Over the past couple of decades, musical theatre has seen a surge of narratives and stories focusing on teenagers. From Hairspray to 13, musical theatre has welcomed and embraced the often misunderstood adolescent population. Even looking back on decades past, classics like West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and Grease put the teenager center stage. So why is the theatrical genre of the musical such an effective environment for showcasing these stories? Time to grab our journals and put on our scrunchies as we take a look at Spring Awakening, Heathers, and the role of the audience.
The root that ties every play from every genre together is drama, conflict and human relations. High stakes elevate the narrative and set characters on emotional journeys that see them survive changes like rags to riches, despair to love, and perhaps the greatest transition of all: puberty. Arguably, Spring Awakening is the best example of puberty on the Great White Way. It empowers the protagonist Melchior Gabor, fascinates the lead Wendla Bergmann and haunts the supporting character Moritz Stiefel. The adult characters view the topic of sexuality as taboo and shameful, resulting in miscommunication and abuse of knowledge that results in tragic consequences. So, besides the story, what makes Spring Awakening such a hit with teens? Well, let’s take a look at the structure of the piece. Spring Awakening employs the slightly Brechtian device of having the characters breaking past the fourth wall to perform their inner monologues as angst ridden rock and pop songs to the audience. Here, the show rejects the traditional manner of using songs to move the narrative forward and thus creates a voice that not only represents the character but a collective voice symbolizing all teens.
Heathers handles the angst of adolescence in a much more tongue-in-cheek fashion. In the opening number, “Beautiful,” protagonist Veronica Sawyer sings, “I look around at all these kids I’ve known all my life and I ask myself: What happened?” Perhaps this line preludes some foreshadowing for the heroine, as she later finds herself tangled in a web of lies, deceit and terrorism. While Heathers is arguably a much lighter take on post-puberty youth, it manages to cleverly unpack the hierarchy of high school. With the popular girls (The Heathers) and jocks (Ram and Kurt) are at the top and the nerds and misfits (Veronica, Martha, and JD) are at the bottom, there exists a stereotypical image of popularity in the secondary education food chain. But here is where the narratives of Spring Awakening and Heathers manage to intersect. When the misunderstood characters’ voices are silenced and censored, their actions become alarming. During “Seventeen,” JD and Veronica duet about creating a new world that exists without the popular kids, singing, “The new world needed room for me and you.” In Spring Awakening, Melchior sings, “You watch me, just watch me” during “All That’s Known.” They speak about not improving the world, but creating entirely new ones. Perhaps the real tragedy of both stories is that the cries of teens in 1890s Germany are still unanswered nearly hundred years later in 1980s Ohio.
Not only are adolescences needed onstage, they are needed in the audience as well. According The Broadway League’s report “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2013-2014,” only 8.6% of spectators were under 18 that season. Factors for low attendance could result from high ticket costs and the geographical restriction of the Broadway district, which may not be easily accessible for youth living outside of the New York area. So, what can be done to improve this issue? Bringing musical theatre content to the web and making it accessible and affordable to teens and young adults. With the success of the Daddy Long Legs livestream in 2015, I believe that the internet can help the musical theatre community uncover a whole new audience of young people on a global scale.
Audiences are paying to not only watch but also to listen and hear the narratives of youth, a community often misunderstood and misrepresented as moody, rebellious and troublesome. In musical theatre, like any character, teenage characters are created to be seen and heard. As a community, artists have a responsibility to continue to represent the adolescent in truthful ways in order to break stereotypes, engage and demonstrate to youth that their feelings, ideas and experiences do matter.
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