Life & Culture

Interview: Michael Mayer

Musical awakening


Director Michael Mayer did not set out to reinvent the modern musical. If he had, he would hardly have chosen to set his show in 19th-century Germany where children are taught to be ashamed of their genitals.

This is the sexually repressed world encapsulated by Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening in which adolescents are kept in ignorance about their bodies. It is a play that contains masturbation and rape and was controversial enough to be banned before it was eventually put on a Berlin stage in 1906. Just over 100 years later Mayer, singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater set about reviving it as a musical.

“We didn’t set out to create a musical,” corrects Mayer during a break from rehearsing his young British and Irish cast before the show’s UK premiere at the Lyric Hammersmith in West London. “We set out to create a play with music.”

This musical version of Spring Awakening did pretty well at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre in 2006. But on Broadway it did astoundingly well, scooping eight of the 11 Tony Awards for which the show was nominated, including best score for Sater and Sheik, and best director for Mayer. I saw it in New York: it is brilliant. And in no small part its brilliance is down to Mayer.

It has taken a year of auditions and workshops to assemble the unknown British teenage cast members who will have to match the vigour and vulnerability of their American counterparts.

Spring Awakening is the kind of show — and despite what Mayer says, it is a musical — that is capable of broadening the narrow minds of those who say they don’t like musicals because they saw one once and did not much like the experience.

It is a show that stays loyal to the period and place in which Wedekind located his play but is set to a modern rock score. You know you are in for something striking when schoolboys Melchior and Moritz, dressed in their 19th-century school uniforms, suddenly whip out a couple of radio microphones from their pockets and, with their unhappy classmates, stand on the chairs to belt out the song The Bitch of Living.

But who would have thought that in the 21st century — when kids are likely to lose their virginity before they have learned to ride a bike — a show about sexual naïvety would speak so clearly to a new generation?

“In 1999, the year we started working, the Columbine killings happened and we all thought it was a big wake-up call to a lot of us in America about the tortured state of the American adolescent,” says Mayer.

“And then in 2000 you couldn’t help but see we were living in a world where the Clinton presidency had been decimated by the sexual hypocrisy of the right-wing political machine and the incredibly prurient and decidedly puritanical media.”

Not that the 48-year-old director sees himself as a particularly political animal. His stage successes include a US touring production of the highly political and very gay Angels in America by Tony Kushner — the “best friend” Mayer met at New York University. His first feature film was released in 2004. Called A Home at the End of the World, it starred Colin Farrell, and also addressed the politics of being gay. But Mayer’s CV also includes the thoroughly entertaining stage version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, his first taste of Tony Award success, and at heart Mayer is more about finding the poetry of theatre than the politics.

It all started — and by “it” we are not only talking about Mayer’s fascination with performance and story-telling, but possibly his first encounter with a gay icon — in the living room of his parent’s home in Bethseda, Maryland, where Judy Garland was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the TV. “The Wizard of Oz was about finding how to live your life and about music and magic,” remembers Mayer. “It was about singing from the heart.”

On one level, it could be said, so is Spring Awakening. “It’s about how young people deal with the feelings of sexual, political and social awakening,” he says. “How do they feel? What we [he, Sheik and Sater] realised was that even though we live in the information age, the emotional currency of this story isn’t about information, it’s about sex education. Who is there to talk about how that feels? And the answer is no one. And that’s when we realised that the emotional life of the Wedekind original is timeless.”

For Mayer, this is not an opinion born out of experience. His parents, father Jerry, a retired lawyer who worked for the National Labour Relations Board, and mother Lou, “a typical housewife”, were typical liberal, atheist Jews and what Mayer calls “serious lefties”.

“They were very Democrat,” he says. “They were both very politically active. I grew up in the ’60s right outside Washington DC when was a really a period of social unrest with the whole civil rights movement. We marched, and my mom would bring black kids from the inner city out to suburban swimming pools, risking the ire of the other families who would be swimming in the same pools. So I was brought up with a political agenda of equality.”

Could that near-forgotten relationship between America’s two most natural Democrat constituencies — African-Americans and Jews — at last be repaired now that Obama has been elected?

“I feel it has been resurrected,” says Mayer. “If you look at the election you’d have to acknowledge that there’s been a real shift there. American Jews, by and large, voted for Obama.”

But when it came to Mayer’s own, gay sexual awakening, he had all the support he could have wanted. Maybe more than he wanted.

“My mum outed me,” he says with a wry smile. “She outed me to myself. I was 19, just out of college and was at home doing the dishes with her and I was talking about yet another girlfriend I had just broken up with. My mom just stopped and looked at me and said: ‘Honey, don’t you think you’re gay?’ And I went into kind of a panic and I said: ‘Huh?’ And she said: ‘You might be gay. I think maybe you are. And you should think about that.’ It was just the perfect thing — unprecedented in my experience when I talk to my friends.”

And as with his sexual identity, the Mayer-household’s attitude to religious identity was just as relaxed.

“We had Christmas trees but we didn’t call it a Chanucah bush or anything stupid like that. I had to beg to have a barmitzvah because my parents are both atheist, secular Jews.” For Mayer, that barmitzvah was both the beginning and the end of exploring his Jewish identity. Except maybe in one respect. These days he lives with his partner, Roger, in Manhattan. “My mother is over the moon,” he says. “I nabbed a Jewish a doctor.”

BORN: Maryland in June 1960 to secular Jewish parents, Jerry and Louise.

CAREER: Studied acting at New York University in 1983. Turned to directing in 1990, and has worked on several Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Won two Tony awards in 2007 for the US production of Spring Awakening. Has directed several films, including 2004’s A Home at the End of the World, starring Colin Farrell.

ON BEING JEWISH: “I had to beg to have a barmitzvah because my parents are both atheist Jews.”

ON BEING GAY: “My mum outed me. I was talking about yet another girl I had broken up with. My mum just stopped and looked at me and said: ‘Honey, don’t you think you’re gay?’”

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