The following entry may contain triggering material and spoilers for the musical Spring Awakening.
Disclaimer: I never got around to reading the original stageplay. And I only started re-listening to the music from here because I was looking for “There Once Was A Pirate” song from the off-Broadway version, replaced by “The Guilty Ones” in the official show version that became the fan name so I’m probably not going to find the pirate song again.
On Spotify, I could only find the Stage Stars version of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, and the vocals are exactly whelming. The overall score of the show itself isn’t what I’d call life-alteringly sublime, no, it’s fairly pop-y: I could skip right over “The Bitch of Living” or “My Junk” or “Mirror Blue Night” or “And Then There Were None” or…but the songs I do love, I love.
One minor complaint of mine is that, at the time of this writing, this particular Spotify album mistitled the song “The Guilty Ones” that should actually be “Blue Wind / Don’t Do Sadness” (And that awesomely rocking duet mistitled as “The Guilty Ones”). Here’s a clip of “Blue Wind” from the American Sign Language revival known among Guilty Ones—fans of this show still are calling themselves that, right?—as Deaf Awakening.
The full song, both full songs being sung together in counterpoint, is so cathartic for me in a way that’s difficult to explain without spoilers. So I’m going to write so many spoilers. First, the major opinion I want to put out there about the Sign Language revival version is that the movements make sense now. (The original stage musical version had settled into this choreography motif of everyone circling their nipples and rubbing their bellies through their clothes, which I suppose was supposed to be artsy, but I couldn’t understand any deeper meaning than Interpretive Dance Looks Artsy. But they kept doing it. I continued to not get it.) Also, American Sign Language looks admirably efficient and concise. The Tony Awards performance of Deaf Awakening had some singers and some signing, and I noticed the signers moving so slowly when the vocalized part had so many syllables there was no worry at all that the vocals would outpace the signing.
The entire show is about teenagers growing into sexual maturity in a 19th century German town: a cozy, intensely repressive, community. The main character, Wendla, has an unplanned pregnancy because her parents only reluctantly informed her that to make babies, you get married (and nothing about the details, so she had no clue that consenting to sex with a guy she didn’t marry would still pose a pregnancy risk.) Her parents then force Wendla to abort. It gets worse for Wendla from then on.
Hanschen is another character. As I recall, he and his partners survive being gay in a storytelling medium, and even serve as the comic relief in an otherwise painfully tragic morose morass of tragedy and pain. He has no story arc, no real subplot, no personal or interpersonal conflict because he’s simply better than everybody else: he knows it, the show knows it, and his partners quickly come to agree. He’s practically perfect, like a gay German dude version of Mary Poppins.
My favorites are still these next two, not necessarily together sexually or romantically—the ships-passing-in-the-night aspect of whatever their relationship would have been is heartbreaking, though—but just…Moritz Stiefel is a suicidal school flunkee. I was a suicidal school flunkee. I would play Moritz’s elegy song, “Left Behind” on loop back when it was young Jonathan Groff singing, and it was as though I could still breathe through the emotional knifeblock that my rib cage had become because someone (fictional, but whatever) knew what it was like to live on. That was Melchior, but narratively I feel as though he is half of Moritz, or this Melchior-Moritz Wonder Twins combination of…really, processing suicidal grief and depression. They’re both players in this story, and at the time this story had (I would put it this way now, not at that time) bespelled me.
Moritz is the shadow, the part that gets it. Moritz died—killed himself—so that I wouldn’t have to. He gets it, what it’s like to be driven to that point when you’re only a shadow cast by real living people who did things to “you”, “you” with Quote Marks of Emphasized Technicality because the concept of being a person isn’t there anymore. Moritz gets it when so many condescending and unhelpful outside perspectives to depression and suicide…did not.
Moritz pulled the trigger because, “I don’t do sadness.” And that’s one way to stop it, that sadness, if it’s sadness…but…more important than not making death an option is owning that option as a choice. For me at least, having mustered up—well, borrowed, from this song—even that speck of personal sovereignty? Suicidal ideations become less inevitable. He’s the Lord of Shalott.
There’s a modern tradition of mysticism, I guess it can be called one, known as soulbonding. Sometimes it’s the way creators describe how alive their characters have become, as they immerse themselves in a creative process. Other times, characters from existing works are treated like spell correspondents, or gods with responsibilities over a sphere of influence that can be appealed to.
In that community, I find people asking for recommendations for fictional characters they could “summon” as soulbonds, to ease the challenges of coexistence. Which characters can redirect or reframe personal feelings of jealousy? Which characters encourage discipline and motivation towards a given goal? Which characters help someone to make friends if they’re shy, or hold them accountable to honesty if they’re too anxious not to say what they think other people want to hear?
When one recommendation request came on to help cope with anxiety and depression, I almost suggested Moritz or Elaine Ascalot. I think it’s good that I didn’t. I only know what worked for me. If it’s possible that Moritz’s portrayal of suicide glamourizes and encourages the act when most people would rather that never happen…well, I’m fortunate that I reacted to Moritz’s songs the way I did. I’m fortunate to have encountered this work with this character at the time that I did at all, but as I can’t even know anybody else’s internal world (I only understand a stakely situation) I wouldn’t want to risk someone else taking it as less helpful or even opposite helpful than I did.
Back to “Blue Wind” singer Ilse Neumann, first name pronounced like “EL-sa”, and…she’s a goddess. Lauren Pritchard plays Bohemian Ilse as free-spirited but with some grounded serenity. Krysta Rodriguez plays Bohemian Ilse as a manic pixie dream. There’s a German cast whose Ilse has a singing voice like a clear stream of the purest nectar (I heard her “Blue Wind / Don’t Do Sadness” on YouTube playing opposite a Moritz who delivers the line meaning ‘you startled me’ like it’s a death threat, unfortunately, but he hit the high notes in his half just fine.) (Or, I don’t speak German, so maybe they changed the script.)
(Comparisons of “The Dark I Know Well” Ilses would be so much more…something…method acting analysis…but…intense, so no? I’ll just keep myself to all the possible dozen infinite Bohemian flower bouquet unbraided hair “Blue Wind” crooning Ilses.)
However Ilse’s played, I feel as though there’s this mantle of magnificence this character gives people to carry throughout the show. She completes another duet, “The Dark I Know Well” with Martha, revealing both to be victims of incestuous rape. We don’t see much of Martha after—she establishes that it’s a horrifically common problem in their tiny, tight-knit town. “The Dark I Know Well” is a disjointed sort of call-and-response double soliloquy. Ilse suffered as much as Martha, but some aspect is bigger than that, even when the whole song is about how “there’s a part I can’t tell about the dark I know well…” and they can’t let on to anyone but themselves and the watching audience, it isn’t “suffering as much” but “suffering with” even when it’s not possible for them in that town, to bring it out or up and share it.
Ilse bears witness to Martha’s violation as well as her own. She does the same with Moritz when she sings “Blue Wind”, and her body language during the staging of “Left Behind” (Moritz’s funeral scene) is a scathing condemnation of the irresponsible adults who drove Moritz to suicide. No flighty, promiscuous teenager repressing trauma should have the power to scathe without a word…but, Ilse. Ilse Neumann, is all.
And, despite Melchior being positioned as the hero and protagonist, as Moritz’s only friend, as Wendla’s lover…it’s not him but Ilse who leads the final chorus. “The Song of Purple Summer” describes the passage of time through pain, and it catches at the voices of everyone; it’s a song of acknowledging pain and grief, for everything passes, and hope for everything passes, and it’s vast and complex, as though one song from one specific character, because of her story, because of her nature…opened this giant gate to life and the world itself. No barely-present side character should have that much p—Ilse, damn it all, Ilse Neumann. Goddess of summer and life and the universe and everything.