SCOTT SIMON, host:
Rock musicals have come and gone on Broadway for years now, and they never quite seem to be satisfying to anyone. Rock lovers think they're too much like Broadway, Broadway lovers think they're not enough like Broadway.
Now, there's a new show called "Spring Awakening" that seems to be bridging that divide. Based on a 19th century German play, "Spring Awakening" deals with teenage sexuality. It includes incest, sadomasochism, and rape. A warning: some of the language in our report may make some listeners uncomfortable. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
(Soundbite of play, "Spring Awakening")
Unidentified Group: (Speaking Latin)
NEDA ULABY: The year is 1891. German schoolboys conjugate Latin verbs in drab uniforms and brutally parted hair. Suddenly, one boy leaps up, pulls a microphone from his jacket, and sings.
(Soundbite of song, "All That's Known")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) All that's known in history and science, overthrown at home, at school by blind men. You doubt them and soon they bark and hound you 'til everything you say is just another bad about you.
ULABY: The idea is that we're hearing teenagers' inner thoughts. And those haven't changed that much over generations. Fifteen-year-old Zuri Washington has seen the musical three times.
Ms. ZURI WASHINGTON (Broadway musical fan): The songs connects our time to their time. But issues don't really change, they just get swept under the rug in my opinion. The entire play is a teen tragedy primarily focusing on three teens. One is Melchior, who's, like, teen heartthrob extraordinaire.
ULABY: Melchior is a subversive who rebels against his provincial environment in his friendship with a troubled schoolmate and in a doomed romance with a curious girl.
(Sounbite of song, "The Word of Your Body")
Unidentified Man: O, I'm gonna bruise you. O, you're gonna be my bruise.
ULABY: "Spring Awakening" is as much rock concert as musical, although the actors speak in formal 19th century dialogue when they're not singing. Those actors are treated like rock stars by the fans mobbing the stage door after every show.
Unidentified Woman: Oh, he's so cute. Oh god, he's so cute.
ULABY: Sisters Jenna Columbini(ph) and Lian Murphy(ph), ages 20 and 17, traveled from the suburbs to see the show.
Do you normally stand outside the stage door?
Unidentified Woman #1: No.
Unidentified Woman #2: I just want that main kid's phone number.
ULABY: The actor are kids, most of them between 15 and 20 years old. So when they sing about growing up, it feels dangerously immediate.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: There's nowhere to hide from these bones from my mind. It's broken inside, I'm a man and a child.
ULABY: The music is by Duncan Sheik. Back in the mid-1990s, he had a few hit songs on the rock charts. But his musical theater background was limited to a handful of shows in high school.
Mr. DUNCAN SHEIK (Singer, songwriter): Like I played guitar in "Godspell" and this terrible musical about William Blake called "Tiger" and it's really - it was bad.
ULABY: Sheik says most rock musicals are dressed up leather pants. He defied convention by writing indie rock songs and trusting them to flow organically into the story. According to most critics, he succeeded.
Christopher Isherwood reviews theater for the New York Times.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD (Theater critic, New York Times): It's doing something entirely new. It's really trying to push the genre forward. And I actually hope they do inspire other musicians from other areas of the pop and rock world to experiment with writing for theater.
ULABY: Isherwood says "Spring Awakening" was long censored because of its treatment of once taboo topics, like abortion and homosexuality. Those themes today are well-trodden, but the musical manages to feel daring especially in a scene where a girl asks a boy to beat her, and during a gleeful number about masturbation.
(Soundbite of song, "The Bitch of Living")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) She said give me that hand please an itch you can't control. Let me teach you how to handle all the sadness in your soul. Oh, we'll work that silver magic then we'll aim it at the wall. She said love may make you blind kid, but I wouldn't mind at all.
CHORUS: It's the bitch of living. Bitch, just a bitch, with nothing but your hand. Just a bitch, yeah, just the bitch of living as someone you can't stand...
ULABY: Those lyrics and the book were written by playwright Steven Sater.
Mr. STEVEN SATER (Playwright, "Spring Awakening): The song begins about masturbating. Well, they say it's the bitch of living, living with your hand. But then the key line he says is the bitch of living as someone you can't stand. And so who doesn't understand and remember that feeling as an adolescent? You never get passed. I'm kicking myself all day about being someone I can't stand. You know what I mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHEIK: Right.
Mr. SATER: That's why we're chanting...
Mr. SHEIK: Yes.
Mr. SATER: ...to try to get over it.
(Soundbite of a bell)
Mr. SATER: (chanting) Nom myoho renga kuh. Nom myoho renga kuh...
Mr. SHEIK: (chanting) Nom myoho renga kuh. Nom myoho renga kuh...
ULABY: Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik chant as part of their Buddhist practice. They're kneeling together now before a small altar in Sheik's downtown loft. The two met in Buddhist circles eight years ago. Sheik says it makes sense that two Buddhists wrote an angsty(ph) teen musical about the fatal consequences of repression.
Mr. SHEIK: Buddhism is about life in all of its complexity and intensity. So I think for us, as Buddhists, it's acknowledging what the human condition is.
ULABY: But the two had difficulty getting the musical staged. After the September 11th, Steven Sater says audience mood was perceived to swing towards frothy, escapist fare.
Mr. SATER: With our German story and our rock CD, no one could make it out. So we couldn't get anywhere. And, really, our savior in this was Tom Hulce.
ULABY: Then Tom Hulce signed on as one of "Spring Awakening's" executive producers. You may remember him as the star of the movie "Amadeus."
(Soundbite of movie, "Amadeus")
ULABY: These days Hulce is mostly behind the scenes. What attracted him to "Spring Awakening" he says, was the source material's voluptuous stew of adolescent feelings.
Mr. TOM HULCE (Executive Producer, "Spring Awakening"): Shame and self-worth, and what it means to love someone, and what it means to lose someone, and the thrill and almost outlaw sense of getting to partake of something that is forbidden. And then the responsibilities of that.
ULABY: Hulce says the play's cry of coming of age belongs in an era where prurience and sex are still deeply intertwined, and where bad kids, sad kids, and kids who don't quite belong still have precious little to guide them.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can hear more of Duncan Sheik's Indy rock compositions for "Spring Awakenings" at our Web site, npr.org.