Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hollywood seeks Spring Awakening

Earlier today I was making my daily website run, checking to make sure that no earth shattering news had hit the web in the middle of the night, when I came across this. It seems that Terminator Salvation director McG (Yes, that's really what he goes by) is interested in directing a film adaptation of the 2007 tony winner for best musical, Spring Awakening. 

Spring Awaking is a musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on the 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. The story details the lives of a group of 19th century German teens as they struggle to deal with their budding sexuality in a society that refuses to discuss the topic. It makes the modern equivalent of sexual confusion look like a cake-walk. The characters each struggle with their own adolescent problems, most of which sexual, and generally one of the character's plights is likely to hit close to home. It's a fantastic, and tragic piece of drama which I expected to be adapted to film almost as soon I first heard of it about two years ago. 

Spring Awakening garnered a lot of attention for shaking up the theater world-- on a Broadway in which most musicals are high-budget and showy, Spring Awaking was a sober production that managed to capture both the highs and lows of youth.  I had the pleasure of seeing Spring Awakening shortly after its Tony win, while most of the original cast, including the leads, were still with the production. There are a number of reasons why Spring Awakening works so well, but one of them was that the songs weren't treated as busty numbers but rather as interior monologues. They reinforced this idea by putting the show on in a comparatively small space, and decorating the walls with pictures, mirrors, and other objects. The show didn't even have a traditional set-- the items were literally put to the walls of the theater space. Consciously or not for the viewer, this helped to establish that the production was largely taking place within the character's heads. 

This is going to be one the greatest challenges for the adaptation. The fact is that what works exceptionally well on stage, won't work "at all" on film, at least that's likely how it will be approached. A naturalistic set is going to be a given of the production, that's just how films are-- which already sets the piece miles apart from the stage production. The next issue is how you address the songs if you don't have the benefit of a surreal-like black space? Realistically, many of these songs take place in dark bedrooms and deserted hillsides, which has problems of its own. Now, what helped to bridge the gap between audience and production was that the show examined what everyone has to deal with in growing up-- a fact that I think was bolstered by the soft-gloved uncomfortably the stage production has. Seeing a man fake masturbation, or two teenagers faking sex on stage (People on the left see boobie, people on the right see man-butt. People in the middle are disappointed?) puts the audience on edge because the act is happening in front of them-- that uncomfortably helps to mirror that which the characters are dealing with. The gay kiss and the teaching masturbation scenes likely don't help put people at ease either. That immediacy, and connection is lost in a film translation. Filmed or photographed sex is everywhere-- but how often are other people doing it in front of you? 

video

My point is simply that a successful adaptation is going to be a tough sell. If done right, it's the kind of film that could pull for an Oscar. Those keyed in on the theater scene know that many best picture nominees start out as plays a few years earlier, like this past year's Doubt and Frost/Nixon.  I don't know very much about McG-- and the fact that his name is McG doesn't put me too much at ease. It seems that his career is built on three things: music videos, prime time teen soap operas, and action movies. IGN seemed to think that his experience working on OC might help him with this adaptation, but I'd have to say that it's a pretty big leap. A teenager may be a teenager, but Spring Awakening is a wonderful work of theater; the O.C. is a show no one will remember in twenty years. There is also a hell of difference between 19th century Germany and contemporary Orange County. I hope that his music video experience will help to shape the inner monologue aspect of the songs. 

The biggest problem I have with Spring Awakening hitting the inattentive mainstream is it's likely going to become fodder for stores like Hot Topic. The musical deals with heavy subject matter, particularly sex, death, and suicide-- it's also very much geared towards teens. Unlike Sondhiem's Sweeney Todd, which somehow managed to capture a youthful audience in 2007, the songs are already built for a younger audience, thanks to Duncan Sheik. They're a little bit pop, a little bit rock, and little bit folk. Let me cut to the chase, I can see the legions of idiotic masses lining up already, and happily singing the songs in their car a week later.  Spring Awakening shouldn't be the next emo musical, which it's likely to be pigeon-holed as, because it is anything but. The teens in the musical struggle with real problems, and unlike many of those who will latch on to it afterwards-- they fight instead of cry about it. 

In short- I'm worried. It's tough adaptation with a director I have little faith in, and all set to be loosed as a wrist-cutters wet dream. I suggest you check out Spring Awakening before the movie inevitably comes out if you haven't already- you can take a look at the musical website, and listen to one of the songs above. 

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