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Written by Christopher Arnott   
Wednesday, 17 February 2010 00:00
Broadway’s edgy young rock musical Spring Awakening assaults the Bushnell


Spring Awakening (Paul Kolnik photo)

 

Spring Awakening
$15-$72, Feb. 23-28, Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, (860) 987-5900, bushnell.org.

She's played live with such lionized alt-rock acts as Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian and the Hold Steady. She's active in a host of idiosyncratic bands, including John Frazier and the 8 Year Olds, Flare and the chamber collective Anti-Social Music.

So what made painted-face progressive pop-rocker Pinky Weitzman pack all that in for six months on the road in the backing band for a Broadway musical?

Well, Spring Awakening is hardly your typical touring musical, and Weitzman is the living proof. When asked to name another musical she likes, she takes a long pause before admitting that she can't think of one. "I don't know much about musicals. This one has made me a believer in the genre, where I was healthily skeptical before. You can be as skeptical as you want about this genre and still be blown away by this show."

Such Broadwayphobia might actually seem strange when you learn Weitzman's instrument of choice — the viola. String players, even rock-schooled ones, are regularly plucked to be in the pit bands of musicals. But Weitzman has studiously avoided a shift from clubs and concert stages to legit theaters. "If I'd gotten a call from any other Broadway show, I would've appreciated the offer, but I'd've had to say no. This is a straight-up rock play." When the tour takes a break for a week or two, she zips back to NYC for gigs with her main band, Not Waving But Drowning. "That's a big sticking point for me — this show has put a major screeching halt on most of my other projects.

Not that she's complaining — she calls the Spring Awakening touring company "full-on family, definitely a friends-for-life kind of thing." For most of the young performers, this is their first tour experience. "For some of them, they'll have been with this tour for two years when it's all over."

Weitzman's a recent recruit to Spring Awakening's orchestral ranks, having joined when the tour started up again after a summer break. Nearly everything about the experience is new to her — "I mean, I've toured with rock bands for a couple of weeks at a time, but not eight months."

In bands, she's also expected to improvise, or jump aboard a communal groove, while in a Broadway show the music's more fixed, with actors in the mix beyond musicians. Still, Spring Awakening's producers did what they could to preserve a loose, loud rock feel to the score, even on tour. "They had to fight in order to get to travel the whole band," Weitzman explains; most tours send out just a handful of core musicians and augment them with local pick-up players at each stop. "There are so many delicate and subtle string arrangements, to use pick-up instruments would take away from those intricacies." Mainly, though, there's that essential group vibe thing. "It just has to be a group of musicians that have been working together a lot. It has to be a band, not just an assortment of musicians who are good sight-readers. The music interacts with what's on stage very differently from what you get in other shows."

Most audiences have been receptive to that different mood and pace — even the rather elderly crowds Spring Awakening received at a recent stop in Fort Myers, Fla. "They were older," Weitzman says, "but terrific. Maybe confused in some parts." It's still an open question if Spring Awakening would have fared differently if, as originally planned, it had been given a pre-Broadway production at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater five years ago, in front of that theater's aging subscriber base, rather than hitting largely unprepared Off-Broadway crowds full-force with its reckless youthful energy in late 2006.

Spring Awakenings is a startlingly contemporary musical composed by the Buddhist VH1-friendly pop hitmaker Duncan Sheik, but its rocking eroticism and risky themes of anguished adolescence hew closely to the 110-year-old German drama on which it's based. Frank Wedekind's original play, subtitled "a children's tragedy," has rarely been staged (and often been banned or censored when it has) due to its depictions of sexual urges, physical abuse, despotic authority figures and social unrest, largely shown from a teenage viewpoint. The musical's libretto, adapted from Wedekind by Steven Sater, doesn't sugarcoat any of the play's controversial themes, though as with such murderous or abusive musicals as Carousel or Sweeney Todd, a strong melody can make harsh subject matter more palatable. The Spring Awakening tour even continues a design distinction that made the Broadway production even more confrontational — some of the audience members are seated onstage. "They're just a few feet away from us," says Weitzman — the band is also onstage, not in an orchestra pit — "and we get to watch them react to the edgier parts."

Besides the onstage audience — something the once similarly intimate '90s tour of Cabaret wasn't able to maintain on tour — Spring Awakening has duplicated the original Broadway production (which closed in January, 2009, after nearly 900 performances) right down to using the same sets. Weitzman may not care to know a lot about Broadway, but she understands that production standards count for a lot when taking an established show on the road. "This is like the last few months that you can see the first national tour, and after that it will never be the same.

"All I can say is that if you have teenage kids, bring them now. This is mandatory viewing. We really believe in what we're doing."

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