Friday, August 07, 2009

Spring Awakening

OK, despite the fact that, intellectually, I know that no good can come of being ashamed of one's musical tastes and that the notion of "guilty pleasures" in music is terribly fraught, I still often have a hard time publicly copping to some of the shit that I love. A perfect example is Duncan Sheik. I can't think of anyone more hideously uncool, but, guys, I secretly looooooove Duncan Sheik! I'm not even kidding. It's been really hard for me to get up the nerve to admit it in this forum, but I have to: I own all his albums (except for the one that came out early this year; just haven't gotten around to it yet), and, what's more, I still actively listen to them. It's not like they're moldering in the back of my closet--I tend to take Phantom Moon with me when I travel on airplanes (makes a nice pairing with Elliott Smith's Either/Or--somehow all the acoustic guitar soothes me when I'm in midair) and his self-titled debut remains one of my favorite things to listen to in the dead heat of summer. I downloaded the soundtrack to Spring Awakening when it came out, and, even though I didn't listen to it all that much, I was still pleased as punch that he gained so much recognition for it. So, you best believe that I was super-psyched to have a chance to actually see the show now that the touring production is playing here in Chicago for a few weeks. Coming of age stories? Florid Broadway storytelling and emotions? Duncan Sheik's delicate Nick Drake-esque melodies and arrangements? Sign. Me. Up.

Benji and I went on Wednesday night, and I really enjoyed it. I didn't go apeshit-level bonkers or anything, but I really enjoyed it. Mostly, though, I was delighted by the fact that it, with all its relative perversity intact, has achieved such great success in the current Broadway landscape that seems to be otherwise dominated by jukebox musicals and retreads of marginally successful Hollywood movies. The second act is a bit weak--it gets kinda punitive toward the characters and then tries to make up for it by becoming more stereotypically "Broadway" with bites from Les Miserables (ghosts singing inspiration from beyond the grave!) and Into the Woods (children will liiiiiiiiiisten!). But the first act is amazing. The lights came up for intermission and the first thing I said was, "I can't believe all that just happened in the first act. There's a lot going on there."

The one major drawback to this performance was seeing it at the Oriental Theater, rather than in a more intimate black box. The actors all have youth and beauty on their sides, but they don't quite yet have the chops to fill a room that big with their voices or their presence. Nor should they necessarily need to. Though the emotions and topics in this play are huge, to retain their power, they should still end up feeling like whispered secrets, and there's nothing whispered or secretive about a venue that big. Wouldn't it have been awesome if they could have figured out a way to book a stint for the show at, like, the Empty Bottle or the Vic? But, as Benji pointed out, if you can sell out the Oriental Theater, why wouldn't you sell out the Oriental Theater?

Despite all that, once I figured out how the songs were functioning, rhetorically, in the context of the plot, I fell totally in love with the piece. When I first listened to the soundtrack in isolation, I felt frustrated that I couldn't quite follow the storyline. But seeing it on stage, it all becomes clear: they're updating the notion of a rock musical by using the songs as external expressions of internal teenage sexual frustration, confusion, torment, and longing rather than as ways to advance the plot or for characters to relate to each other. It's so simple and so smart; I don't know why no one's ever really done it before (at least on such a large scale). I mean, much of my own internal monologue really still is flashing lights and dance sequences and bits of songs, so it felt easy and natural to slide into this world where that level of drama needs musical accompaniment to fully embody all that emotion. What was even nicer for me, though, is, since I'm so secretive about my Duncan Sheik fandom anyway, hearing those familiar chord voicings and melodic intervals in the context of a narrative all about unspoken pleasures gave the experience of the play a nice little meta-twist. Like I wrote in my post about false musical memories, there's a sweet warmth in being waved to by your past in this unexpected way.

Don't forget, kittens: King Sparrow (who've been getting all kinds of big love from big places this week) plays TONIGHT at the Subterranean. Come rock out and take refuge from the rain and all the collateral Lolla madness.


michael o'd said...

Speaking of guilty pleasures, I think I've mentioned how Mary openly mocks me whenever I pop in a little Toto. On an airplane recently, I saw "I Love You, Man," and there's a scene where a guy excitedly introduces his fiancee to the music of Rush--she hadn't realized what a dork he was until that moment. Kind of gave me a window into Mary's thinking.

Nah, fuck that. Long live Rush!

I had an insight into why movies like that are so popular. It's not the gay jokes or the ugly misogyny (about which you've made some thoughtful posts) or the toilet humor. It's the way they nod to things all guys of a certain generation can appreciate. Like Rush, Arnold S./Andre the Giant impersonations, and subtle Star Wars references. Anyway.

allison said...

Well, sure. But, I mean, that's what makes these films extra dangerous, right? I'd be hard pressed to think of any sensible person who would go to these films specifically because they're sexist or homophobic. You're exactly right: these movies are successful because they're fucking funny. They're funny and they traffic in a certain sense of comfort because of the generational touchstones that you cited. But then, as people are sitting there laughing and feeling all warm and fuzzy, the sexism and homophobia sneak in under the radar. You're laughing, then suddenly you hear some slur, and then you're thinking, "oh, it must be OK for me to laugh at these gay jokes, right? It's all just shits and giggles?" (Of course I'm oversimplifying, but you get where I'm coming from.) Outright vitriol would never fly. It's this insidious shit that does the real damage--or at least maintains a certain bigoted status quo without challenging or undermining it.

michael o'd said...