February 24, 2010
By Ken Krayeske • 10:00 PM EST
The main musical number of "Spring Awakening" - Totally Fucked - yeah, that's us. And that's John Wojda second from left. Photo by Paul Kolnick, courtesy of the Bushnell.
John Wojda portrays the male 'parentocracy' that rules over
the youth cast in "Spring Awakening," the multiple-Tony winning musical about the travails of teen desire now at the Bushnell until February 28.
I never cover theatre, let alone musicals. But "Spring Awakening" fits my academic landscape, and my interview with Wojda, on his 53rd birthday (February 19), was as compelling as the musical itself.
The original "Spring Awakening," written in 1891 by playwright Frank Wedenkind, was banned in its native Germany for decades because it was pornographic.
“It was so incredibly shocking and controversial, it couldn’t be performed for 26 years,” Wojda said. “The Bohemians in the German mind had gotten out of hand. This was a real crackdown on youth.”
If only those kids could have read German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born in Prague, then the capital of Bohemia in Austria-Hungary Empire, in 1875. Rilke died in 1926. Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" seems to answer many of the questions that the young Germans in "Spring Awakening" grapple with.
"Spring Awakening" confronts the run of teen issues: homosexuality, incestual molestation, abuse, masturbation, suicide, and pressure to achieve academically.
Back in the 1890s, though, one can easily see how these topics were taboo. "The theme is about how young people are put upon, taken advantage of," Wojda said. "With this story, it goes more to the human injustice, it is criticizing its time."
Wojda, who as the adult male plays about six different roles, made the point that the crackdown on youth in the play portrays the reality of the strict, disciplinarian, almost sadistic culture that precedes the upbringing of Hitler and his lieutenants.
Even the repetitive, regimented choreography in "Spring Awakening" illustrates the militaristic mind frame.
Hitler was born in 1889, and many of his advisors were either born within a few years of him, or 10 years later at the turn of the century. "They were the foot soldiers in World War I and the high-ranking plutocrats of World War II," Wojda said.
Examining a portrayal of the youth of the Nazi regime seemed appropriate, as I am studying Robert H. Jackson, the former Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General and Solicitor General (who argues the federal government’s cases before the Supreme Court).
Jackson, though, is most famous for prosecuting the Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. Jackson's assistant was Thomas J. Dodd, the father of Senator Christopher Dodd.
The class about Jackson with Professor Robert Birmingham has focused on the Nazi mentality, as we watched "The Triumph of the Will," the inventive documentary by Leni Reifenstahl about a Nazi rally in Nuremburg in 1934. Reifenstahl's documentary pioneered cinematographic techniques still in use today.
Watching Reifenstahl's sprawling scenes of thousands of uniformed Nazis participating in ceremonies that look like the medal-pinning scene at the end of "Star Wars," it is difficult to understand why people ignored Churchill’s warnings.
It seems easy enough that the mass rallies at Nuremburg logically lead to the conquest of Europe. How could one create such armies and not use them? Kind of like February 2003, with Bush stockpiling troops on the Kuwaiti border, how could he not invade? Economies depended on it.
Wojda agreed that Reifenstahl’s film provided important historical insights, and scoffed at those who suggest it should be banned. Thus "Spring Awakening" might show us how simple it was for a Hitler to arise from this repressive culture.
But as I watched the teen pregnancy in "Spring Awakening" unfold, where the mother acknowledged the stork doesn’t bring babies, but tragically left the child ignorant of how the human body reproduces, I concluded it was no different from the issues facing us today.
"Even the good parents in our play make bad decisions," Wojda said. "They are working within the morality of their time."
Twenty-first century America is that militaristic society which, among the many injustices heaped on youth, will imprison a teenager for life, or even subject that teen to capital punishment. This doesn't mean that a Hitler sits in our community, waiting to corral the dark forces of death.
What it signifies, though, is that while more than a century has passed, humanity hasn't evolved a whole heck of a lot.
The original Broadway director, Michael Mayer, acknowledged that "Spring Awakening" deals with universal issues.
"I think families across the board have had conversations, big important conversations about growing up and sexuality and politics and religion and the family unit and social issues as a result of seeing this play together," Mayer is quoted in press materials for the play.
Wojda and I used the play to talk a bit about his youth, growing up in Michigan. Wojda's father owned a one-chair barbershop, his mother was a clerk at Kresge's, the department store (precursor to K-Mart). He was one of four siblings, whom all attended college.
"For tuition and room and board at the University of Michigan in 1975, I believe, the grand total was $865 a term," Wojda said. "It was the Seventies, so a lot of the programs of the Sixties were in place. They had the basic Equal Opportunity Grant, which became the Pell Grant.
"So even that $865 a term was largely paid for. I was a good student with a lot of involvement in extracurricular activities. I got a free ride."
The day before we spoke, the University of Connecticut had just raised tuition by 5.3 percent, pushing an in-state student’s semester bill to more than $10,000.
"You can't imagine that people like my parents and my family today would stand a chance," Wojda said. "Back then, that was the American dream. My parents figured we might not be having a great life, but we are going through so our children will have it better. I think now people are just glad their kids are not going under."
Wojda left his parents' house at age 17. "It would have been unusual if we stayed," he said. "You would have either been working or something. You were out the door at 18 when I was growing up."
The stars of "Spring Awakening" are young, no older than 21 or 22. Wojda said he can't imagine the pressures that society today burdens youth with.
"They are going six figures into debt to get a job?" he said. "To have to start your working life with that behind you? That worries me. I don't understand it, and it is something that I thank my lucky stars that I am not a youngster today trying to get educated. I don’t know quite how this happened."
As the America Dream has long been mythologized, education is the key to moving up the social ladder. America is different than the Old World, we were told, because you can climb the socio-economic ladder, and you’re life what you make it.
During the musical, one of the oppressed teens fantasizes escaping to America, and I waited for the plot to turn that way. But then photos by Jacob Riis of 19th century New York city tenements and sweatshops flashed through my mind.
"These young people who were brutalized, didn't even know it, they expected that is what happened to kids," Wojda said. In his own youth, he remembers "we were hit – the nuns and priests, and shop teachers they had this paddle. It is a soul destroyer and killer of creativity.
"Every kid is going through something, they are all having to work their way through this repressive atmosphere that they don't know is repressive, it is the way things are."
And I wonder as we trudge through this second great gilded age, where the patrons of the Bushnell look nothing like the inhabitants of the great city where it sits, where the children of the state of Connecticut face educational costs that outstrip their ability to pay, if this is the way it has to be.