Musical escapism

7 April 2020

Mark Smith reflects on Spring Awakening and the power of musical theatre in uncertain times


Dropping the words ‘student theatre’ into conversation with passionate theatre lovers can often feel like traversing through landmines: one fatal misstep, perhaps you put a bit too much emphasis on the word ‘amateur’, and suddenly your words blow up in your face and their attention slips from your fingers. Now, restarting the conversation, you also must break it to this person that you want them to come to your amateur musical theatre production. Not only have you hit a landmine, you’ve tripped the whole field and the ground is opening to swallow you as yet another potential audience member slips from your grasp.

It’s a scenario any student invested in musical theatre is all too familiar with. Perhaps the thought of young people doing jazz hands while trying to make sense of Sondheim arrangements is too much for older, more ‘experienced’ theatre audiences. Musical theatre kids have become a meme of their own on social media these days and it can be hard denying their accuracy. It’s true that you will always spot the musical theatre kid in a crowd. Involvement in amateur theatre can vastly improve confidence levels for students: the ability to talk in front of large groups becomes second nature for these thespians; presentations are less daunting, leaderships roles easier to fill, and the day-to-day performance of a social life is injected with new fervour.

Musical theatre awards a myriad of invaluable skills and opportunities that students can carry with them beyond their university years. From experience with music theory, choreography and physical fitness, to playing in an orchestra and the wealth of roles backstage in the technical team. Aside from all this, the necessity of musical theatre boils down to the fact that it is fun. It brings people together in the very joy of being part of an open community where everyone is seeking out their creative outlet. The stage is escapism: a niche for a generation trudging through a sombre society, tucked away from the ubiquitous dysfunctionality of modern life. 

If the uncertainty of the last month is anything to go by, with our ways of life across the globe coming to a dizzyingly abrupt halt, these sources of comfort and happiness are becoming more poignant than ever. It has been, undoubtedly, a gruelling month for theatre lovers: West End and Broadway productions across the board have been cancelled for the foreseeable future over fears of audience and artist safety, and the ambiguity surrounding how long this radio silence will last has certainly stirred anxiety amongst passionate thespians. The arts, however, have still been kept thriving with the buzz of online classes, free streaming events and virtual concerts. The necessity of the arts has been emblazoned across social media with the global threat of a pandemic laying bare the way we, by nature, seek out narratives for reassurance and contemplation amidst upheaval. 

One particular narrative from NSDF’s 2020 line-up whose silence will be felt is the typically raucous Spring Awakening: the indie-rock musical that earned creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater critical and commercial acclaim and a plethora of awards, including the Tony award for Best Musical at the 2007 Tony Awards. The musical centres on the morose journey taken by eleven schoolchildren as their sexual awakenings become entangled with their sheltered adolescent lives. The show has since become synonymous with its brooding 19th century German setting; while this might not seem the most immediately accessible backdrop for today’s millennial audience, Spring Awakening still manages to propagate a devoted fan-base of teenagers and young adults. 

Sheik and Slater’s musical holds a mirror to its audience, forcing us to witness the universal whiplash effect puberty has on the once stable worldview we look at through the prism of innocence and youth. These characters, growing out of the safeguards placed on them by parents and teachers, put the show’s exhilarating score to use as their own personal safe space. Handheld microphones are wrenched from out of school uniforms, as thrashing guitars explode in songs such as ‘The Bitch of Living’ and ‘Totally Fucked’ – every bit as mutinous as their titles imply. The music in Spring Awakening is a momentary release from oppressive societal structures enforced upon these kids: not necessarily advancing the plot in the traditional sense, but rather allowing the characters to fulfil the role of rebellious pop-rock idols – if only for a three-minute frenzy. 

In a conversation with the musical director for Showstopper’s production, Benjamin McQuigg, he elucidated what he believed to be one of the show’s core thematic concerns. “The issues that were prominent then are still relevant now,” and that, furthermore, the score allows these characters to “bridge the gap between then and now, bringing them and the issues they are dealing with into our time.” Benjamin raises an interesting paradox about the power of theatre: its ability to act as an escape from issues in the world, while simultaneously functioning as a political spearhead charged with the intent to change these same issues. For many young people with a love for theatre it is more than escapism; it is also empowerment. 

For the students of Showstoppers Southampton, who do not have the option of taking theatre courses at their university, “this community is purely made up of people that love making theatre just for the fun of it,” as Benjamin tells me. While the future of this production hangs in the balance, the process of its production, and the message this company wanted to share, will always stay with those involved. Happy endings and warm, fuzzy sentiments may seem incongruous to a show such as Spring Awakening, but it still, nonetheless, foregrounds what is so important about musical theatre for student and teenage performers. These sweet, sporadic moments of escape, and the community they can share these moments with, are the foundation of a stable ground when it feels like the world is being pulled out from underneath us. 

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Gee Harper