Serious sentiments in "Spring Awakening" flip the script for A2 in Concert


Ann Arbor in Concert, Spring Awakening

In the musical Spring Awakening, a group of teenagers collectively face suicide, rape, homelessness, parental incest, and depression, all while they struggle to understand their burgeoning sexuality over the course of a school year. Adapted from a German play written in the 1890s, the musical hasn’t made many changes to the storyline, it just added some rock music.

This will be Ann Arbor in Concert’s fifth production since the organization began in 2012, and this is a very different show than anything else they’ve produced. Over the past few years, Ann Arbor in Concert’s credits have included Ragtime, 42nd Street, West Side Story, and, most recently, Hairspray.

“We were originally supposed to do The Music Man,” said Mike Mosallam, the director of Spring Awakening. “We were planning to do another large-scale show. But it’s been a hard year … it’s been hard for the country, and it’s been a hard year for the town of Ann Arbor. We wanted to contribute to the conversation. We felt like doing a show like The Music Man may have felt like an easy choice. So we totally changed gears and are taking a major risk. We’re not featuring a choir this year, which is a big departure for us. We’re not featuring as large of an orchestra as we typically do. Our show has a cast of 15, and 13 of the 15 are young adults. The entire sound, the entire show, the entire everything of the show rests on their shoulders. And the artistry in this show has been one of the most fulfilling of my life to date.”

Since a minimalist rock musical is a stark departure from anything Ann Arbor in Concert has ever produced before, Mosallam spoke a bit more about their decision to do a show without a choir and with a much smaller orchestra. “I’ve found myself looking through the lens of who we are as an organization, this idea of Ann Arbor in Concert,” said Mosallam. “And if we are to bill ourselves as an organization that does concert musicals, I kept thinking: What show better lends itself to a concert? It’s essentially a rock concert in these kids’ minds. And so our lens is very much not ignoring the fact that there’s a band onstage.”

As for the impact of joining a conversation with the community of Ann Arbor, Mosallam takes Ann Arbor in Concert's responsibility seriously. “We made a conscious choice to go with a show that allowed us to participate in social discussion. … We wanted the community to feel like we could, as a community-based organization, provide resources for those who were looking for someone to talk to. We decided early on that we would do a talkback so that we could discuss the themes of the show and how they parallel today. And we want to allow community organizations that specialize in helping through these times of crisis to come and participate in the show, be present, be there, and be a resource for the community. It’s really an act of social engagement.”

In the hopes of continuing that discussion, Craig VanKempen, a social worker and health educator at the Corner Health Center of Ypsilanti, will be giving a talk on Monday, July 10, at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library about the history of the German play and how it relates to the modern issues that many adolescents in America face and what we can do to address them.

“Curiosity, experimentation, and depth of feelings are normal parts of being an adolescent, no matter what time period,” said VanKempen. “I believe it is the job of adults to guide them to exploring feelings and experimenting in a safe way. … The beauty of this play is that it doesn't need to be adapted to a modern audience. (Lyricist Steven) Sater and (musician Duncan) Sheik, who brought the play to Broadway, saw this and decided to keep its late 19th-century German setting and aesthetic when they were designing the show. And the reason it works is because the issues faced still resonate with us today. The one thing that Sater and Sheik did in adapting this to a modern audience was make the subtext in the original play into song, so that the audience can hear and feel what the actors are thinking instead of getting that from the performances. This leads to some very powerful and memorable songs.”

As for Ann Arbor in Concert, what will growth in the future look like? “I think for me growth is continuing to push boundaries in our show choices," said Mosallam. "Continuing to have our show choices influenced by what’s happening in the world at large and letting those shows become commentary on them.”

Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ann Arbor in Concert’s one-night-only performance of "Spring Awakening will be on Saturday, July 15, at 8 pm at the Power Center. Tickets are on sale at or at the Michigan Union Ticket Office. The Ann Arbor District Library presents “Spring Awakening: How a 19th-Century German Play Rocks With Relevance Today,” a talk and discussion led by Craig VanKempen, MSW, MPH, on Monday, July 10, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the library’s Downtown branch.