ONLINE EXCLUSIVE! Spring Awakening's remarkable journey heads to Orlando

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Spring Awakening has had a remarkable journey. Since it first appeared in 1891, Frank Wedekind’s tragic-comedy has been censored, banned, and suffered the relative obscurity of being a play known primarily to scholars and theater aficionados. Flash forward to 2007, when the play gets a little rock’n’roll boost in a musical adaptation that receives 11 Tony nominations, and captures eight of the coveted Broadway awards. Has Wedekind’s play finally put controversy behind it?

LastHanschen_540775025.jpg“I started in Greenville, SC and that was a tough one,” says Robert Hager, who plays Hanschen Rilow in the Broadway tour, arriving in Orlando on May 18. “That was very tough, especially in my scene when I have to kiss Ernst. A lot of people left, there were a lot of people who would just stand up and leave. Even before, I also have this scene where I’m masturbating. I would see them just going out the door and leaving.”

While this was not the reaction in subsequent stops in Atlanta and Detroit, the young actor can’t help but confess his disappointment in experiencing the walkouts. At the same time, he feels that the audience is proving what the creative team of Spring Awakening learned several years ago — this play, over one hundred years old, is still relevant.

Hager was part of the original cast when the musical debuted on Broadway in 2006. He was a Chair of Rock, or “chair-rocker” as some fans have come to call them, which are cast members in plain clothes seated among audience members onstage. His duties also included understudying blond brooder Jonathan B. Wright, the original Hanschen. Hager went in and out of the show as he took some time to finish school, and was cast in the recent Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie with John Stamos. Hager then re-joined the tour cast in March of this year, the role of Hanschen fully his now.

The essence of Hanschen can be seen in two keys scenes in the musical. One in which he is masturbating with reckless abandon over artwork of women, then one in which he is seducing his fellow student Ernst. At first blush, it seems these two scenes give us conflicting takes on Hanschen’s sexuality.

“This is the thing about this guy, I don’t think he’s gay. I think he’s just obsessed with domination and controlling and being on top of everything,” says Hager. “He finds such joy in [fantasizing about] murdering this woman, Desdemona, and that excites him sexually. So that kind of parallels the scene with Ernst when he wants to get sexually stimulated, but he’s in an all boys school, so he has to choose the weakest one. And it works; he’s so seductive with the vocabulary he uses, it’s easy for Ernst to fall for him. It’s Hanschen’s weapon, his knowledge, his intelligence and the words he chooses to get what he wants.”

While it might be tempting to write Hager’s explanation off as a young actor afraid to play gay, his approach to the character is easily supported by some dramaturgs who point out that the generation of school children Wedekind wrote about is the same generation that would grow up to become Nazis.

“I meet him one week, then start kissing him the next week,” Hager compares the challenges of acting in these two keys scenes. “I thought that would be harder, but he’s an excellent actor and great friend already. I think the masturbation was the hard one because I was finding new things while I was rehearsing it. If I have a good start in the first act in that scene, the Hanschen/Ernst scene will just flow from that. Starting solid with what my intention in that monologue where I’m, you know, destroying this woman and finding that joy, so that joy can come back when I have that scene with Ernst.”

As fate would have it, Orlando will be the end of the line for Spring Awakening, at least in its present form. This unlikely meeting of a 19th century German play, the music of Duncan Sheik, and the lyrics of Steven Sater has made it’s mark on theater history, and now Orlando will be an important point in its timeline. Orlando will be the last stop for Spring Awakening, and Robi Hager will be the last Hanschen. Beyond the tour, Hager hopes more stage work and maybe go to LA and get a movie there too — “That’d be fun, I’d like to do that,” he says with a smile in his voice — and he like to concentrate more on his singing and songwriting. But first, there is that last show…

“There’s definitely going to be lot of crying,” he says, imagining the final performance. “A lot of people have been with the tour since it started two years ago. Even me, who just joined, I’m going to get a little sad about it, too. It’s the end of the whole, you know, since New York to now. That’s it. No more chances to do Spring Awakening again.”

Fairwinds Broadway Across America Orlando presents Spring Awakening at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, May 18-23. For tickets and more information, visit broadwayacrossamerica.com or call 407-423-9999.

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