Michael Cox speaks with director Andrew Panton and cast members Carly Holt and Michael John Griesen about performing the musical version of the controversial play.
The following interview was conducted at the beginning of August for RSAMD’s production of Spring Awakening, a musical version of Frank Wedekind’s lauded, and controversial, play. Unfortunately, due to a few technical hiccups, I am only able to post the interview now. The interview began with Andrew.
Michael Cox: This might be a bit of a loaded question, but why do Spring Awakening during this year’s festival?
Andrew Panton: Spring Awakening is a Scottish premiere, a cutting edge piece of theatre and the story is timeless. There isn’t a better time to tell a story about repression and the oppression of cultural differences than now. So that was the reasoning behind that.
MC: How did you first become aware of the musical?
AP: I saw it before it transferred to Broadway and then saw it again on Broadway, and I absolutely loved it. At that point, I thought ‘This is a fantastic show, and I’d love to direct it one day.’ But little did I know that it would only be two years later.
MC: Were you familiar with the original play, or is it just the musical version you know?
AP: I’d worked on the Jonathan Branson version before and I’d seen two or three versions of the Edward Bond. I knew the play very well, and I was really intrigued with the way that Steve Saitar and Duncan Sheik made it work in a musical theatre context. Sometimes, when you try to adapt something which is complex and layered, it can become a superficial treatment. I think they’ve added to this by musicalising it because what we get is the play and then the characters coming out and talking to us in a contemporary language of rock, pop, punk music. What it does mean is that the very age group that the play is talking about can access it, because through that language they have unbarriered access points.
What I hadn’t known previously was the rationale behind (the music), which was...Wedekind was a rebel, an anarchist. Had he been alive now, he probably would have been fronting the Sex Pistols. That was the reasoning that Steve and Duncan had in converting it, and when you hear about that rationale, then the whole thing just makes sense and becomes even more exciting.
MC: Is there a point in Spring Awakening that grabs you as a director?
AP: I love the character of Melchior, who’s completely ostracised. That character is somebody who resonates with everyone at some point in our lives, that people just don’t get us, and we have a problem that we don’t think that anyone is going to understand, and we keep it to our self. In some instances we have family and friends who can help us out with that, and in the tragic cases we don’t, and that’s what happens to Moritz: he doesn’t have the right kinds of people around him, so ultimately he kills himself.
Also, there’s a fantastic sequence called ‘Totally Fucked’, which is about absolute anarchy. It’s a side of us that we all want to show, and because of cultural norms and oppression we aren’t allowed to. It’s a number I like to do with the cast...in my head. The first time we did it we just jumped around and banged things and hit things and had toilet paper flying around, and it was just the kind of thing that you want to do but aren’t allowed to do or aren’t allowed to do once you turn 14.
It’s completely different from musical theatre. It’s music theatre.
MC: Do you see a difference between musical theatre and music theatre?
AP: I think so. I think music theatre can use music and movement and text in a way that musical theatre can’t. Of course, these are only banner terms; we all have our own definitions. For me, this is a play and it has songs in it. These songs don’t further narrative. They give us glimpses in characters like an internal monologue, but you could take the songs out and still tell the story. You’re basically getting the best of both worlds. You’re getting a play and you’re getting a rock concert simultaneously. Who could ask for more?
Carly Holt and Michael John Griesen played Wendla and Moritz.
MC: Had either of you known about the musical before embarking on this production?
CH: I’ve been pretty much obsessed by it.
MJG: I myself had heard of the musical and had listened to a few of the tracks but it wasn’t one that had stuck out in my mind or frequently went back to.
MC: Now, I’m just going to have a quick word with each of you about the process you went through to create your characters. So Michael, talk to me a little bit about your character first.
MJG: My character’s Moritz. I think he’s quite an exciting character to play because there are so many points where I have to play different states of mind. He’s confused, he’s anxious, he’s suicidal at some points, he’s confused about everything to do with sexuality and he relies on the character of Melchior to help him out, and sometimes you can question whether that help is useful or whether it’s added to his problems.
I think it’s quite an exciting character to play because his mental state kind of develops in a negative way as the musical continues.
MC: Through the rehearsal process, was there something that surprised you about the character, something you hadn’t anticipated or discovered? If you could just talk about the process you went through.
MJG: The process was really interesting because, obviously I hadn’t seen the musical before, and I found it quite interesting how much the music plays an important part in getting some of the story across, even though it isn’t necessarily narrative to the story, it helps the audience get the emotion of the character. Through the text of the play, you can get the gist of what the characters are feeling and the kind of story that’s going to play out, but when it comes to the music, it all just backs it up even more. That’s what I found surprising when I first heard the music; I thought it was good music. It was its own album; you could listen to the music on its own as a great rock, or pop, album. But add it to the text and it really helps the story, I think.
Also, the character in general I found very interesting how easily he’s misled. I’ve never played such a heavy character, and that was another shock to me; how incredibly misunderstood he is and how unfortunate it is. There’s so many people that you can reflect this sort of personality on today, celebrities and people like that: desperate people who’ve been misunderstood and should have been taken more seriously.
MC: And now to you Carly. Tell me a bit about your character.
CH: Wendla, she’s 14. She’s quite sheltered as a girl but is also curious. She hears stuff from her friends and her older sister’s having children and she just wants to know what’s going on and how things happen. Her journey has hiccups and hills and obstacles she has to overcome, and sometimes she finds things out in ways she hadn’t intended.
I think that reflects a lot on what happens today, you know? Parents think it’s important to shelter their children to keep them safe and to keep them out of harm, and they’re scared of certain things. I can completely understand all that. And I think sometimes that it can be a positive thing and other times a negative thing, and I think Wendla gets both.
MC: And through the rehearsal process, have you made any discoveries or revelations about your character?
CH: I think initially I thought she’s going to have a hell of a lot going on in her mind all the time, always being so curious about things, but I really truly think she’s just like all the other girls out there. She just wants to know things and have a good time with her friends and she wants to experience and understand everything, just like everybody else does.
And I think I even face that today. Someone starts talking about something, and I don’t quite know what they’re talking about, I go out of my way to find out.
MC: Two last questions. First, let’s be honest, this is a play that deals with some frank subject matter: abortion, masturbation and the like. Any reservations or nerves about the subject matter from either of you?
CH: (after a bit of a giggle) I mean, everybody does it, right?
MJG: Well, maybe masturbate but not the abortion.
CH: All these things are prevalent in the world today. To pretend none of these things exist now would be silly.
MJG: And I think, as we’ve worked together through the whole year, we’ve all grown with each other and I think embarrassment was never really part of it. We’ve all grown up together this year, and I think we’re all supportive enough and as a good ensemble we’re able to put such things to one side and get on with it.
CH: The subject matter is really heavy, and each of these themes are as prevalent now as they were when the play was first written. Equally. A lot of it is still behind closed doors.
MC: Which begins to answer my last question. Here’s a musical based on a play written well over 100 years ago. Do you think the story still plays to a modern audience?
CH: Of course.
MJG: Definitely. I think a lot of the subject matter is still around today. When you watch shows like Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer, they bring out a lot of these issues, and I think it’s still a very important story to be told. And with the fact that it uses rock and pop music to connect to the next generation, even crossing several generations. I think it’s a really important message that needs to be told today.
CH: I think something that’s really important about Spring Awakening is that, even if people have made mistakes like the ones in the show, a lot of their choices are all out of love. Nothing happens out of pure maliciousness. A lot of the things that happen, happen out of love.