When art is a frisky business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (YAF) has been a darling of corporate sponsors since it was formed 20 years ago. It has staged productions of popular musicals such as Bugsy Malone, Fame and Footloose. But this year's main stage show hasn't attracted a single sponsor, and it's not too difficult to see why.

Spring Awakening, a controversial play about the tumult of teenage sexuality by German playwright Frank Wedekind, was banned when it was first staged in 1892. Its themes of sexual abuse, abortion, homosexuality, suicide and masturbation didn't sit well with audiences well into the 20th century.

It has since been reinvented as an alternative rock musical and is being staged this month by the YAF even though some of the subjects are still taboo in Hong Kong more than 100 years after it was written.

So why has the foundation, which relies on corporate sponsors to fund programmes involving 800,000 children in art, drama, workshops and other events throughout the year, made such a controversial choice for its annual flagship musical?

'Over the past three years, we feel we've matured,' says YAF founder and director Lindsey McAlister. 'So two years ago, we did Sweeney Todd, and last year we did Rent. We didn't want to go back to anything too 'tweeny'. Schools wouldn't touch Spring Awakening with a barge pole, and that was one reason we felt it would be a good thing to do.'

Some may find it depressing. It includes scenes of teenage pregnancy, abortion and a boy who shoots himself because of the cruelty of his father and teachers. But it's a musical that many teenagers will identify with.

'It's an edgy, fast-paced, contemporary musical,' McAlister says. 'People still use the word 'shocking' to describe certain scenes. For example, on stage it's not that usual to have someone simulating masturbation. But that particular scene is also quite humorous. It's done in a very honest and open way. It probably reflects life. We've said 12-plus, parental guidance and we do mention adult themes,' she says of the six performances, which include two shows for schools.

Spring Awakening was adapted into a rock musical five years ago with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater. It has won multiple awards and been staged on Broadway, as a touring musical in Britain and at the Edinburgh Festival. The foundation is bringing it to Hong Kong for the first time.

Interestingly, the 35 performers are about the same age as the 19th century teenage characters they will play. The youngest is 14. In the Broadway version, the performers were in their early 20s.

Megan Leung Sze-wing, 17, plays Wendla Bergmann, a lead character whose mother refuses to tell her anything about conception other than that a woman must love her husband with all her heart. This leaves her daughter confused and dangerously naive.

'This musical is much more in your face than even Rent was last year,' she says. One song has the F-word in its title, something Megan finds totally realistic for her age group. 'I use filthy language around my friends,' she admits.

Her mother, Laurie Lemmlie-Leung, says: 'I had never heard of Spring Awakening. I thought: 'What a depressing play! Who would want to turn this into a musical? What's wrong with South Pacific or Fiddler on the Roof?' But then I heard the soundtrack. The music is hauntingly beautiful.' Megan, like several other performers, is pleased that her parents have been supportive, even if it did take some getting used to.

For Max Percy, 16, it was the first time he had auditioned outside Island School. His character, Hanschen, shares some intimate moments with school friend Ernst. Joshua Davy, 16, also has a tough task. He plays Melchior, who falls in love with Wendla. Firstly there's the on-stage romance to become accustomed to, followed by a scene in which he beats Wendla after she asks him to, so that she can feel the same pain experienced by an abused friend.

Victoria Nassberg, 18, plays Ilse, who drifts aimlessly after being driven out by her parents. She says her parents, Barry and Nancy, were supportive about her taking on the role. 'It's about the sexual awakening of teenagers,' she says. 'About acceptance and individuality, a 19th century play paired with rock music.'

Nancy Nassberg had an Irish Catholic upbringing, and sex wasn't openly discussed in the family. She is proud that her daughter is taking part in the musical. 'Victoria said to me, if there is anyone in the audience in an abusive situation, or who has a friend who is homosexual, through the musical they will know they are not alone. For her, that's what it is all about. Even if parents walk out.'

Nicola Rae, a part-time freelance secondary school teacher, will take two classes to see the musical. 'I have letters from the parents allowing them to go,' she says. 'The fact that it is teenagers performing it makes it all the more real to students. We will have a workshop before and after. This is not only an opportunity to see and talk about issues that aren't talked about here, but also, these students are not from rich backgrounds. They don't get to see much theatre at all. So, here they have the opportunity to see these high-level actors and a production.'

Scott Gibson sits at the piano in a Quarry Bay studio, where the performers have been rehearsing every Monday and Wednesday. This particular evening, it's Halloween. They laugh as McAlister scolds them for having mouths full of chocolate when they're supposed to be doing voice exercises.

Gibson has a daughter in the production and has been McAlister's musical co-conspirator for years, even if he does moan that she tries to choreograph too much.

Gibson says it will be a bonus if teenagers and their parents leave the performance and talk about the issues. It will also be a success if teenagers realise they are not alone. But he says it's not only about the social issues. A musical like Spring Awakening has intrinsic value as a piece of musical theatre, he says.

'Entertainment is often a form of escapism. But surely the role of a musical such as Spring Awakening is to give us a glimpse of reality, both the wonders and the horrors of it,' he says. 'It gives us a deeper understanding of the human condition, rather than providing some escapism.'

So what would Wedekind think about his play being staged as a musical more than a century on in Hong Kong? 'I think he would be thrilled that we're tackling it,' McAlister says. 'But I think he would be disappointed that some of these subjects are still regarded as taboo. A hundred years later, they shouldn't still be regarded as sensitive.' annemarie.evans@scmp.com

Spring Awakening will be performed at 7.30pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 11am on Saturday at Shouson Theatre, HK Arts Centre. Tickets HK$180-HK$250. Call Urbtix on 21115999, www.urbtix.hk