When did you first get the chills while watching Rise? Was it during the opening shots cut from a This Is Us mold? Likely, though, the chills came during Lillette (Auli'i Cravalho) and Robbie's (Damon G. Gillespie) audition for Spring Awakening, the musical that the new theater director, Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Rador), decided to put on for his debut show.
For a theater department known for producing tame and expected high school musical fare, Spring Awakening is an ambitious choice. In a word, Spring Awakening is racy — the 2006 musical is about the sexual blossoming of a group of teenagers, and involves quite a bit of sex and nudity.
So, why would Lou choose Spring Awakening, which is sure to cause a scandal among parents, when he could've just put on Grease and called it a day? In the first episode, Lou explains his reasoning to an empty theater, which he imagines to be populated by his future cast. "Why Spring Awakening? Why a show about sexually repressed teenagers coming of age in 19th century Germany? Because just like you, they're dealing with intolerant parents. Teachers that don't get it. These kids are you. Their story is your story," he says to an empty theater, in full Dead Poets Society mode.
Lou is right. Even if they wear more modern clothes, the high schoolers auditioning for Spring Awakening definitely bear resemblance to the characters of Spring Awakening. They're of the same age, and are caught up in various life and romantic entanglements. They fall in love. They come to terms with sexuality. But at least in 21st century Pennsylvania, there's more of a way out than in the bleak, repressed world of 1891 Germany.
Spring Awakening refers to both the Tony Award-winning musical, and to the 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind upon which the musical is based. Wedekind, a Munich-based playwright, wrote Spring Awakening in response to his society's stifling and hypocritical attitude toward sexuality.
Wedekind's play focused on three characters — Wendla Bergmann, Moritz Stiefel, and Melchior Gabor. These kids are not taught about puberty, or of the pleasures of sex, or of its repercussions, and that leads to some pretty dire situations. At 14, for example, Wendla doesn't realize that her love affair with her brilliant, rebellious classmate Melchior could lead to pregnancy. They come of age in a time of shame and silence, and rely on each other to figure it out.
For its frank discussion of "controversial" issues — including erotic fantasy, homosexuality, suicide, and abortion — Spring Awakening was frequently banned. The first English production was staged in New York in 1917. The commissioner of licenses was intent on stopping the show. A court injunction allowed for the show to go on, but Spring Awakening still closed after one matinee performance. The show was produced a few more times, including a brief censored production by the English Stage Society in 1963 and a 1978 run at New York's Public Theater.
Cut to 2006, when the play was turned into a rock musical by musician Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater. The musical sets the emotional turmoil of each character — from Wendla and her unanswered questions about sex to Mortiz and his fear of inadequacy — to unforgettable and chill-inducing songs. The characters have only each other (and some pretty fantastic solos) to navigate the perils of adolescence.
In 2007, Spring Awakening won eight Tonys, including Best Musical. Even if you didn't see the original production of Spring Awakening, you'll recognize its stars. A 20-year-old Lea Michele starred as Wendla, Jonathan Groff as Melchior, John Gallagher Jr. as Mortiz, and Skylar Astin as Georg — further proof that Rise is a direct descendent of Glee.
Aside from complementing Rise's themes of rebellion and self-discovery, there's a more meta reason why Spring Awakening is perfect for the show. Rise is loosely based on the life of Lou Volpe, a visionary teacher that ran the drama program at Harry S. Truman High, a school in a working class town in Pennsylvania. In 2011, Volpe and his students put on the first-ever high school production of Spring Awakening.
Spring Awakening is a moving, earnest exploration of young people navigating a world full of adults who don't quite take them seriously. The musical is about the pain and frustration and undeniable excitement of growing up. Based on that alone, it's clear why Spring Awakening is the only musical for Rise.