NEW YORK — Every generation of young people have endured the same burden when it comes to the big issues of war and peace, life and death, love and hate – the adults are in charge of the decisions. Three current stage offerings, "Spring Awakening," "Journey's End," and "The Fantasticks" illustrates that this condition is not only universal, but timeless.
It's also, as Frank Wedekind discovered at the close of the 19th century, a quick way to get your play banned. Wedekind's Spring Awakening, which depicted repressed provincial adolescents groping through puberty – their minds blindfolded to all information about love, self-expression, and sex – led German officials to ban its production, and it remained unproduced for generations.
In one of the most daring theatrical realizations of the past decade, a razor-sharp creative team (writer Steven Sater, composer Duncan Sheik, director Michael Mayer, designers Christine Jones and Kevin Adams, and choreographer Bill T. Jones) has brought "Spring Awakening" to Broadway as a musical. The cast is introduced in period-specific short pants and long braids, then jolted into today with the help of a rock score fit for an alternative radio station. The teenagers' stories ricochet like countless others down through the centuries – innocent sex becomes unintended pregnancy, an authoritarian father produces a suicidal son, officious teachers punish creative students.
But these fresh spirits, shackled by puerile, narrow-minded, or even harshly abusive controlling adults, cry out for wild rebellion. Their anguish and energy flash boldly like lightning. The contemporary score, with its sexually frank lyrics, and electric choreography create an event destined to shake Broadway's foundations for years to come. Bred off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company, it boasts its original young cast who have melded into an organic storytelling entity. Not since "Rent" has a musical so compellingly heralded new theatrical talent.
Journey's End, which R.C. Sherriff could barely get produced in 1928, is sturdy and methodically paced with subtle, delicately crafted performances. Chillingly re-created at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, the play follows the story of a naive, hero-worshiping young soldier who falls under the command of duty-driven Captain Stanhope (the steely Hugh Dancy). Stanhope is the fiancé of the young soldier's sister, and he fears the lad will report his superior's newly developed hard-drinking behavior in letters home.
The war has stricken Stanhope with unshakable terrors, killing his youthful vision. Only his second-in-command, a middle-aged lieutenant – played by Boyd Gaines – sees through the bravura and into the leader's tortured mind. Everyone else, especially the workmanlike Trotter (John Ahlin), admires and follows their inspiring leader. And the still-green volunteer (Stark Sands), like all young soldiers, must follow orders and suffer the consequences.
Throughout the play, from attempts to plan strategy to diversions from the madness mere yards away, a small candle burns on a solitary table. As the final tableau of senseless death and wasted youth plays through, the candle remains lit, giving off too little heat or light to truly matter, yet bright enough to offer the false hope that new leaders may finally get it right.
Two generations ago, on a stage in New York's Greenwich Village, a young love fable made its own history, with a sunnier, funnier version of the coming-of-age theme. Edmund Rostand's "Les Romanesques" inspired writer Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt to sculpt a tiny universe where a boy, a girl, their fathers, and some traveling performers asked their audience to "Try to Remember." And their creation, The Fantasticks, became the longest-running musical in the history of the American stage, from 1959 until 2002.
A sweetly enchanting revival at the Snapple Theater Center now re-creates the original, where idealized young lovers defy their parents, learn about love, and believe they invented all of life's great emotions. With the barest of props – a painted curtain and a cardboard moon – they weave the same magic that has charmed people of all ages, all over the world.
Like "A Chorus Line," it remains faithful to its origins, guaranteeing first-timers the genius of its simple elegance, and veterans the joy of revisiting a true classic.