Spring Awakening: Silence & Song, Youth & Yearning

Spring Awakening Broadway. On the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the cast goes about the business of dressing. They move with purpose: fluid, effortless, and a little mysterious. But once the show begins in earnest, almost all movement is about language—both English and American Sign Language (ASL)—expressed in vivid words and sentences, delivered by eloquent gestures, and spilling seamlessly into Spencer Liff’s electrifying choreography.

Photo: Joan Marcus

What’s extraordinary about this new mounting is that it features both deaf and hearing actors and musicians. A groundbreaking rock musical based on 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind’s play—so controversial it was banned before it could be produced—this Spring Awakening was shaped and performed in L.A. by Deaf West Theatre under the direction of Michael Arden before transferring to Broadway.

Together with the work of Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), the cast explores the pains of adolescence, from the wonder of falling in love to the angst that comes from dealing with the clueless adults who dominate their lives and psyches.

Spring Awakening is very much about the difficulty that parents and children have with communication. So there’s a beautiful metaphor for it being done with this particular set of actors,” says Sheik. “The musicianship and the vocal performances of the Broadway cast...are second to none, and that combined with the amazing physicality of the signing actors really raises the emotional bar.”

As for the show’s transformation from the original 2007 Tony-winning version starring Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher, Jr., the initial idea of creating a bilingual production became a reality when Deaf West’s artistic director, David Kurs agreed to take on the project (evidently it was a bit of a hard sell), with Arden at the helm.

As Arden began laying the building blocks for the production, his research of the play’s period brought him to an interesting fact: in 1880, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf (aka the Milan Conference) passed a resolution to ban sign language in schools throughout Europe and the U.S. Thus the only option open to deaf students was “oralism” (lip reading, speech, and mimicking mouth shapes).

Photo: Joan Marcus 

Since defiance of authority is key to the script (just wait for the song “The Bitch of Living”), and since the character of Moriz (played by deaf actor Daniel N. Durant and voiced by Alex Boniello) had a rebellious streak, Arden was moved to comment in his director’s notes: “It is more than interesting that the word that sends young Moritz Stiefel on his downward spiral is none other than the word ‘fail.’ It was a culture that people attempted to eradicate, in a way, through oralism.”

The other two key characters in the play are Wendla, a deaf actress played by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Katie Boeck, and Melchior, played by Andy Mientus, a hearing actor who, along with Durant/Boniello give heartbreakingly powerful performances. So do the actors taking on multiple “adult roles,” such as Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and her sometimes voice, Emmy winner Camryn Manhem. But then the entire cast is amazing as they bring this very unique, very impressive realization of Spring Awakening to unforgettable life.

As Duncan Sheik poignantly remarked in a recent interview: “It may be the best-sounding cast we’ve ever had.”


Spring Awakening is playing at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. For reservations call 877-250-2929 or visit Ends Jan. 24, 2016.

About the Author

City Guide Theatre Editor Griffin Miller moved to New York to pursue an acting/writing career in the 1980s after graduating magna cum laude from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, she has written for The New York Times, For the Bride, Hotels, and a number of other publications, mostly in the areas of travel and performance arts. An active member of The New York Travel Writers Association, she is also a playwright and award-winning collage artist. In addition, she sits on the board of The Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Griffin is married to Richard Sandomir, a reporter for The New York Times.

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