It may be the hottest show in South Florida.
A troupe of young adults and students, including six survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, are appearing in a production of the rock musical “Spring Awakening.” Set to be performed May 2, May 6-7 and May 9, the show already has drawn major attention, shifting some of the media spotlight from the trauma at the school to the relative refuge of a quiet shopping center about 10 miles away in Boca Raton.
In recent weeks at Boca Black Box Center for the Arts, rehearsals for “Spring Awakening” have been high-wattage affairs, offering the cast a level of exposure most up-and-coming actors can only imagine. Among the highlights:
• Lea Michele (“Glee,” “The Mayor”), Jonathan Groff (“Frozen,” “Mindhunter”) and much of the show’s original Broadway cast gave a “Spring Awakening” master class to their younger South Florida counterparts.
• Documentarian and professional provocateur Michael Moore interviewed the cast and crew and filmed a rehearsal.
• The New York Times sent a reporter and published a story about the show roughly half a month before the first curtain.
• Michael Mayer, who won a Tony Award for directing the original Broadway production (the show won eight Tonys), announced that he will visit South Florida to work with the cast.
• Vanity Fair, the magazine that zeroes in on international pop-culture shifts with cool efficiency and insider panache, called the box office for tickets.
At the center of all this blossoming hype are the show’s two leads, MSD students Sawyer Garrity, who co-wrote the quiet but defiant anthem “Shine,” and Cameron Kasky, one of the activists vociferously calling for gun control as part of the Never Again movement. They share the stage with classmates Alex Wind and Alfonso Calderon, both of whom have become unleashed firebrands against unchecked firearms. It is not lost on them, schoolmates Kirsten McConnell and Ethan Kaufman or the rest of the cast that the musical has eerie parallels with what is going on in their lives.
“I think ‘Spring Awakening’ is all about voices and how important it is for messages not to be lost just because you don’t want to hear them,” Kasky, 17, says. “People say it’s not time to talk about certain things. People say it’s not appropriate to talk about certain things. But when people let subjects like suicide, sexual abuse and all those things — when people let them get sidelined, they’re never fixed.”
Christine Barclay, owner and artistic director of Barclay Performing Arts, which is producing “Spring Awakening” for Boca Black Box, says: “What the play is trying to say [is] this is what happens when there is a breakdown between the adults in the community and the children in the community.”
As much a middle finger to obtuse grownups as it is a stage musical, “Spring Awakening” lays out the shame, anger, confusion and restless spasms affiliated with teenage sexuality. Set in 19th century Germany, but with an alt-rock and folk-ballad score that is decidedly present-day, the show is based on a much-banned 1891 play by Frank Wedekind and works into its narrative masturbation, wet dreams, rape, suicide, S&M, abortion and physical abuse. A Broadway hit in 2006, “Spring Awakening” launched Michele and Groff into stardom before the TV series "Glee" gave them a permanent place in the firmament. The show’s creators, Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics), have said that the musical was written in response to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
“The point of the story is that you can take it through any generation,” Michele says, “through many different life situations and tragedies and beautiful moments in time, and ... it connects with that.”
BEFORE AND AFTER
Barclay Performing Arts started out in 2016 as a summer-camp program for Boca Black Box and over the years has morphed into a theater school for all ages. The school, which has its office and classroom next door to Boca Black Box, has done shows with casts of adults and even Broadway performers such as Marcia McClain (“Where’s Charley?”), Jodie Langel (“Les Misérables”) and Al Sapienza (Broadway’s “Beatlemania”). They continue to offer series for every age group and experience level, from children to professionals. For some of their productions, such as “Spring Awakening,” college students and young adults pepper the cast.
“[Barclay] doubles her students every year,” says Randy Singer, a co-owner of Boca Black Box. “I have to tell you she’s very good with the kids. Every time a kid walks in, they spend 10 minutes talking before they get into the program. She gives it that personal attention. She bonds with the student.”
The bonding with the “Spring Awakening” performers began in January, when the cast was announced. Then, on Valentine’s Day, about five weeks into the production’s biweekly rehearsals, the school shooting happened, leaving 17 people dead. Ed Kolcz, the musical director of “Spring Awakening” and a musical coach at various schools, including Stoneman Douglas, was on the campus that fateful day.
“I hid in a closet with the teacher and the students while the carnage took place just a few buildings away,” Kolcz recalls. “A lot of the kids you see being interviewed on TV, I know them because they are involved in the drama department.”
Kolcz says he did not see the students again until a little over a week later at a memorial at Parkland’s Pines Trails Park. “You could see the grief and hurt in their faces,” he says. “It took two or three weeks before it got back to even a little bit of normality with rehearsals. They’re doing what they love. … It has been very therapeutic, and it has been for me, too. You don’t want to continue to dwell. You can only grieve for so long. Otherwise, it will take over your life.”
Barclay has noticed a difference in rehearsals since the shooting. For one thing, she and her husband, Joe Cobia, had their first child, Caroline Ann, five days after the Parkland tragedy.
“There have been some emotional issues getting through some of the scenes and songs,” she explains. “It’s been something that has been remarkable on both ends of the spectrum. On one end, it’s the miracle of life and how beautiful she is, and the next minute I’m dealing with very distraught students who are dealing with gun control. Cameron has been in very close touch with me from the moment that it all started happening. It’s hard when you’re a kid and you’re going through something like this, and you have a lot of people who want a piece of you. He’s playing the lead. That role is a crazy mirror to what he is doing now.”
Barclay says the tone of the rehearsals changed irrevocably, explaining that prior to the massacre, rehearsals were professional. But, she says, “They were laughing and joking. They were kids. This was their platform, and we were plowing through the material at, like, Mach 7.
“And then, the shooting happened. It’s been a month of the walking wounded. They’re committed to doing the show. They want to do the show more than ever because of how much this show is really getting what is going on in our society. The subject matter now hits so close to home. There is a real sense of bravery when they go to rehearsal. Now, everything we are doing hits so much closer to home, and it hits so much more emotionally than it ever did before.”
OFFSTAGE AND THE CAUSE
Alex Wind, a founding member of the Never Again movement, joined the show in late March. He and his castmates are members of the Stoneman Douglas Drama Club, which was in the middle of rehearsals for a March 1-3 run of their school show “Yo, Vikings!” when the shooting happened. Now balancing school, activism and rehearsals, Wind says he isn’t daunted by these challenges — quite the opposite, actually.
“It’s the one thing that is keeping me going,” Wind, 17, said on April 14, the day of the first “Spring Awakening” dress rehearsal. “I don’t like staying in one space for too long. You know, I always like to be moving around, so I think it’s necessary for me to stay grounded to be doing everything.”
On the day of the shooting, Wind famously called out President Trump for his tweet offering “prayers and condolences” following the massacre. Wind is among the five Stoneman Douglas students, along with Kasky, who appear in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2018 issue with an accompanying essay by no less than President Obama. Previously, he and his co-activists appeared on the cover of Time leading up to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Alfonso Calderon has been a regular on Telemundo, Univision and other Spanish-language television networks.
But their vocal activism has had a price.
“[They] are getting death threats,” Barclay says. “They are getting dead animals sent to their houses. They are getting attacked because they are standing up for something.”
Now, a police car waits in the parking lot of the Boca Black Box Center. And the visiting Broadway cast kept their master class on the down low, even though it was the students’ outspokenness that brought them to the Boca Raton theater.
“We’ve obviously read so much about what has happened in this community on the news and how incredible the kids are and their spirit and their wisdom,” Groff says. “And so we wanted to support that and support them in any way we could. And Gideon Glick, who is our original cast member, reached out to Christine [Barclay] and said, ‘You’re doing ‘Spring Awakening,’ [and] we have a bunch of people from the original cast who are in love with these kids just from watching them in the news, and we’d love to help in any way we can.’ And she said, ‘There’s always a microphone in their face, and you know there’s always cameras rolling and whatever. It would be great if you didn’t come to a performance. It would be a lot more beneficial for us to have you in the rehearsal and to talk about the show.’ ”
Not everyone was so forthright with their response to the political uproar. Sawyer Garrity, who plays the female lead in “Spring Awakening,” remembers how she and her friend Andrea Pena penned the protest song she first performed during CNN’s “Stand Up” town hall.
“We were lost,” Garrity recalls. “We were feeling like we were lost, and we were looking for a way to kind of express how we were feeling. We wanted to help in some way, but we didn’t know how because we didn’t want to be on the political side of things. … So I texted [Pena], ‘Hey, we should write a song.’ And so we did and that song was ‘Shine.’ ”
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
After a run-through in front of the original Broadway cast on April 17, the Barclay Performing Arts cast gathered around the edge of the stage to hear what the veterans had to say. The Barclay actors were all wearing black T-shirts with the theater school’s motto, “Find your voice, sing your song,” written across their chests. Much of the conversation concerned how to handle the awkward sex scenes and the emotional trauma revisited every time they rehearse the show’s death scenes.
“You get to choose when to use those moments to make you cry,” Michele offered.
Kasky, who has been on a nonstop media campaign, first for March for Our Lives and now for changes in gun laws in general, handed over to his friend Giorgio Garcia the lead role in “Legally Blonde,” another Barclay Performing Arts production. He also had to relinquish his part in “Yo, Vikings!” at Stoneman Douglas.
“Too much was just piled up on top of him,” Kolcz says. “We could see that it was getting to him, taking all of this on — ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show,’ Anderson Cooper, Bill Maher and this and that, you name it. But he’s passionate, you know? They are not going to let this go. This reminds me of the Vietnam age. I can see a lot of parallels of how the kids back then were protesting the Vietnam War and this movement here to do something about gun violence.”
Barclay admits that there have been plenty of distractions. In February, “Spring Awakening” had to take a back seat to the shooting victims’ funerals.
“The kids were the sole ones to choose, at that time, when they were ready to come back to rehearsal,” Barclay says. “They’re sitting there rehearsing these songs, some of them about suicide, and down the street was a funeral for one of their friends. It makes for good art, but I feel badly for them that they understand the show. Cameron said, ‘We don’t really now have to dig so deep to make these characters real, because they are real.’ ”
“Spring Awakening” will be presented May 2, May 6-7 and May 9 at Boca Black Box Center for the Arts, 8221 Glades Road, No. 10, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 2; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6, 7 p.m. Monday, May 7 and Wednesday, May 9. Tickets cost $20 and $30. To order, call 561-483-9036 or go to BocaBlackBox.com or BarclayPerformingArts.com.