Shine! Theatre director tony sanders explains his long-standing personal connection with the composer of ‘Spring Awakening’

As Shine! Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” enters the second and final weekend of its run, I asked director tony sanders to muse a bit on the production and what it means to him.

“Spring Awakening” plays for four more performances: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16; 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17; and 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.

Here are tony’s thoughts:


In 1996, Duncan Sheik, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey, released a single, “Barely Breathing.” which earned him a Grammy nod for male performance. Unfortunately, he lost the Grammy to Sir Elton John. “Barely Breathing” is the biggest hit on Sheik’s eponymous debut album, and the biggest pop hit of his career.

The song is a one-sided description of a love gone wrong. Sheik claims to know that the relationship is all but dead, and that his lover’s actions are all part of a larger scheme of manipulation. The irony and complexity manifest themselves in his ambivalence. “I could stand here waiting, fool for another day,” he says. Then, keeping with the emotional tone of the rest of the song, “I don’t suppose it’s worth the price that I would pay.” Then finally, “But I’m thinking it over anyway.”

My love for this song was instant because I had lived/suffered through relationships like the one in the song. In short, I thoroughly related to the song. Its principles – anger, frustration, and confusion – are universal and simple enough to comprehend, especially when applied to a romantic relationship.


Twenty years later, Sheik would revisit the themes of anger, frustration, and confusion in the musical “Spring Awakening,” which he wrote with Steven Slater. The musical was based on the controversial German expressionist play “The Awakening of Spring,” written by Frank Wedekind.

On a visit home in the winter of 2006, I decided to get tickets to “Spring Awakening”… not because of the title (I was not familiar with the play) and not because of Lea Michele or Jonathan Groff (neither of whom were household names yet). No, I went because of Duncan Sheik and my relationship with his one hit, “Barely Breathing.” Honestly, there was also a mild curiosity to see how this pop artist would handle the responsibility of being a Broadway composer. After all he was following in the very successful footsteps of other pop artists-turned-composers (Sir Elton John: The Lion King, Aida, and Billy Eliot The musical; and Boy George: Taboo).

Needless to say, he did not disappoint. This coming-of-age musical, set in late 19th century Germany, tells the story of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of adolescent sexuality while pushing back against the conformity dictated by the adults in their lives. Staying true to his musical roots, Sheik created a musical where alternative rock is employed as part of the folk-infused rock score.

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From its haunting, driving opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” to its dreamy, gospel-tinged closer, “Song for Purple Summer,” I was completely enthralled. However, it was the authenticity with which Sheik, Slater and choreographer Bill T. Jones captured teen angst and rebellion that resonated with me. The themes from “Barely Breathing” that I so identified with, anger, frustration and confusion, were at the very heart of this musical. As directors. Jenny Myers and I wanted to explore these principles and create a world in which the characters have voice. We were also fascinated at the similarity of how youths rebelling against adult oppression looks in each generation. The character of Melchoir would be completely comfortable within the Beat generation. The character of Ilse could appear at Woodstock and be completely at home. We also wanted to honestly explore the discovery of adolescent sexuality without being gratuitous. It’s our belief that shocking our audience simply for the sake of shock does not serve this piece. It was our goal to be true to the script while remaining respectful of our actors needs and boundaries. We are very proud of our work and feel that we have created a beautiful piece that honors the story, authentically shows the struggles of coming of age, and the anger, frustration, and confusion of teens … in any generation.

As a footnote, Sheik finally got his Grammy … for “Spring Awakening.”

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Steph

    Well c’mon now. I’m a pretty good theatre patron and this is the first I’m hearing about a local performance of Spring Awakening?!??

    Thank goodness I heard about it so I can snag last weekend tix.

    Shine! you gotta bring up the noize AND the funk so you can sell them tickets!

    See y’all there!


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