I was very lucky to see two amazing revivals of the iconic musicals Spring Awakening and Cabaret on consecutive nights over the Christmas vacation. Both shows absolutely blew me away. Yet I noticed how the styles of direction of Rebecca Frecknell (director of Cabaret) and Rupert Goold (director of Spring Awakening) were radically opposed. Both shows will surely receive multiple Olivier nominations – but which show will come out top? And ultimately, what makes a musical revival successful?
Rebecca Frecknell’s big directing break originally came at the Almeida Theatre (the current home of Spring Awakening). Eddie Redmayne suggested that she put on a production of Cabaret after seeing the West End transfer of her hit Almeida show Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. In that sense, there is something intrinsically Almeida-esque in her directorial approach. Frecknell’s 2019 production of The Duchess of Malfi made particular use of the opaque and transparent glass boxes that Goold uses so effectively to explore ideas of captivity and liberation in his production of Spring Awakening. Yet what connects both directors is a willingness to disrupt the ‘sanctity’ of the original texts. Both versions are ‘darker’ than their originals; in Cabaret, Redmayne as the Emcee progressively adopts the persona of a fascist dictator, dropping his sexually liberated clown outfit in favour of a blonde wig and a brown shirt. Jessie Buckley removes all the showbiz pizazz that Minelli brought to the role of Sally in the film version – her voice is stunning, but she chooses to speak through much of the title song. Frecknell’s choice is bold but it pays off. The effect is devastating – Sally becomes a ghostly shell of a person, introducing an ironic distance between the lyrics and the dramatic context in which they take place.
Spring Awakening also opts for a darker approach; it feels more intimate and personal than the original Lea Michele Broadway version. The entire set becomes an enormous chalkboard which the actors can draw on – the actors feel almost organically in touch with the stage itself. Goold’s introduction of Greta Thunberg’s speech into ‘Totally Fucked’ added a new ecological framing to the show; Goold’s directorial touch revealed how the show is just as relevant to a Gen-Z audience fifteen years after it was originally performed.
I would argue that the reason that both revivals are so strong is that the source material itself encourages and even requires an expressionistic sense of theatricality. In that sense, they are gifts to directors – the possibilities of invention are endless. Frecknell’s Cabaret is performed in the round, with a revolve effortlessly transporting us between the different Berlin locations. Spring Awakening on the other hand is staged end-on with an ascending staircase that fills the entire stage – I was in awe with the level of fitness required for the cast, who had to run up and down the steps for the entirety of its 2-and-a-half-hour runtime. So which show was better? It’s a close call, but I would just about say Cabaret. The whole experience was so immersive to an extent that I have never personally seen done before. The Playhouse Theatre in the West End is completely redecorated to become the Kit Kat Club from the moment you enter the building. Similarly for Spring Awakening, the intimacy of the Almeida as a theatre helps to contribute to an immersive feel. Goold also has Hanschen (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) break the fourth wall to particularly comic effect which I won’t spoil.
However, I would say that only 90% of Goold’s decisions worked, whereas the surprisingly minimalist staging of Cabaret itself created a consistency that Spring Awakening lacked at times. The decision to cut the song ‘The Guilty Ones’ in favour of the original Act Two opening ‘There Once Was a Pirate’ felt like a mistake. The glass at the back of the stage felt distracting and I wasn’t quite sure what purpose it served; it wasn’t used as effectively as the glass box at the front. Yet I am being especially picky – and given the price difference between the tickets for Cabaret and Spring Awakening, it is no surprise that Cabaret has a slight edge. Frecknell defended the exorbitant costs of Cabaret, saying in The Times that ‘a quarter of the house is £50 or less, and we’re doing a daily lottery for £25’.
Can we ever justify ticket prices of more than £200 given the theatrical experience involved – or are we just making theatre expensive and inaccessible? The jury is out. What is certain is that the Almeida must be commended for their prioritisation of young talent (the Assistant Director Priya Patel Appleby only graduated from University in 2020!) and affordable ticket prices. As a theatre, they are committed to training the talent of the future, which is more necessary than ever as the industry continues to struggle under the pressures of the pandemic.
Image Credit: Marc Brenner