This is a weird blog for me. I usually indulge in the policy wonkiness that folks like me thrive on here in Washington, DC. And while I love the work I get to do on sexual and reproductive health and rights, the theatre has become another of my great loves. My partner opened up this world for me as he is an award winning local actor and musical theatre performer in Washington. We also indulge in frequent New York weekends that are a volleyball match between theaters and restaurants followed by much needed sleep on Amtrak on the trip back home.
Our most recent trip to New York was memorable as work and private life melded into enjoying what critics have hailed as the best new musical to hit Broadway in a long time. For me, I can explain it best as sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) on Broadway, and in particular, the most forthright and unapologetic defense of adolescent sexual health and rights I've ever seen as a form of entertainment.
The musical, Spring Awakening, is one of those rare opportunities that both entertains and speaks our language. Based on a controversial 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the story is set in the last decade of the 19th century in an un-named German province. The show opens with a mother, struggling as too many mothers do, to speak with her blossoming daughter about her sexuality. The audience's raucous laughter at this opening suggests that the situation resonates with everyone. Even a stuffy older couple behind us who had earlier chatted about how they thought this show "was about kids and sex and coming of age or something like that" let loose, breaking the ice on America's collective discomfort with the subject matter at hand.
The show unfolds with a cast of good looking and exceptionally talented young actors who are likable because we see ourselves in each of them. A rebellious young woman who flees to the city to escape conformity is paired with a male whose angst is all internalized and consequently, leads to disaster. Another male character deals with his sexual orientation. The lead female, Wendla, finds herself experiencing puberty in ignorance because her mother refuses to speak with her about it. She's attracted to the free-spirited Melchoir, and when these two fumble into sex, the narrative heartbreakingly unfolds.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I don't want to give too much away, but the storyline of this show serves to underscore why our work in SRHR is so important. While it never clunks you over the head with issues—sex education, contraceptive information and services, and access to safe abortion—they are collectively the clear underpinnings of this timely show. In fact, in the time of abstinence-only, marriage promotion as public health, and explicitly denying young people access to information about contraception and related services, this show is helping to educate an audience normally beyond our reach. That it is consistently sold out is even better.
This show is not for young children. It includes simulated masturbation, some nudity and explicit language, including one of my favorite songs from the show called "Totally F#@*ed." Yet even during these moments, the older couple behind me, who had unwittingly become my mini focus group, had clearly reached back into their own experiences and perhaps those of friends, children, grandchildren, to discover a universality in the theme of this musical.
Perhaps more than anything, that is what one is left with after seeing Spring Awakening: the feeling that we fail our kids miserably when we—as individuals and as a society—firmly plant our heads in the sand and deny young people the information they need to make good, responsible decisions. It leaves the cast of this musical screaming for help in the lyrics of the song "The Bitch of Living" and ultimately, leaves an audience weeping for unnecessary losses.