Lyricist/librettist Steve Sater, who adapted Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play Spring Awakening into a musical along with composer Duncan Sheik, cites the shootings at Columbine as an inspiration to take on the story of adolescent explorations into sex and identity at a German secondary school. It's a telling corollary, since he and Sheik have created a work that exists in a fantasy world containing elements of both the late 19th century and the early 21st. In his liner notes to the original Broadway cast album, Sater reveals that Sheik, a pop/rock singer/songwriter, had problems with the standard conceit in musicals in which characters burst into song in the middle of scenes; Sater's solution was to suggest that the songs could "[function] as interior monologues." This compromise makes for a score unlike most others in musical theater. Although the songs are still to a certain extent imbedded in dramatic scenes and are expressive of character, they also stand apart from the story and complement it. Sater's fearless use of anachronism makes no requirement that the music sound anything like Germany in the 1890s or that the lyrics reflect that era. On the contrary, this is rock-based music with lyrics written in the vernacular of American high school students of the 2000s. "...I cried out -- like, in Latin: 'This is so not life at all," goes a line in the hard rocking "The Bitch of Living," and there are enough obscenities, some even in the song titles, to get the album a "parental advisory/explicit content" sticker.
But there is more going on here than just Goethe-meets-Green Day (or, to be more precise, Wedekind-meets-Weezer). The play, which Sater calls a "Symbolist masterpiece," was not produced for 18 years due to its sexual content, and Sater has retained that in a tale full of hormonal torment, suicidal urges, and adult repression. Meanwhile, much of the symbolism survives in the songs, which can be highly poetic in describing the characters' feelings. "From the beginning, we conceived Spring Awakening as both a piece of musical theater and a pop/rock album," Sater notes, and the cast album is, as a result, in some ways a sequel to the 2001 Sheik album Phantom Moon, on which Sater also collaborated, with a bunch of talented, expressive young singers substituting for Sheik. As such, the rock songs never really rock all the way through, and the ballads have a quality of recitative -- if these are interior monologues, they also indulge in a rambling stream-of-consciousness. As such, Spring Awakening does not work as well as a rock musical as Rent because it is not committed to rock as a form. At the same time, it will read as "rock" by musical theater fans who will need only the sound of an electric guitar and the sight of performers holding microphones to classify it as such. The best audience for it may well be the real-life counterparts of the teenagers making their first discoveries about life and love on the stage, an audience largely lost to Broadway as of 2006 (except for Wicked) who could respond to Spring Awakening for the same reason audiences always respond to a piece of popular entertainment, because it reflects back at them something of themselves.