For two weeks in the spring of 1984, the New York University theater department had the hottest ticket in town. The undergraduate production of South Pacific used 39 actors and five musicians to mount an Orwellian rethinking of the show, setting it in an institution where Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are used to rehabilitate emotionally disturbed veterans of war. While the music and the melodrama were played straight, a sinister white-coated doctor supervised the proceedings without a word, and musicians dressed as nurses and interns provided accompaniment for what looked like a talent-show pageant by hyperactive adolescents. Both exaggerating and sending up old-fashioned musicals’ ideas of enforced heterosexuality and patriotism, this South Pacific was hilarious and sexy. What made it chilling was the way it captured today’s yuppie conformism to a tee. The show won a Bessie Award for the woman who put it all together, the visionary 32-year-old director Anne Bogart. 

Now Bogart has done it again. Her current production of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama about teenage sexuality, is another big-cast epic using many of the South Pacific gang, only this time the music is by Leiber and Stoller – and again the three-week run has gone clean. The idea of mating Wedekind’s once-shocking play about kids fumbling to discover the facts of life with Leiber and Stoller classics is brilliant, since the nonsense lyrics of so much early rock and roll are themselves an attempt to find words for libidinous feelings. I went expecting something fun and raunchy – say, Fast Times at Hannover High.

Typically, though, Bogart subverts expectations. She sets Spring Awakening in the future aboard a spaceship run by super-intelligent androids whose cargo includes a band of actors preserving human genetic heritage after the earth has been destroyed. Instead of relishing their masturbation rituals and uninhibited sexual exploration, the actors playing Wedekind’s characters follow the example of their keepers, two teams of space creatures in unisex uniforms – a fascinating implication that the fashionable androgyny of today’s youth is not a libertine impulse but a modern-day equivalent of Victorian sexual repression. 

Futuristic aliens who view humans as a defunct species are a staple of Ping Chong’s work, which Bogart admires but doesn’t consciously copy. “This thinking about the future is just 1984,” she says. “It’s in the air.” What did affect her thinking about Spring Awakening, though, were two books: Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and Anthony Burgess’s novel The End of the World News, in which videotapes of a TV docudrama on Freud and a bad Broadway musical about Trotsky accidentally get stored on a spaceship fleeing earth and become the source of all cultural choices for surviving generations. Thus, “the script of Spring Awakening and a tape of Leiber and Stoller left aboard the spaceship become the only available information about taboo activities among earthlings,” says the director. “We wanted to talk about how we perpetuate our own mistakes.”

The concept is more intellectually rigorous in theory than in practice; at the rather rocky first performance I saw, it seemed so far-fetched that it left Wedekind high and dry. What impressed me, though, was Bogart’s eagerness to forge a new musical theater indifferent to traditional “showbiz” values. The score, for instance, favors obscure Leiber and Stoller songs over hits the audience would know. Bogart considers her taste for ideas over entertainment a legacy of her studies with Richard Schechner. “He was a real catalyst for me,” says Bogart, a Navy brat who graduated from Bard before getting a master’s at NYU in theater history. “I read a lot of sociology, psychology, studies of human behavior, and I keep applying theories from other disciplines to theater. He was the only person I knew in New York who used theory, history, anthropology in theater works. He gave me faith that it could be done.”

Most of Bogart’s models, however, are European. Along with Ariane Mnouchkine, “the Germans were a huge influence – Stein, Grüber, Bondi.” Her first pieces in New York were site-specific East Village performances based on ideas swiped from German productions she read about in Theater Heute. Ironically, her Peter Stein imitations got her invited to direct in Berlin and Munich. Finding most American work “naïve,” she leapt at the chance to study the masters firsthand. “I saw a lot of work that married form and content. In America, we know how to deal with form. Wilson is wonderful at facile spectacle. But the Europeans connect it to the culture and to social ideas. I’m trying to learn from that.” In recent years Bogart has created semi-political dance-theater pieces (History: A Pageant at Danspace, Men and Women at P.S. 122), and she adapted Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans for Lyn Austin’s Music/Theater Group. But at NYU she has been able to create a body of work – besides South Pacific and Spring Awakening, she directed The Lower Depths set among the skinheads on Avenue A – and she’s looking for a way to continue that work in a non-university situation. “My ultimate goal is to have a company.”

As a teacher at Movement Research and NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing, Bogart tries to impart her theoretical approach to younger artists, many of whom she finds distressingly undisciplined and self-absorbed. “Our generation doesn’t have anything to say because we’ve lost the ability to talk about things. I think I know why, too. It’s specifically political – it goes back to the McCarthy era, when artists were destroyed for being politically involved. We’ve been brought up thinking art and politics don’t mix, so what do we have to talk about? Ourselves.

“I have this theory about plays, that they’re little pockets of memory. Like, a Greek play about hubris – if you do it now, it’s a chance to bring that question into the world and see how it looks at the time you’re doing it. We’ve lost the sense that theater has this function of bringing these universal questions through time. Now we think it’s all about inventing, making everything new. But how can you create something if you don’t have anything to talk about but yourself?”

Village Voice, 1985