Breaking the Broadway Rules: Spring Awakening Comes to Houston

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Who would have thought that 1891 Frank Wedekind play Spring Awakening, which focuses on the sexual and intellectual coming of age of teens in Germany and their uptight teachers and parents, would make a smash hit musical? “It would have topped the list of worst ideas for a musical,” quips Tom Hulce, Spring Awakening’s producer. “But then again, many successful musicals contained odd stories, consider Sweeny Todd and Cabaret.” Finally, Houston audiences will get a chance to see what all the hoopla has been about when this much talked about show lands on the Hobby stage this January.

Hulce made his Broadway debut in Peter Shafer’s Equus, and is best known for playing the young and troublemaker Mozart in the film Amadeus. With a career characterized by risk-taking and thinking out of the black box. Hulce found a match in Spring Awakening and a chance to make his mark on the sometimes bereft of new ideas Broadway world.

Nothing in this break-all-the-rules show plays out like a traditional musical theater. The themes, religious and intellectual freedom, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexual awakening, and parental cluelessness, are hardly ideas that make one want to bust out in song and dance. The music, by indie singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, ushers in a whole new sound. There’s no set to speak of, outside of a few chairs and tables. Two adults play all the grown up roles while the youngsters rule the stage. When they break out into song, they also whip out microphones, which is both a funny and clever device for amplifying the character’s inner thoughts. Some audience members are seated on stage and a handful of them join the singers for certain numbers. (Oh, and there’s a little on-stage action in case you thought this show wasn’t racy enough.) But the big post modern dance coup of the year was Bill T. Jones’ stirring choreography.

Hulce remembers the dilemma in considering how dance would fit into the larger picture. “We knew that the conventional show biz stuff would not work here,” recalls Hulce, about the search for the right choreographer. Jones’ work was already on Hulce’s radar, but when he attended a company rehearsal he was completely convinced that Jones was the man for the job. “I remember watching how Bill relates to his dancers as real people; there’s this breathtaking visceral quality to his work.” It didn’t hurt that Jones had ample experience working with non-dancers. “I didn’t think he would say yes,” recalls Hulce about that first meeting. Hulce lucked out and Jones jumped aboard the project with gusto. Turns out, Jones’ signature gestural language felt completely at home on the Spring Awakening stage. Using a classic post-modern strategy, Jones created a flexible phrase he manipulates throughout the course of the show. Body wrapping and caressing gestures speak to the struggle of these curious adolescents coming into ownership of their bodies and minds. Sped up, the movement reflects the tremendous turmoil that confronts them as the show’s central theme plays out. By the end, Jones’ sensual phrase becomes a type of kinetic prayer. Jones’ foot stamping romp in “The Bitch of Living” contrasts these more tender passages. Like the music, Jones’ brand of minimalistic choreography stands out as a completely distinct element while being gracefully folded into the whole. As they say, the rest is history. In a historic move for post-modern dance, Jones won the 2007 Tony for Best Choreography, one of Spring Awakening’s 8 Tonys, which also included Best Musical.

Hulce’s savvy shows through in every aspect of the production. He had no interest in replicated the iconic stage presences of the now-famous original cast, who had been with the project from the get-go. “We wanted strong, distinct characters,” states Hulce. Now with a new cast, the show is being performed all over the world and touring the U.S. “The show travels remarkably well,” he states. For this actor turned producer, it’s been one while ride. “Who knew,” Hulce jokes. “The fact that we ended up where we are has been an unexpected adventure.”

January 6-18, 2009 – Cadillac Broadway Across America – Houston presents Spring Awakening at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Performances are Tuesday – Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (713) 629-3700 or online at Groups of 20 or more, call (888) 451-5986 or e-mail

Read more about Bill T. Jones’ approach to Spring Awakening here.


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