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Katie Leening playing Wendla and Colin Roth plays Mechior in the Theatre Department's production of the musical "Spring Awakening."
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
A ‘Spring Awakening’ in the fall
November 12, 2015Tweet
As the new director of musical theater, it did not take Tommy Iafrate long to determine what kind of students he is working with at Binghamton University.
“The big, overwhelming thing is how smart they are,” Iafrate said. “I love working with smart actors. It’s such a treat! A lot of times as a director, you have to explain or justify why a choice works, but with the students here – whether it’s in a production or the classroom – the gears are always turning. They are constantly looking at things from different angles.”
The students are now looking at life as teenagers in 1891 Germany for the Theatre Department’s production of “Spring Awakening.” The musical, based on the play by Frank Wedekind, won eight Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2006. The show will be held at 8 p.m. Nov. 13-14, 20-21 and 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at Watters Theater. Tickets are $18, public; $16, faculty/staff/seniors; and $10, students.
“Spring Awakening,” which is now experiencing a revival on the Broadway stage, was chosen as a Mainstage production to generate excitement among the student performers and student audience, Iafrate said.
“This is a show that the student body has been excited about for many years and hoping we would do for many years,” the assistant professor and “Spring Awakening” director said. “So let’s go ahead and do it!”
But “Spring Awakening” is not the traditional musical. It is a show that addresses sexuality, morality and teen rebellion in a rock ‘n’ roll backdrop, thanks to Steven Sater’s book and lyrics and Duncan Sheik’s music.
“It’s a coming-of-age (show) about everything you could imagine happening to somebody young who is being oppressed by the adults of the world,” said Rebecca Stark, a sophomore from Oceanside, N.Y., who plays Anna. “On top of that, it breaks the rules of musical theater. I love that it’s set in the 1890s, but is contemporary with real rock music. That drives home what the show is about.”
“It has every controversial issue,” added Mary Dziekowicz, a senior from Utica, N.Y.,who plays five different roles in the musical. “As a (Theatre Department) student, you want to make people feel – hit them in the face and get them to wake up. It’s such a good show.”
The subject matter – along with the timelessness of the story – makes “Spring Awakening” relatable, especially for a young-adult audience, Iafrate said.
“’Spring Awakening’ tackles controversial, but universal, problems,” he said. “Even though the story takes place in the 19th century, it’s a story about kids learning about sex and feeling like nobody understands them. We’ve come a long way in the 125 years since the play was first written. But teenagers today still feel like they are not understood in the world by older generations. That’s at the heart of the story: the world we live in.”
For Iafrate, one of the challenges of directing “Spring Awakening” is that the show is not constructed as a typical musical.
“In traditional musical theater, there’s a plot that moves along smoothly with spoken dialogue until a character feels something so strongly that spoken words can’t express it anymore,” Iafrate said. “So they burst into song to get the point across and achieve whatever their goal is in that moment. Then they will sing and dance at the same time until the song is over and we move to the next scene.
“’Spring Awakening’ is not like that at all. It helped me when I stopped thinking of ‘Spring Awakening’ as musical theater and thought it as a 19th-century play that keeps getting interrupted by a 21st-century rock concert!”
Instead of singing to their scene partners, characters in “Spring Awakening” sing directly to the audience.
“The lyrics are contemporary in a way that the scenes are not,” Iafrate said. “The music is so contemporary that it would not fit into the 19th-century world. We live in the (characters’) emotional content for three and a half minutes. It feels like you are at a downtown, underground club, singing about what it feels like to go on a date or how it feels to hate society.”
The contemporary style of music is another facet of “Spring Awakening” that Iafrate finds relatable for audiences.
“The music is edgy instead of ‘song and dance,” said Iafrate, singing the words “song and dance” in a traditional music-theater style. “This is music you could hear on the radio.”
Both Stark and Dziekowicz said they have grown as performers from working with Iafrate.
“This is my first non-high school, non-community theater show,” said Stark, a political science major. “Tommy has been so helpful. I’ve dived so deeply into this character and with the people I am working with.”
“I’ve learned even more to let go and have fun,” Dziekowicz said. “I learned that with all of my (theater) teachers, but it’s been pushed to the limit here: ‘Mary, have fun!’ Tommy has pushed me to do things vocally that I never thought I could do. He makes it easy to work.”
The students, meanwhile, have pushed Iafrate.
“They have re-affirmed and cemented for me the importance of preparation,” he said. “It’s not new: ‘Oh, I never knew I had to prepare before coming to Binghamton University.’ But because they are so smart, they can see through fake, non-answers. I have to be prepared to give realistic and researched answers that speak to them with clarity. Or I have to say: ‘I don’t know the answer. I’ll have to get back to you!’”