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What Is 'Spring Awakening' About? 'Rise' Delivers A Musical Within A Musical

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From the creatives behind Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Hamilton comes Rise, a new musical drama premiering on NBC on Tuesday, March 13. It focuses on the languishing theater department of a working class high school, after a teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor) decides he can revamp the department and the first step he takes is to change the musical from Grease to Spring Awakening. So what is Spring Awakening about and why choose it to reinvigorate a dull drama program?

The musical premiered on Broadway in 2006 and it launched the TV careers of singer-actors like Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher, Jr. It's based on an 1891 German play of the same name, and among the reasons it resonates so well with teens is due to the fact that it deals with issues like adolescent sexuality, pregnancy, sexual violence, homelessness suicide, and other mental health struggles, all set to an alt-rock score set. It's super angsty, features provocative sex scenes, and positions adults squarely in the position of oppressive villains who ignore the realities of adolescent strife with tragic consequences. In other words, it's the perfect choice to shake up a stalled out, predictable theater department.

Spring Awakening tells the story of a group of teens living in a small town in late-19th century Germany. The boys and girls are separated for school and they lament that adults don't teach them anything about sex. Via ensemble storytelling, the musical explores various sexual frustrations, from overwhelming desire, to confusion and misinformation, to navigating queer identity, to incest, rape, and sexual abuse. In one scene, Wendla Bergmann, the character originated by Lea Michele, learns her friend Ilse is being physically and sexually abused by her father. Wendla asks Melchior Gabor, a neighborhood boy and childhood friend, to hit her with a switch so she can understand Ilse's pain. But Melchior, reluctant at first, gets so carried away that he ends up beating her to tears. Later, the pair have sex and Wendla becomes pregnant. It's an intense and unflinching look at the ways teens experiment with pleasure and pain, and how childhood trauma shapes us.

Another prominent character, Moritz Stiefel, appears to suffer from depression and anxiety, but of course, his mental health struggles are viewed as a moral failing on behalf of his parents and teachers. He flunks a final exam which prevents him from moving forward in his schooling, so he winds up getting kicked out of his home by his unsympathetic father. With nowhere left to turn, Moritz eventually kills himself. In his belongings are discovered an essay about sex which Melchior, having educated himself on it, wrote for him to explain the mechanics. That discovery is enough to blame Melchior for the suicide and get him expelled. Coupled with news of Wendla's pregnancy, his parents decided to send him away to reform school without telling him she's pregnant.

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Eventually, Melchior learns that Wendla is pregnant, runs away from reform school, and sends her a letter to meet him in the graveyard where Moritz is buried. While waiting there for her, he discovers her grave — Wendla has died from a botched abortion attempt, presumably forced upon her by her parents. Melchior contemplates suicide himself until the ghosts of Wendla and Melchior convince him to soldier on.

In the end, the ensemble of teens reappears (in modern dress) to sing about the hopeful progressivism of youth and how it can be harnessed to fight narrow-mindedness in older generations. Obviously, it's an edgy show with timeless themes and ultra-contemporary music including notes of blues, punk, and soul — a perfect way to hit refresh on a traditional musical theater department and infuse it with new talent.

Rise received tons of promotion during both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, plus, its lead-in is the This Is Us finale. NBC is clearly staking a lot in the show, and if we're going to have to hear the songs of one musical over and over again as the school mounts its production, Spring Awakening is a pretty good pick.

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