I am having a hard time trying to find books to read this month for my reading list topic of “suicide.” I think this is because typical adult fare doesn’t appeal in this topic, I don’t want to read sad things about queer kids, and I don’t want to read about sad heteros either.
But the other weekend I was listening to Spring Awakening very loudly on my noise-cancelling headphones to drown out my dad blasting yet another Dead and Company concert he found on the internet and it occurred to me. I haven’t actually ever sat down with y’all and given an elaborate expository narrative about my relationship with this musical, though I’ve hinted.
So it’s junior year of high school. In high school all I did musically was ask for the cast recording to every musical that remotely appealed to me, and Spring Awakening was a fairly new release. As you know, I was big into Rent (am still very fond), so “oh cool a new rock musical.” I was in love by the first time I finished the album, the kind of love where you evangelize to all your friends and make sure they all have the album too. We were a bunch of theatre nerds, so this was pretty much par for the course.
Over the course of the next year I swandove into this musical as a special interest. I got the sheet music and learned how to play it, I wrote more than one melancholy-but-optimistic story about the characters (for the sakes of my three best friends at the time), I read the original play and in fact wrote my AP English Literature essay on it (it was a prompt about something about childhood, or innocence, or something – I couldn’t resist! Plus, they say “use direct quotes” but don’t let you bring books, but conveniently I had memorized lines from the play) and also did my final theatre class monologue from it (the play version of Ilse in the woods, complete with fake wildflowers I toted around all day). Said three best friends, along with two boys (one friend, one boyfriend) and my parents, did Spring Awakening for Halloween that year, at the same time I was learning how to Photoshop, and this resulted in an honest-to-goodness photo shoot in my living room that I then edited all to hell. I present the evidence, because what do I have to lose?
(The girl [as Anna] whose face is blurred out is someone I haven’t spoken to in years, really; the boys are the boys [in this picture Hanschen and Melchior, though the Hanschen played Moritz for most of the shoot. The blonde [as Martha] is the one who once dressed as Captain Shortpants for a Can’t Stop the Serenity trip with us Years ago and the redhead [as Wendla], of course, is my Inara-Penny-Buffy cosplay friend of old. The adults are… my parents. I, as I’ve mentioned before, am Ilse.)
This was a project. My parents rented their costumes, sort of last-minute on a whim; the Wendla costume (which funnily enough is the one that won the official costume contest the show held that year, though my friends took the entire album with them and showed us all off to the cast, something I’m still proud of) is actually, if I recall, jammie shorts and a maternity swimsuit cover-up, and the boys’ costumes are button-ups, socks, and pants that my mother cut and hemmed, but our Martha made her own costume and my mom was completely responsible for the Anna and Ilse dresses. You’ll see also the chalkboard in this picture, imitating the one on the set; it was a green sheet we hung up in front of a bookshelf and wrote on with chalk both to cover distractions and, well, imitate the set. The stage set in this photograph, though, is completely computer-rendered, because I was just that kind of dork and I wanted to see if I could.
We took pictures. We took every possible picture we could think of to take. There’s us girls all lined up on the table pretending to be in the middle of “My Junk” even though I was Ilse instead of Thea (we couldn’t find a Thea and just did without), there’s our Wendla standing on a chair, there’s our Moritz practically headbanging, there’s all of us jumping around in rebellion. As I’ve said, these did get shown to the original cast, which is still something I am proud of even if it’s silly, because we cared.
We were eventually going to turn the little stories I’d written into a movie. (We never did this.) Our Anna rewrote lyrics, I wrote a script based on my vignettes; it was about the girls, in the aftermath of the deaths and horrors, vowing to run away from this place forever but together this time, away from hurtful adults. They were naive, but they were together and that was kind of the point. There were also, of course, requisite ghost cameos. It was all very spiritual; to quote Hanschen, I was “such a sentimentalist.”
In the following months, I would see the show four times: twice in New York (once in the front row, once in the onstage seating) and twice on tour, the latter time of which I actually burst into big sloppy tears and bawled all through the finale. I saw it again about a year ago at a local college and in a very Pavlovian fashion did exactly the same thing, and I know that’s how it will be forever now. I’ve made my peace with it. It’s heavy for me.
This damn musical, though. The thing is, none of us were going through exactly what the musical is about in high school. Religion was present in our lives to varying degrees, but not so strictly; none of us had parents reigning over us so hard, none of us were having contraband teenage sex. But the general feelings of youthful hope and rage… I’m eight years older now than I was at the time and the album still gives me chills. I’ve never actually performed the show, because nobody should put me in musicals that people have to watch probably, but I know all of the harmonies and still sing them in the car. Etcetera.
And yeah, I relate to pretty much everyone. Questioning authority like Melchior? Yeah, I’ve done that. Being naive and absolutely hating it like Wendla? Yup. Consistently. Beating myself up over failures like Moritz? I’ve never done it as intensely as him, I’ve never actually thought about suicide, but I don’t take anti-depressant drugs just for kicks. Being the artistic loner like Ilse, carrying around a great hurt like her and Martha? Not the same kind of artistic loner and definitely not the same kind of great hurt, but “The Dark I Know Well” completely destroys me every time, to this day, because it hits me, as they say, in the feels. Like Hanschen and Ernst, I can be very queer. Like Georg, I like music and boobs. And like Anna? Well, although I’m not going to have children barring an accidental baby acquisition, “when I have children, I’ll let them be free, and they’ll grow strong and tall.”
There is so much truth in this anachronistic rock musical about repressed German schoolchildren. So many feelings that still ring so true to me. But I think the thing that makes me bawl my eyes out at “The Song of Purple Summer” is – well, it’s the same reason I love Sailor Moon, honestly. I love this world and the good things in it, and I can get very much in touch with my inner darkness but I want more than anything to believe in an earth that will wave with corn, a day so white so warm, a mare that will neigh with stallions that they’ve mated and foals they’ve borne. I want to believe in something beautiful, somewhere, somehow.
–your fangirl heroine.