The following is an excerpt of A Purple Summer: Notes on the Lyrics of Spring Awakening by Steven Sater, available March 13, 2012 from Applause Books.
One winter night in 2007, our first Wendla (Lea Michele) texted me from backstage of our Broadway theater: “Were you thinking about our show when you wrote the lyrics to ‘The Guilty Ones’?” She was referring to how our sweet, unknown show had gone longing for a home for years until we finally got it on.
Something’s started crazy—
Sweet and unknown.
Something you keep
In a box on the street—
Now it’s longing for a home…
Lea (as ever) had a point. But I had actually been thinking about something else when I wrote the lyrics: namely about the guilty longing we all try to keep from ourselves. Wendla and Melchior have found such unfathomable pleasure—love?—in each other’s arms.
And who can say what dreams are?…
I remember our Austrian lyricist first rendered this as, “Wer weiß schon, was real ist…?” (“Who knows what’s real…?”) I wrote to her, “It isn’t a question for Wendla of what’s real but, “What is this beautiful dream I am going through? Can I trust it? Is it substantive? Will it last?”
And who can say what we are?…
As Prospero states in The Tempest, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” If we cannot know what dreams are, how can we ever know ourselves?
Sorrow is the shadow of our dreams, for it feeds on the unfulfillment of those dreams. Yet, sorrow also fuels our desire to fulfill them. Like the lover in Shakespeare’s rueful sonnet, Melchior asks himself — how has he had Wendla “as a dream doth flatter / In sleep a king, but waking no such matter”?
“And now,” Wendla and Melchior have heard the word of their bodies, and it is their bodies that are the guilty ones:
Night won’t breathe
Oh how we
Fall in silence from the sky,
And whisper some silver reply…
The “silver reply” alludes to Shakespeare. When Juliet calls “Romeo” from her balcony, the giddy young Montague replies, “How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night, / Like softest music to attending ears!”
Transported by pleasure from the hayloft where they lie, Melchior and Wendla are like those wonder-wounded lovers in Chagall—falling through the heaven of a wordless love, their bodies whispering, and offering solace, to one another…
In rich detail, Sater’s notes address the literary sources and allusions of each lyric. He also writes feelingly of what prompted the songs over the course of the show’s eight years of development. In so doing, Sater expands on his partnership with Sheik and his experiences with original cast members, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, now also known from Glee.
These notes will prove invaluable for fans of the show, for all those interested in theater, and most especially for all the young performers who will play the roles and sing these songs.