Broadway actor directs KSU student production

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Michael Rupert (center), Tony Award-winning actor, director and composer, talks with choreographer MaryAnn Black (left), musical director Jonathan Swoboda and stage manager Kelly Cosgrove before rehearsal of the rock musical "Spring Awakening" at the E. Turner Stump Theatre at Kent State University. (Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)

Broadway’s Michael Rupert, who has witnessed the musical phenomenon Spring Awakening since its infancy, is happy to be part of the educational process that is bringing the groundbreaking rock musical to the Kent State University stage.

He’s directing the student production, which opens Friday, through the Roe Green Visiting Director Series. Green, an arts patron and activist from Aurora, pledged a total of $50,000 over 10 years, starting back in 2003, to bring directors of Rupert’s ilk in to work with the Kent State theater students.

Rupert is a 1986 Tony Award-winning actor for his role as Oscar in Sweet Charity and has also appeared in the Broadway shows Legally Blonde, Ragtime, Pippin, City of Angels, Falsettos and The Happy Time. He also composed and performed in the Broadway musical Mail and wrote the music for the Off-Broadway musical 3 Guys Naked From the Waist Down, which Weathervane Community Playhouse produced in Akron in 2011.

He is a colleague and friend of Weathervane Executive Director John Hedges, which is how his connection to Kent State was established. Rupert was a visiting director for the drama Breaking the Code at Weathervane in 2010, at which time he also led a master class at Kent State.

“I really wanted to come here [to Kent State to direct] because I really loved the students I saw in the master class,” Rupert said. Some of the students from that group are now senior Kent State theater majors.

Seniors Meredith Kochan, Michael Glavan and Jesse Markowitz will star in Spring Awakening as teens Wendla, Melchior and Moritz. Returning professional masters students Tracee Patterson and Greg Violand play all the adult roles in the show.

Rupert remembers seeing a reading of the then-unknown Spring Awakening at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Utah in 2000. He was doing another workshop project there and saw some real potential in the raw new musical, which creators Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) had begun writing in 1998.

Actors sat in chairs in front of music stands while Sheik, a singer-songwriter who hit the national music scene in the mid-1990s, played guitar at the side of the stage.

“It still was kind of a mess,” Rupert said of the musical, which was reworked extensively for its Off-Broadway debut in 2006 and then a bit more for its Broadway opening late that year.

Yet “we all thought there was something really special, especially about the score,” Rupert said.

The director said he “absolutely loved” the reworked show Off-Broadway, before any plans had been made to move it to Broadway.

“Something has to happen with this show. This can’t be it,” Rupert and his friends said. “This has gotta have a life somehow.”

Commercial producers came onboard, and seeing the musical open six months later on Broadway was equally special, Rupert said.

Spring Awakening, which has a folk-infused alternative rock score, contains haunting melodies and searing rants as seemingly mannerly German teens express their rage and frustrations about their burgeoning sexuality through interior monologues that take shape through song.

The provocative story, based on the play by Frank Wedekind that was banned for a century, delves into painful adolescent issues including sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, abortion and suicide. The story explores the dangers for 15-year-olds who live in a sexually repressive, rigid society whose parents and teachers do not educate them about the changes happening in their own bodies.

“Just the fact that they chose to take that play, Spring Awakening, and turn it into a musical was a little bizarre because it wasn’t the kind of play that really sang.”

But the musical’s creators found a way to make it sing and make it highly relevant to today’s youthful audiences. Spring Awakening also celebrates youth and rebellion and brings into focus the fact that adolescent angst is timeless. The groundbreaking show won eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical.

What makes the show both groundbreaking and fun to stage, Rupert said, is the way its characters straddle the world of late 19th century Germany and today’s world by switching from their “real world” to the song world.

“The song world is electrically charged and the real world is lanterns and strict rules,” Rupert said of the dichotomy.

Rupert has spent nearly five weeks working with the student cast at Kent State to launch the musical. He’s putting his own spin on the show by choosing not to have the teen characters pick up hand-held microphones as they switch through song from their 1890s world into today’s rock world.

In this musical, as soon as their rock interior monologues begin, the characters become teenagers of today. But at Kent State, the actors must rely on themselves more to create the dramatic transition from a strict, closed world to something like a rock concert.

“Suddenly they become something different physically, a little bit,” Rupert said. “I purposefully wanted to try it without the mics. I thought it makes sense.”

Rupert stresses that his young cast was 15 or 16, like the characters in the play, not long ago. He spoke early on with cast members about struggles they went through as youth with bullying as well as their sexual and spiritual awakenings, which is what the musical is about.

Spring Awakening, which contains adult language, lyrics and mature themes of a sexual nature, is for mature audiences only.

When Rupert leaves Kent State, he’ll do a studio recording of the score for the new musical Finding Robert Hutchens, in which he plays the father of two boys in their late 20s who uncover a secret about their deceased mother. The musical is slated for Broadway next fall.

Rupert began acting at age 12 at Pasadena Playhouse in California and made his Broadway debut at age 16, opposite Robert Goulet in Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time.

These days, doing a Broadway show for as long as a year at a time allows him to pick and choose projects in between. He has also directed student productions at Point Park University, Northwestern University, Texas Christian University and the College of William and Mary.

“At this stage in my life, after being in theater since I was a kid, something like 50 years, sometimes working with students, I get more joy out of that than I do with professionals. They [students] are eager to learn and it makes it fun for me,” he said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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