From Wedekind to Woodard

AS THE 19TH CENTURY EBBED, German playwright Frank Wedekind repeatedly provoked controversy——and even served a jail term——for his writings challenging authority and, particularly, the repressive morality of the time. His 1891 play, The Awakening of Spring, drew especially heavy condemnation and censorship because its plot included teenage sex, abortion and homosexuality.

More than 100 years later, that plot became the engine for Spring Awakening, a musical that roared onto Broadway. Following years of shaping, including a five-day 1999 workshop at La Jolla Playhouse, Awakening opened in December 2006 to rapturous reviews and ecstatic audiences, then rocketed to 11 2007 Tony nominations and eight wins, including musical, director, book, score and choreography. It also copped best-musical awards from the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

The tuner remains a sizzler in New York, and the national tour makes its West Coast debut here August 15-31, presented in Balboa Theatre by Broadway/San Diego. It will be the first extended-run production in our renovated downtown jewel, and the first major Broadway offering in the theater’s 84-year history.

So what’s the appeal? How did a century-old story transform into a production that stirred major critics to such raves as "A miracle that must be seen to be believed" and "Broadway may never be the same"? Well, much of the credit has to go to the alt-rock score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, which also garnered a Grammy nomination. Both have strong backgrounds in pop composing, and Sheik’s varied rhythms support Sater’s words in capturing the characters’ introspective feelings. Take, for example, the titles of three songs: "My Junk," "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally F----- (or, to be polite) Shafted."

But what truly connects with today’s audiences is Sater’s adaptation of the Wedekind story. Although set in 1891 Germany, the theme of youthful sexuality clashing with adult disapproval and suppression obviously resonates strongly. And like Rent, it doesn’t feature stars but solid performers who deliver in acting, singing or dancing. So audience-cast identification is easy.

WE’RE AMID a Charlayne Woodard festival. Well, maybe a mini-fest. The acclaimed performer-writer is doing her newest script, The Night Watcher, as La Jolla Playhouse’s latest Page to Stage workshop (through July 27). Then Lamb’s Players reprises Pretty Fire (August 1–September 7), her first solo work, which she debuted at the Playhouse in 1999. Woodard, however, won’t be doing the role at Lamb’s because of commitments in Seattle.

Fire, which went on to win several awards, is Woodard’s portrayal of incidents from her childhood (the title refers to her remembrance of seeing a large burning cross), while Watcher is a series of vignettes examining parent-child relationships. Woodard has no children but is "auntie" or godmother to 30, and she uses re-creations of their stories to illustrate how an extended family helps shape children’s guidance and growth. As she describes it: "Night Watcher is a play about a sort-of motherhood. Some of us are put here to have these kids in the way that I have them."

Over the years, Woodard says, one of her best techniques for getting kids to talk about their concerns was to take them hiking and then urge them to "give it to the mountain." After a while, she says, they open up about what might be bothering them. And she recalls with a laugh that when she mentioned she was writing a play about their experiences, one boy mischievously said, "Be sure to use my father’s full name."

Woodard, who——despite popular misconception——is not related to Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, has thrived on stage and in film and television but prefers theater because of the "magic between actors and audiences." And she’s particularly happy to be back at the Playhouse. "I was so honored they called me," she says. "It’s the best workshop in America." Plus she has an especially warm memory. Shortly after moving from New York to Los Angeles and wondering if she’d made the right decision, she won a key role in Shout Up a Morning, a 1986 Playhouse musical based on the John Henry legend.

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