Broadwaymusicalhome.com). To be able to understand the reasons why someone might think both of these performances are unsuitable for a paying audience one must comprehend the themes they portray. Spring Awakening touches topics such as suicide, disrespect for elders, masturbation, abuse, fornication, and illegal abortion. What many assessments overlook is that this same musical calls attention to themes of determination, revolutionary ideas, oppression, and love. Ignoring this, which is near impossible to do when watching the production firsthand, changes the whole message of the play. As a result, reviewers criticize the production: Words like “the musical seeks to capitalize on the shock value but not the story. They put sex, partial nudity, and offensive lyrics on stage as a way to assault the audience,” (Murray) put a show with good intentions at risk.
Harris 2 The premise of the play revolves around German students in the 19th century. Melchior Gabor is a young, intelligent man who rebels against the tradition of his culture. His friend, Moritz Stiefel, is plagued by dreams and becomes seriously disturbed by them. Apparently, Moritz is fretting over sexual dreams and refuses to sleep thus dropping his grades and coping ability. Melchior gives him a ten page essay, with drawings included, of the female anatomy in an attempt to relinquish Moritzâ€™s anguish. Moritz becomes even more troubled with the new information; he knows he must keep his grades up to pass school, but it is becoming increasingly harder for him. The teachers of the school find Moritz to be a nuisance and flunk him even though he actually should have passed. As a result, Moritz commits suicide, knowing he has failed and disappointed his father. Meanwhile, Melchior has fallen in love with Wendla Bergmann, an innocent teenage girl who is uneducated in abuse and sexual activity. In the heat of the moment, Melchior makes an advance on Wendla in a hayloft. The two have sex and Wendla winds up impregnated. Returning to school, Melchior is blamed by his teachers for Moritzâ€™s suicide with the essay as evidence, and he is sent to a reform school. Here Wendla writes him in hopes of fleeing Germany. Before the couple can run off together, Wendlaâ€™s mother hands her over to a back alley abortionist when she finds out about the pregnancy. Wendla dies in the operation, leaving Melchior in the graveyard soon to be comforted by the ghosts of his best friend and lover (Spring Awakening). To the uneducated spectator, this show encompasses many taboo topics that should not be presented in a public setting. Contemporary society has gradually incorporated sex into everyday viewing on television and lowered its standards on PG-13 rated movies, but it is uncommon to find sources of masturbation in media. Likewise, illegal abortion has been a forbidden subject for
Harris 3 ages! Everyone knows that these things happen, but it is typical, or polite, not to mention these issues at all. Perhaps Lara Zarum, a journalist of The Strand, says it best when she writes, It's one thing to talk about sex, but it is quite another to act it out realistically, I should add - in front of a huge audience… The show invariably loses a few audience members after the sex scene, which closes the first act…Spring Awakening is still too much for some people to handle (Zarum). Some parents despise the play for its allure to the younger crowd. In addition to the unmentionable subjects, Spring Awakening’s songs were unlike many other musicals preformed today. This show captures attention with its stylized hard rock music; the 1800s characters are modernized solely through song, pulling out hidden microphones to sing their innermost thoughts. It is argued that rebellious teenagers are drawn to this music and, therefore, are drawn to being subjected to the topics within the show. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” immediately attract defiant teens and retract their overprotective guardians. Nevertheless, if parents actually take the time to view the show or listen to the songs before casting judgment, they would see that each of these songs is validated. The music intends to teach lessons, not to be controversial. In fact, the Broadway musical adaptation of Spring Awakening, directed by Michael Mayer, could be counted as more socially acceptable than the original script by Frank Wedekind. In the play version, even more controversial topics arise: first, one must know that he intended for the age of the main characters to be fourteen. This takes scenes about suicide and sex to a whole new extreme. Then in his published work, instead of Melchior’s advances toward Wendla turning into a mutual, yet ignorant, agreement of sex, Melchior rapes Wendla. Never once does
Harris 4 the script hint at her consent for his actions. She merely repeats, “Don’t! Don’t, Melchior! O, Melchior! Don’t, don’t” (Wedekind). Next, the abused child wanderer of the show, a character of a subplot in the production, evokes a feeling of pity from the audience. The child in the script almost alarms the reader with her promiscuous lifestyle and her decision to keep Moritz’s gun as a keepsake. Another alteration to the script written in 1890 is at the end of the play: Melchior is fleeing the reformatory on his own will. He hides in the graveyard to be accompanied by the ghost of Moritz, who is holding his own head under his arm. His friend beckons Melchior to take his hand and, by doing so, die to join him in the grave. Feeling remorseful that he spoiled the innocent Wendla and that she paid the price for his sin, Melchior almost decides to die. However, he is stopped by a masked man who offers the boy new beginnings and hope. It’s now apparent that the creators of this rock musical chose to limit the extreme brutality and questionable concepts in this play. Each theme expressed has a deeper meaning than the superficial value. Spring Awakening engages the audience’s emotion to confront issues like child abuse and abortions. It asks the viewer to openly talk about sex and masturbation, and reminds them that neither of these things is shameful. The most important moral is that ignorance is not necessarily bliss. Ignorance leads to stupidity, and stupidity can lead to tragic endings. This play, and others like it, does so much to open doors society is too embarrassed to open. Does it really deserve all of the harassment of harsh critiques? Another play that suffers the same kind of critiques as Spring Awakening is Avenue Q. However, this play is the complete of opposite of tragedy! Written by Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, Avenue Q exaggerates the struggles of modern life with jokes, inside and outside of its songs. It, too, deals with topics of homosexuality, fornication, masturbation, and self deprecation. In addition, it also covers racism, pornography, and alcohol consumption. Again, on
Harris 5 first appearance, addressing these subjects may seem offensive, but, in actuality, the performance’s true goal is to educate the listeners on the reality of true love, purpose, charity, human nature, humbleness, and choices. Why then does such a show face reviews declaring “the audience laughs at most of the jokes as if encountering a precocious, potty-mouthed child. By the end of the first act, you’re ready to send them all to their rooms… it sucks to be a member of the audience,” (Mahne) and “it's not Q's perceived wittiness that left people in stitches, but the bad words and so called adult themes that the cast sprinkles in like salt on a flavorless dish” (Oberstein)? Some patrons find Avenue Q to be distasteful for its unique way of exploiting puppets. This show is one of the only performances that uses puppets and people as characters onstage. Extraordinarily, the puppet masters are also onstage, holding the puppets, sharing credit for the songs with their felt personas. This can be confusing at times, but this method is an unexpected twist for the typical puppet show! In the official Avenue Q book, in reaction to one of the first viewings, a future producer says, “[Marx and Lopez] were using the children’s television format to attack such adult ideas and themes. I had never seen anything like it. It was extraordinary” (Pincus-Roth and Rosegg 16)! The argument among cynics is that the puppets are so closely related to the toddler show, “Sesame Street,” that viewers are tricked into thinking that this show will be family friendly. Nevertheless, said viewers are carelessly glancing at the advertisements; Avenue Q posters clearly state that there will be explicit material and puppet nudity! The puppeteer of Trekkie Monster in the original Broadway performance, Rob McClure states, “I love watching the audience respond to it. I love seeing the die-hard fans singing along, and I also love shocking the 78-year-old subscriber who had no idea what she was getting into” (Harvey).
Harris 6 Avenue Q has a variety of smaller stories, but the main action revolves around Princeton, a college graduate with a B.A. in English. Princeton moves to New York looking for his purpose in life. Since it is so expensive to live on any other Avenue, Princeton winds up on Avenue Q. Here he meets a slew of characters, but pursues one he found particularly interesting, Kate Monster. She is a kindergarten teaching assistant with a wish of her own: Kate’s one goal is to open a school where monsters, the furry race of the puppet world, can live and learn in peace. As they began their relationship, they go to a couple events together: these include seeing a live singing performance of Lucy the Slut and their friends’ wedding. At the wedding, Princeton has a nightmare that being with Kate will eventually tie him down, never allowing him to pursue his purpose. He ends the relationship, breaks Kate’s heart, becomes a shut in, and only returns to his normal routine after his friends coax him out of his apartment. Unfortunately, the first person he meets outside his apartment is Lucy. She offers to make him “feel special” so Princeton takes her home with him. Meanwhile, Kate writes Princeton a note to meet her at the Empire State Building, but Lucy tears up the letter before he can see it. Kate throws a penny off the building for luck, incapacitating Lucy. At the hospital, Princeton discovers that he truly hurt Kate and later vows to himself that he will make it up to her. He then raises the money for her monster school and wins back the love of his life (Musical Avenue Q Broadway). Perhaps the most disturbing characters for domineering parents are the Bad Idea Bears. These two adorable pink and yellow bears are the devils that sat on Princeton’s shoulders. They constantly appear out of nowhere and try to persuade him into doing ill advised things. Something so cute and cuddly causes controversy because society has become accustomed to associating evil acts with ugly creatures. The musical, directed by Jason Moore, was trying to
Harris 7 teach that reality is cunning; what someone perceives to be true is merely what he or she has been conditioned to believe. Some of the songs within the performance include “It Sucks to be Me,” “Schadenfreude,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and “The Internet is for Porn.” At first glance these may seem to be sketchy, but each song includes an ethical meaning. For instance, “It Sucks to be Me” and “Schadenfreude” both touch on the topic of self deprecation and humbleness. “It Sucks to be Me” conveys that everyone believes that their life is hard, so no one should feel like they are being singled out. “Schadenfreude” is titled after a German term meaning happiness at the misfortune of others. It’s natural to laugh at someone else’s pain, and a couple of the characters in the show embrace their suffering through this song in order to make others happy. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” has a perfect lyric within it spelling out its message: “If we all could just admit that we are racist just a little bit, even though we all know that it’s wrong, maybe it would help us get along!” “The Internet is for Porn” in itself is a nonsense song to make the audience laugh, but the show’s ending helps clarify the moral. The character promoting porn, Trekkie Monster, donates a ton of money to Princeton’s school fund. This relays that a person’s nature, good or bad, cannot be judged upon his chosen lifestyle (Musical Avenue Q Broadway). Audiences that are still not convinced that these shows of controversy should be seen can research them online but should be careful in choosing which articles to read. Note that most reviews on the internet are individualistic opinions, and they will relay honest personal feelings on the performances they cover. One such blog, by Nicki Britton and Francisca Ortega, accepted the morals within Spring Awakening and recognized the potential for learning as a parent. They dedicated a six week series on raising teenagers to the show. However, in respect of their audience, the women provided her own warning of the play but still urged their readers to see it:
Harris 8 Warning: the play is gritty. There is on-stage nudity. And sex. And cursing. The topics are uncomfortable, but for parents (and teens) the consequences of ignoring these issues can be profound. So if you have a mature older teen, see the show with him or her. It may just remind you of yourself when you were that age, and the discussion it's sure to spark may just be an opportunity to learn more about what your kid is dealing with (Britton and Ortega). No doubt, any play with taboo topics is going to draw attention for some and put up a blockade for others. It is important to bear every show with an open mind: sometimes the question shouldn’t be, “Do I like this play because of what it covers?” but rather, “Do I understand the meaning behind this production and what can I learn from it?”
Harris 9 Works Cited Britton, Nicki, and Francisca Ortega. "Spring Awakening, MomHouston Style." Chron.com. The Houston Chronicle, 12 Nov. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. BroadwayMusicalHome.com. Ed. Valerie Rigsbee. 2006. Web. 30 Mar. 2011. Harvey, Alec. "'Avenue Q' Not Your Ordinary Puppet Show." AL.com. Alabama Live LLC, 14 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. <http://blog.al.com/aharvey/2008/12/avenue_q_not_your_ordinary_pup.html>. Mahne, Theodore P. "'Avenue Q' a Very Adult Look at Life from a Puppet's Point of View." Nola.com. New Orleans Net, 09 June 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. Murray, Ephen F. "Review: Spring Awakening: the Musical." GhostlightChicago.BlogSpot.com. Blogger, 05 Aug. 2009. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. <http://ghostlightchicago.blogspot.com/2009/08/review-spring-awakeningmusical.html>. Musical Avenue Q Broadway. Dir. Jason Moore. Perf. Original Broadway Cast. Video.Google.co.uk. Google, 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. <http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-7888908906699031804>. Oberstein, Jeremy. "Avenue Q Is Not Funny." LAist.com. Gothamist LLC, 07 Sept. 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2011. <http://laist.com/2007/09/07/avenue_q_sucks.php>. Pincus-Roth, Zachary, and Carol Rosegg. Avenue Q: The Book. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 16. Print. Spring Awakening. By Frank Wedekind. Dir. Michael Mayer. Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville, TN. 27 Feb. 2011. Performance.
Harris 10 Wedekind, Frank. “Spring Awakening.” Trans. Edward Bond. Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Publishing Company. Print. Zarum, Lara. "Let's Talk about Sex: Can You Handle Spring Awakening." The Strand. U. of Toronto, 26 Mar. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2011. <http://media.www.thestrand.ca>.