Spring Awakening’s Jake Epstein talks about the musical
(See Review of Spring Awakening‘s opening night, too.)
It’s a big night for Milwaukee, as the national tour of Spring Awakening hits the Uihlein stage at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The cast and crew got here this weekend, ahead of the first show tonight with a mostly new cast.
Former Degrassi: Next Generation star and current Spring Awakening headliner Jake Epstein has already toured Brady Street since arriving. And despite being from Canada – commonly known to have extremely polite and friendly people – Epstein was taken aback at how nice everyone was to him here.
“They were all like, ‘Hey, how are you? It’s good to see you,’” laughs Epstein. “They were just the friendliest people I’ve ever met.”
There is still some of that great Germanic ‘Velkommen’ spirit running through Milwaukee, which will make the six-day run of Spring Awakening an interesting one. It’s based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play that was originally banned in Germany and is still considered highly controversial with subject matters ranging from masturbation and abortion to rape, child abuse and suicide. This definitely isn’t a Disney adaptation of High School Musical.
The play was re-examined by Steve Slater and Duncan Sheik to be an Off-Broadway musical, with a rock-infused score in which characters act out different kinds of Greek chorus, soliloquy and asides during songs. The musical stormed Broadway in 2007 and was nominated for 11 Tonys; it won eight of them. A national tour was launched in 2008, and when contracts for those players came up this year — Epstein won this prominent role. But it was a long time coming, and unexpected for the 22-year-old actor.
“I saw the show on Broadway, and it was unlike anything that I’d ever seen. You know, I love theater, and I love music as well, but I didn’t love musicals. I find that they can be really contrived, the whole idea of people breaking out into song as if nothing has happened. And here’s a show that’s like a rock concert — a raw rock concert with these teenagers — and, at the same time, it was this period piece. I thought it was so cool,” Epstein says.
When Awakening auditioned for replacements during the original Broadway run, Epstein came down from Toronto and stood out in the snow for hours hoping to be seen. He did and got very close to being cast. But in the end, it didn’t happen, and he went back to the National Theatre School.
By this point in his career, Epstein was well known in Canada, with a long list of TV shows and films under his belt. He left his successful Degrassi role to go back and study stage work. He performed in various plays in Toronto. He had forgotten about Awakening until the tour came to town again.
“I went with a bunch of my friends just as a fan,” Epstein says. “I got to meet the cast, and I thought they were great. I was doing a show called Dog Sees God, and they came to see that show — so they kinda knew me. Then they were looking for someone to replace a character, so my name came up.”
Epstein has a background in music as well. He was guitarist and lead singer for the band Mind the Gap and reportedly plays drums for the Funkasaurus Rex band. As episodes of Degrassi: NG play on TeenNick, a heartfelt single of his called “Rescue Me” plays on the channel’s YouTube page. It’s definitely different from Awakening’s Melchior singing “Totally Fucked.”
“He was a drug addict, diagnosed as being bipolar. He had a really tragic past where he was abused by his father, a womanizer. The character was kind of controversial. So doing this … it didn’t feel like the biggest leap from that.”
Epstein relishes stage work and the challenge of this particular musical.
“It just takes everything out of you, every night to make it work. It does sort of feel like the next step. A step up. Plus, I get to tour the states, which I’ve never gotten to do as well,” he says.
Then there’s the challenge of Duncan Sheik’s songs:
“I think he really writes to particular singers, and he really wrote this show for the people who were originally cast. So the challenge of continuing it now on tour is trying to make it fit your own voice. I feel like I’m learning every day during the show,” he says. “The thing about Spring Awakening is that there are two distinct parts. There’s the play, the scenes — which I love and definitely feel comfortable in — and then the action kind of stops, and there’s a rock band actually on the stage. All the characters have microphones in their jackets. We pull them out, and we kind of become the lead singer of this band. It’s modern music, modern alternative rock music.”
There is swearing in this musical (even in Playbill that song of Melchior’s is called, “Totally F#$%ed” and the tour’s YouTube blog is called “Totally Trucked”), and Epstein notes that it’s usually an older demographic that comes out to see plays. But here, there is a strong contingent of teenagers who attend — usually with a parent.
He hopes it leads to some discussions without it being awkward. “Sex is part of life,” he says. “Everybody goes through puberty. I also think theater is about being moved. This show is so funny, and it’s so dramatic, so scary — it is everything that I think theater should be.”
You can get ticketing information for the Milwaukee run of Spring Awakening (now through Sunday) on the Marcus Center website, or call 414-273-7206. There is also a luncheon with producer Tom Hulce (of Amadeus fame) and the cast on Friday for a special ticket price.