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When school musicals go bad

Inspired by the Columbine massacre, Spring Awakening is a massive hit on Broadway. But will this contemporary take on a 19th-century classic strike box-office gold in Britain? By Michael Coveney

A new rock musical based on a 19th-century German Expressionist play, performed in period costume with songs about adolescent sex, peer pressure and masturbation would be surprising enough in itself – it sure makes a change from Oliver! – but Spring Awakening also arrives in London trailing clouds of Broadway glory, boasting no less than eight Tony awards and a history of evolution that make the tortuous preparations for most new musical-theatre shows sound like a Sunday in the park, with or without George or Stephen Sondheim.

Ten years ago, two American songwriters, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, each with a separate list of credits in Hollywood and the pop charts, got together in Los Angeles with an idea of writing a show. But what? The trigger, if that's the right word, was the Columbine High School massacre near Denver, Colorado, in April 1999. Two heavily armed teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, one depressive, the other almost certainly psychopathic, both severely disturbed and increasingly ostracised in the school community, entered the library. Loading and reloading among the bookshelves, they went on a 20-minute rampage killing 12 students and a teacher, and wounding 23 other of their schoolmates, many of them seriously. They then committed suicide.

The horror of all this, and the debates it triggered about cliques and subcultures, bullying in schools, not to mention the moral panic over violent video games, "dangerous" music and social outcasts, prompted Sater, who is currently writing love song lyrics for Burt Bacharach, to think in terms of an alternative kind of High School Musical. Unusually for an LA-based pop-song lyricist, Sater is well read in languages both ancient (Greek and Latin) and modern (Italian and German), and Frank Wedekind's astonishing 1891 play has long been one of his favourites. In its study of sexually inquisitive teenagers kicking against parental and official authority, it suddenly struck him as just the material he needed for the La Jolla Playhouse workshop he was booked into with Sheik. And the symbiotic, doomed relationship of artistic, rebellious Melchior and the neurotic, victimised Moritz in the Wedekind play carried weird echoes of the sick friendship forged between Harris and Klebold at Columbine.

Sater invited the director Michael Mayer, responsible for the American national tour of Angels in America and the recent Broadway and West End revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie, to join him and Sheik at La Jolla. At the end of five days, the trio had 10 scenes and eight songs. Sheik was keen to write music that didn't sound like Broadway musical theatre but would appeal to young people. Mayer wanted to kick around the possibilities of the genre itself. And Sater knew that Spring Awakening didn't have to be done in modern dress to find its contemporary resonance.

"We have reshaped the play but were determined to remain true to its spirit," explains Sater over the telephone from LA. "For instance, in Wedekind, we never see the boys in class, but I wanted to show Moritz sticking up for his friend when he gets into trouble with the Latin master. And my first idea of having the songs as interior monologues soon gave way to a more open dramatic scheme between the music and the play."

I check this out by putting in a quick call to Sheik in New York. He and Sater have worked on many projects together since they started on this show, notably a version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale in collaboration with James Lapine, and a musical in development about Nero, the lascivious emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, with our own young shooting-star director Daniel Kramer.

"I didn't know the play before," Sheik says – most Americans have never even heard of it – "but I absolutely fell in love with it. It expresses so much of what teenagers go through, and the way Steven's written the libretto is exactly right for the piece, and the way I work." The Sheik, rattle and roll of Spring Awakening is an irresistible collection of fantastically rhythmic and melodic indie-rock songs that place this musical in a direct line of succession to the first hippie musical, Hair (coincidentally, Sheik has a younger sister who appeared in last summer's Central Park revival of Hair, just about to move up to Broadway) and the Greenwich Village, Aids-age re-write of La Bohème, Rent.

The director, Michael Mayer, has been pond-hopping for a year to cast the musical with young unknowns capable of transmitting the angst and ripening sexuality of Wedekind's characters. He is frank about not looking for the kind of performers normally found in West End musicals.

"My mission here is to extend the delicious experience we had with Spring Awakening in New York, but it's important the kids in it are raw and unfinished, yet confident enough to have their own voice, their own point of view, and also blend well together. They're not the kind of kids you find in Hairspray – much as I love that show. They just wouldn't fit."

The emblematic image from the production is that of a wild-haired boy, his face contorted with pain or ecstasy, possibly both, dressed in tunic and knickerbockers, pulling a hand-mike out of his inside pocket. As on Broadway, the show will be designed inside a school gymnasium, with cast and rock band littered around the stage and all the "wicked" adult characters played by just two actors, the acidly comic Sian Thomas and RSC "heavy" Richard Cordery, himself once a real-life schoolteacher.

The show is strong stuff. There is an unwanted pregnancy, an abortion, a masturbation solo (well, it could hardly be a duet), rape and violence, death, suicide, ghosts and general misery. On Broadway, I overheard an interval telephone-conversation in which a punter was salaciously reporting to his wife or partner the high count of "butts and titties" on display. Wedekind sub-titled his play "a children's tragedy" and, although Max Reinhardt directed a Berlin premiere in 1906 (in which Wedekind himself played the ghostly Man in a Mask at the end), it was banned for years.

Wedekind, one of the great German playwrights, best known for the Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, was years ahead of his time, the key central European theatrical poet between Georg (Woyzeck) Büchner and Bertolt Brecht, who revered him. It is no accident at all that two of the greatest early 20th-century operas, both by Alban Berg, were based on Büchner's Woyzeck and Wedekind's Lulu plays.

But, in the mainstream popular arena, it may well be that Wedekind is, at last, finding his greatest moment posthumously in this musical. The Royal Court presented a heavily bowdlerised translation as a club performance in 1963 (Nicol Williamson played a schoolmaster) alongside Barry Reckord's prophetic, parallel play of bolshie secondary-school kids and repressive teachers in London, Skyvers, but the play was not seen uncut in this country till well after the demise of censorship and the Lord Chamberlain in 1968.

Edward Bond's version was directed by Bill Bryden at the National Theatre in 1974, and Tim Supple directed a scintillating new text by Ted Hughes at the RSC (but only in its studio theatre) in 1995. Supple used snippets of Mahler to rev up the emotional clout of the scenes of group sex, yearning, frustration and outdoor copulation, and one of the young girls even carried an aura of Lulu before her time in summoning the wonderfully candid world of Wedekind's Diary of an Erotic Life in Paris and Berlin.

So the Lyric Hammersmith musical – with songs titled "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk" ("We've all got our junk, and my junk is you"), "Totally Fucked" and "The Song of Purple Summer" (as moving and melodic as any of the Hair anthems) marks a big moment, maybe even a turning point, in the play's history.

After Columbine, and La Jolla, the course of adolescent sexual love, as usual, did not run smooth. A planned premiere at the Roundabout in New York was knocked off schedule by budget cuts after September 11, and then other work commitments delayed the project until a concert reading at Lincoln Center three years later, in 2004. This led to another workshop at the tiny off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre, followed by a critically acclaimed premiere at the same address. The show finally opened on Broadway in December 2006 and ran for more than two years, closing just recently.

The secret behind the show's success is probably that no one involved was aiming for the bright lights to start with. It started as an art-house musical fired by a great play, kick-started by the tragedy at Columbine.

"There was always an element of a hard sell, too," says director Mayer. "There was a lot of resistance to some of how graphic it is. But that is what the play is about, and to be coy would be nonsensical. It's harmful to protect your children; that's what the play says!" And it also suggests, surely, that sometimes children need protecting from themselves, killers and victims alike.

'Spring Awakening' is at Lyric Hammersmith until 14 March (0871 22 117 22; www.lyric.co.uk