This week I wanted to do something different from my previous editorials. This article is inspired by my first piece for The Theatrical Board (“Everything Old is New Again”), but I wanted to take this one in a new direction through my exploration of teenagers and their connection to theatre. Teenagers becoming fans of theatre is not a new phenomenon. Hair, Rent, Spring Awakening and Mean Girls are noteworthy musicals that show this trend dates back to the late 1960s.
In 1967, a musical that defined the teen generation of that time came to life. Hair follows a group known as “The Tribe” that protests the Vietnam War. When Claude receives his draft notice, he must make the choice of joining his friends and fighting for the cause, or doing what society and his conservative parents tell him to do: serve in the military. The characters come from different stages of life such as Berger, the student recently banished from high school, and Shelia, the NYU Student and anti-war protester. They are after a world of beauty and peace where the youth can be free to live as they choose, as symbolized by their long hair.
Ultimately, Claude goes off to war. The audience can presume he dies, since The Tribe can’t see or hear him as they sing the final number. Their world was at war, and The Tribe was trying to show their independence and mistrust of a government that conscripts youths to a war that they don't believe in. At the same time, The Tribe celebrated what they considered peace and beauty by embracing the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 60s.
Teens in every generation enjoy Hair because the characters are relatable; they too are young people trying to take a stand for what they believe. Hair also talks about the counterculture of being a teen in a time when the world was different, and how teens want to live their lives on their own terms and not the terms of a restrictive society. The piece also uses music that is fun. Teens connect to music that is upbeat and has clever lyrics. Even today, Hair is known as a rock musical and the connection young people have with the characters has not changed over the years.
Rent became a sensation with teenagers in 1996. Written by Jonathan Larson and based on the opera La Bohème by Puccini, this musical follows a group of New York City bohemian artists and the numerous difficulties they face. Mark, a filmmaker, is trying to find his place in the world, and Roger, an HIV positive musician, wants to know how he can leave his mark on the world before he dies. Mimi, an HIV+ drug addict and dancer, along with drag queen Angel who has AIDS, strive to find love. There’s also Joanne, who is a lawyer seeking loyalty from her wild artist girlfriend Maureen. A tale of love, loss and the power of friendship, Rent is a love letter to artists in New York City and beyond.
Perhaps an appeal to a more specific community of teenagers (the artists), Rent is about loving yourself and loving your art. The characters are young people trying to make a living through their artistic endeavors, and are dealing with the cards that the world has dealt them. It is relatable to any teen and young adult trying to do the same. The tale and struggles of the bohemian characters in the piece are relatable because the youth of the world see themselves on the stage of life. Yet another rock musical with great tunes that are energetic and emotional, Rent is a draw for teenagers who can relate to it, whether they’re an artist or not.
With eight Tony award wins in 2007, Spring Awakening is a tale of teenagers growing up and entering puberty in 19th century Germany. One afternoon, Wendla and Melchior accidentally meet at a private place in the woods. Upon seeing each other, the two soon find sexual feelings they have never felt before. Moritz’s teacher fails him for his minimally passing grades (which are due to the distractions Moritz's sexual desires and frustrations have created). This begins his slow demise and ultimate suicide. Martha, another friend of the group, reveals that she is sexually abused by her father, and that her mother is oblivious to this abuse. Ilse, an older friend, relates that she has a similar history of parental abuse and is now homeless.
Once it is revealed that Melchior gets Wendla pregnant, the two young lovers must find a way to make a life for both themselves and their child, but the pregnancy ends in tragedy. This show does not have a happy conclusion, but it has the closure that feels very real given the characters' circumstances.
When I was 18, Spring Awakening was the musical that all the teen theatre kids were into. It was new and had teenage characters as the star performers. Today, the rock and roll score and lyrics continues to captivate teenagers into becoming fans of this musical. Furthermore, the piece deals with sensitive topics that are not widely discussed; however, they are relevant, real and important in the world of a teenager.
Based on the hit film of the same name, Mean Girls opened in 2017 and has been wowing audiences nightly. The plot follows Cady, a homeschooled student from Africa, as she navigates the world of American high school for the first time. Janis and Damian are the first people Cady meets when she arrives. Early on, Cady learns about the social hierarchy of American high school, and she will need to figure out who her real friends are. When the “Queen Bees” Regina, Gretchen and Karen find Cady at lunch and ask her to sit with them, it seems like her world will change forever. But the treacherous Bees make Cady’s life a living hell. To combat this, Cady teams up with Janis and Damian in order to get revenge on Regina. By the end of the show, Cady sees that she doesn’t need to change to please people, and that she is perfectly fine just the way she is.
The cast is a huge draw for teens. Seeing Broadway actors they already love in the show is key to why they cherish this musical and attend multiple performances. Since it is also a film with a wide teen audience, they already know the story, so they want to see what has changed and what has remained the same in the musical. The Mean Girls characters are also very relatable to teens (whether it is Cady the new girl, or Regina the Queen Bee); these personalities are real to teens because they see facets of themselves in the characters. Besides all of that, the music and lyrics are fun and the kind of songs that you can play in the car with your theatre friends!
(Photo by Joan Marcus)