Wide Awake: How Art Makes a Difference


As a theater reviewer,  I see a lot of crappy plays. In fact, after four plus years of reviewing, I pretty much assume each play will be dreadful until proven otherwise—I’m hoping one day to parlay this attitude into a jury duty exemption.

A few years back, when I saw the original Spring Awakening, my expectations were low. I went in knowing only that the play had been written in 1891 and ran two and a half hours. Now, there are two things in life I cannot abide, history and sitting still for more than 90 minutes, so as the lights dipped, my spirit did too, that is until the first scene began.

Here’s what’s amazing about Spring Awakening: (And calm down, people, the gay content is en route.) Although the play originated as a critique of fin de siècle Germany’s sexually oppressive mores, it remains stunningly relevant in twenty-first century America. Like a heat seeking missile, the script zeros in on every hot topic with which society still grapples. We’ve got teen sex, the tragic omissions of abstinence education, adolescent suicide, spirit-crushing academic pressure, Christianity’s impact on free thought, physical abuse, incest, gay sexual awakening and even S&M.

Sensing the show’s potential to showcase angst-fueled love songs and moody rock anthems, in 2006, Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater reconceptualized Spring Awakening as a rock musical, eventually starring Glee’s Lea Michelle. (No, I’m not trying to pass that off as gay content. It’s coming, really.) In modern musical form, the show’s subtly rendered themes became instantly literal. On stage, actors mimed masturbation, sang that they were “totally fucked,” and had graphic sex under hot white lights.

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Here’s what’s amazing about my former high school: They produced the play as their spring musical this year. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have gone back to Wisconsin to see it. But two of my high school friends turned high powered blond career women with kids and mortgages and husbands and basically everything I don’t have invited me. Plus, I’d been back at Shorewood High School a month earlier to speak about being a novelist to kids from the gifted and talented program. I bring this up not to brag, because really, the whole time I was talking to the kids all I could think was how can I be anyone’s role model when I haven’t been able to afford decent underwear in five years, but because the experience I had with the teens influenced my choice to see the show.

See, I hated high school. On the eve of my high school graduation, one of my friends called our junior year production of Jesus Christ Superstar the “zenith of her existence.” Jesus Christ I hope not, I thought.

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Even in drama club I felt more observer than participant, an outsider peering through a half-open door. In Wisconsin, I didn’t look like the other Germanic blonds. I didn’t feel like the other girls with their effortless eye makeup and actual boyfriends. I liked guys, sure, but I liked my female teachers more. By the time I graduated, the high school boasted one out gay kid. No one ever tied him to a fence and left him for dead, so I guess he did okay. Still, I remember anti-gay epithets, being called a gaywad for hugging a girl, and how in Health Class when I put an anonymous query in the box for questions, the teacher thought mine was a joke.

How do I know if I’m gay, my discarded note read.

Tons of kids have it worse, but high school left me not only perennially terrified of teenagers, but feeling like I was holding a neon sign. “OTHER,” it blared in blazing orange.

Yet talking with the teens wasn’t scary. They weren’t the eye-rolling mean girls I remembered from my childhood, but rather a group of fascinatingly fully-formed near adults. I was curious about how the group and their peers might handle a show like Spring Awakening, so I decided to attend.

Once seated next to the high powered blonds in my high school auditorium, I felt anxious, reduced. The show when it started was mind-bogglingly graphic; girls sang about how their father’s beat them and came to their beds at night, boys railed against religion’s impact on sex. Watching, I was awed and depressed by how much Germany in 1891 looked like America in 2013. Next to me the blonds applauded and flipped pages in their programs. I was conscious of the money in their wallets, the kids they’d left behind just for tonight. The constant nature of their marriages, the rights they offered. They hadn’t said a word about how my life deviated from theirs. I was the one who couldn’t let it go.

Nothing changes, I thought. Meaning America. Meaning whether or not I fit in.

Just then though, onstage—a subtle, strong insider’s impression of a sexual, gay other. In the auditorium’s breathless silence, he seduced a male ingenue. I tensed, waiting for a directorial misstep, for the actor to lisp or flip his wrist. Instead, the boys leaned toward one another and slowly, tenderly they kissed. First the audience, packed with high schoolers, gasped a little then they burst into applause. The applause grew as the scene ended, echoing off the walls of a room in which I’d wondered years ago what would happen to me if I didn’t get married like my classmates planned to, what would happen if I admitted I liked girls.

I feel certain that Shorewood High School, though liberal, would not have performed Spring Awakening even two years ago. We may still have abstinence education, back alley abortion, teen suicide, but at least in one tiny, suburb in Wisconsin, at least on Spring Awakening’s opening night, it’s okay to be gay.

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