Did Deaf West's Spring Awakening outdo its predecessor?
Broadway revivals are an incredibly tricky endeavor. There should be immense respect for the directors with the guts to take on such a project and attempt to parallel the success of the original show. That being said, sometimes they fall short of the original cast's glory (Into the Woods, 2002) or shine brighter than the original ever did (Cabaret, 1998). Did Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening follow either of these patterns?
Spring Awakening, a rock musical about teenage sexuality and coming of age, has seen immense success since its opening on Broadway on December 10th, 2006. It ran from then until its close in January 18, 2009.
Critics at the time marveled at directors Michael Mayer and Bill T. Jones' deft grasp of a taboo topic, bringing beauty to a dark tale and relevance to a dated piece. The New York Times' Charles Isherwood said, "[T]he awakening really taking place in Spring Awakening is to something larger than the insistent needs of the flesh." The glow of this production launched careers of current household names Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff.
Photo: Andy Snow, Phil Martin
In 2015, director Michael Arden picked the script back up, but with a twist. The entire show was produced with spoken English alongside American Sign Language. The collaboration with Deaf West Theatre on Broadway inspired a new awareness for Deaf culture. This production ran from May 21, 2015 to June 14, 2015.
The reviews were positively beaming. Isherwood, on the Deaf West interpretation, said, "Deaf actors may not have the same tools that most actors do, but the gifted men and women in this splendid production achieve the same ideal ends, lighting up the lives of their characters from within, even when the light only reveals the darkness of their confusion, frustration and despair."
Photo: Joan Marcus
Original or Revival?
Of course, being a revival does not mean being a rival. The arts don’t need to be pitted against each other as competitors. But, as with any revived show, the question still demands to be asked: which production is a stronger interpretation?
Looking just at the numbers, the original production’s run on Broadway was significantly longer. However, the quality of a show goes way beyond a statistic. If it weren't for the quality of the original and the praise it received, the revival wouldn't have launched.
It isn't the acting, the choreography, or any technical elements that separates these pieces. On that level, both are quite different, but beautifully executed in their own right. To properly assess the massive difference between them, one must look to the core theme of the piece: miscommunication.
The use of both deaf and hearing actors in the revival hammers home this theme. The whole show is about the communication gap between the educated characters who keep their knowledge to themselves, and the characters deprived of that knowledge. Arden separates these characters onstage by casting hearing actors and actresses who also sign as the former category, while having deaf/hard of hearing actors and actresses who sign as the latter, having a double who speaks and sings for them.
When such a beautifully executed display of this theme is compared to the original, the original is nothing more than a well produced teen angst play. The revival is a call to action. Yes, the directors of the revival must thank the original show for paving the way to their success, but the revival is truly the adaptation completely satisfies the artistic needs of the piece.
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