Director to fulfil wish with show

Lexie Tomlinson (Wendla) and Will Larkins (Melchior) rehearse their roles in Spring Awakening ...
Lexie Tomlinson (Wendla) and Will Larkins (Melchior) rehearse their roles in Spring Awakening (musical). Photos: supplied
A rare chance to be involved in one of her "bucket list" musicals meant Kim Morgan had to go back on her promise to her "long-suffering" husband that she would take the rest of the year off. The theatre director tells Rebecca Fox what is so special about the musical Spring Awakening

"My head exploded," says Kim Morgan of the moment she heard the musical Spring Awakening was to be performed in Dunedin.

A huge fan of the rock musical, Morgan never thought she would get to be part of a production of the show in New Zealand as it is a rarely performed piece because of the sensitive material it covers.

So she rang Pop Up Productions to congratulate them on their coup and was surprised to be offered the opportunity to direct the show.

Her husband urged her to break her promise to take a break, saying she would never forgive herself if she did not do it as it was not likely to be done again in Dunedin in their lifetimes.

"I will finally be able to tick off my number one bucket list show. It has been atop my list since 2000 so it’s been more than 20 years now. I’m just so excited to do it."

It is based on a play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind as a commentary on what he saw as the sexually repressed culture of 19th century Germany.

"It is about the teenagers of his day, their sexuality, their angst. There is a suicide in the production, there is a forced end of a pregnancy on the part of the parents, there’s a lot of heavy material, particularly for 1891 Germany, mixed in with humour, genuine emotion and, as you might imagine, the play was banned immediately and not performed for quite some time and even when it was [performed] it was usually toned down."

It was not until the mid-to-late 20th century that the play started being performed more regularly. Although it is still a lesser known show, those that know about it are "passionate, rabid about it".

"I studied it in graduate school, we all knew about it, it was a favourite."

The play then inspired the musical written by author Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (Emmy award nominated singer-songwriter) in the late 1990s. It premiered off-Broadway in 2005.

"I caught up with it in a tiny 2cm blurb in the back of The New Yorker magazine somewhere around 2000.

"I thought this is amazing they’re doing this great play which is really hard to do and turning it into a rock musical. They were taking this historical play and putting it with rock music so I was very curious about it."

As Morgan’s interest was piqued she kept following it.

"An entire generation of my students at the University of Denver were obsessed with this musical before it was even on stage or available because I told them so much."

It premiered on Broadway in 2006 becoming a "smash hit" and won eight out of the 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for. It launched the careers of actors Lea Michele (Rachel Berry on Glee) and Jonathan Groff (HamiltonGleeFrozen).

"It became this iconic thing, like Rent was for a larger audience a bit earlier, this became the defining musical in the 2000s for teenage angst.

"They did this beautiful job of honouring the original and making something new."

Spring Awakening (musical) director Kim Morgan.
Spring Awakening (musical) director Kim Morgan.
The musical still has the weighty themes of the original around sexuality, suicide and conflict with family and institutions like the Church but with every heavy moment they have found a way to bring in humour to balance out the show, she says.

"It is laugh-out-loud funny a lot of times, the music is stunningly good. I’ve never seen a musical so carefully crafted both when it was written and how they’ve revised it over the years."

There was a revival of the musical in 2015 at Deaf West Theatre where it was performed simultaneously in English and sign language featuring deaf film star Marlee Matlin.

"It was this amazing cool revival which put it back on the map a little less than 10 years ago."

In Dunedin the show will be performed in the Playhouse Theatre, which fits an audience of 100 to 120, providing an intimate setting for what she calls a "small cast, intense, rock’n’roll show".

The characters will all remain on stage throughout the show, moving to the side when not in a scene and providing a on-stage audience.

"It’s a space known for children’s shows and we are doing something that is about children/young adults but in a very different vein to their usual fare and we want everyone to know that."

Because it is a bit weightier, they have classed the production as R13+ with parental guidance.

The original play was subtitled "a children’s tragedy" but they dropped that for the musical.

"They’ve added a whole bunch of positivity and hope, so slight spoiler alert, although not every character who starts the story will end the story, the way that it ends [is] with a character, who has been impacted the most, choosing to go forward in a positive way."

There are 11 teen characters in the show but the adult characters are performed by one woman played by Arlie McCormick (Pop-Up Productions co-founder) and one man, Darrel Read.

"They each have six, eight or 10 characters that they play without costume changes, they just shift from one parent or teacher to another.

"They embody the adult world ... with the best intentions, if they were just better at reaching out to and speaking frankly to these young people none of the tragedy would happen."

The teen characters are played by actors in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom have been in other musical productions, such as William Larkins (Melchior) and Lexie Tomlinson (Wendla).

"It’s a young cast, a stunningly talented cast. It’s a hard show so you have to have the right people to do it and we got so lucky.

"They have some of the best voices you’ll hear, they’re also fantastic young actors, they understand these characters and play them with a sincerity and a simplicity that is laugh out loud and heartbreaking all at once."

The material they cover in the show is not something most young actors are faced with until they are older and more experienced.

"It’s a roller-coaster, it’s the saving grace of the show."

Max Beal (Moritz) and Darrel Read who plays one of the adult roles in the show.
Max Beal (Moritz) and Darrel Read who plays one of the adult roles in the show.
For Tomlinson, auditioning for the show was a no-brainer as she has loved it ever since discovering it when she was about 14 years old.

"It’s my favourite show, I love it, the music and the story."

Tomlinson has always loved musicals. She has performed in community theatre, theatre restaurants and bigger shows like Chicago and Jersey Boys.

She is especially attracted to shows that have stories that make people think about the world and themselves which Spring Awakening does.

"I was always drawn to it and then when I listened to the soundtrack I was blown away. It’s so different from a traditional musical with its big chorus."

To play a lead role for the first time in this musical is extra special, she says.

"It’s an important story with an important message. It’s my favourite musical so there is a lot of pressure there."

Her character is a 14-year-old German girl going to a Christian school, who is innocent and sweet, but also curious and starting to push boundaries and question the ideas of her parents and school.

"She’s a lovely character but a lot goes wrong because of her ignorance, but despite everything going so terribly wrong she still seems to find hope. It’s a beautiful part of her character."

The heavy subjects the musical canvases meant she was a little nervous when she started rehearsals.

"It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before.

"It’s very exciting but a challenge. I have to get out of my comfort zone and push myself to do some uncomfortable scenes.

"Overall it is really rewarding as a performer and an actor. I’m learning so much — I love the role."

Morgan says fortunately things have improved for performers since its premiere in 2006 and procedures have been put in place to support the actors.

"We have a lot more conversations about mental health, about intimacy and consent."

They have advocates both young and old whose job it is to support the health and safety of the cast and be a go-to person if anyone has concerns.

"We’ve got a very open door to the creative team to discuss things."

People working in the theatre and trauma space have been invited to talk to the cast and have brought in Lara McGregor as an intimacy co-ordinator.

There is a sex scene between the two main characters, an intimate scene between a gay couple, suicide is mentioned as is incest and abuse.

Melchior (Will Larkins) and the cast rehearse.
Melchior (Will Larkins) and the cast rehearse.
"It is a lot of heavy stuff. So when working those intimate scenes which involve touching and kissing we took a long time to ensure we followed approved practices and that everybody was comfortable and safe," Morgan says.

For the youngest actors a list of the actions required was made and consent was given for those actions.

"We’ve been very clear to honour consent and do regular check-ins, to have support mechanisms in place and make sure people, as young actors only three or four years older than their characters, to make sure they are OK.

"If anything comes too close to home [we] support them through the process and give them breathing space if needed."

Tomlinson, who is working towards a bachelor’s degree in performing arts at the University of Otago in musical theatre, says the support has been great and she is learning to recognise moments where she becomes too absorbed in the story.

"When that happens I step out, so I can see it’s just the show. It hasn’t triggered anything so far.

"We’re a small cast and everyone has become good friends which is lovely."

The Dunedin show includes musical direction by Pop Up Productions co-founder Bridget Telfer-Milne and choreography by Olivia Larkins.

Morgan says there are no scenery shifts, curtains, pyrotechnics or any other flashy, musical techniques, just 13 performers committed to an "amazing story" and the music.

"It’s intentionally stripped down to the bare minimum so you can concentrate on the wonderful characters and story.

"There are no gimmicks, that is what makes it so rewarding."

For Morgan the reality of doing the show is every bit as good as the dream.

"Every morning [I] wake up with a different song running through my head and I have to do that reality check — I’m really doing my dream show with this wonderful group of people."

Together the cast are very aware of the importance of the show.

"We will have young people coming to see it and they will see themselves in these characters, they will recognise their struggles and they will hopefully take with them the message of the show ... it gets better, there are people you can talk to, the story doesn’t have to end the way this story does — there are other options."

She has heard people say how they still remember the show years after seeing it.

"In my experience this show changes lives for the better, both for the people that do it, but also for the people who see it."

To see: 

Spring Awakening (musical), The Playhouse, Dunedin, November 1 -11, 7pm (November 5, 4pm), Mature Content (R13): sexuality, abuse, suicide, profanity, and other "adult" topics.