Spring Awakening – Overview
Music: Duncan Sheik
Book & Lyrics: Steven Sater
Spring Awakening is one of the definitive guitar books in musical theatre. Imagine that you are the Music Director for a show and have to start cutting instruments from your ensemble. First you might cut from two guitars to one, then reduce the string section, or brass and so on until only one instrument remains, and that will almost always be the piano. For Spring Awakening, if you had only one instrument, it would have to be the guitar.
The music, by pop/rock guitarist Duncan Sheik, is filled with folk-rock stylings: rich, lush chords with unusual voicings, beautiful finger-picked tunes, all permeated with a wistful sadness and nostalgia. It’s very beautiful, and quite unlike any other Broadway score. The instrumentation is also unusual for Broadway, comprising a simple rock band (guitar, bass drums), a string section, and piano/harmonium. The show opened on Broadway in December 2006 and was a massive hit, winning 8 Tony awards. The cast recording won a Grammy.
I’ve been fortunate enough to play Spring Awakening twice, in 2014 for Youth Theatre Northwest, and in 2017 for Second Story Repertory. Both productions had excellent casts, bands and production teams and were immensely rewarding experiences. The 2017 production was a longer run, and I felt I played the material better, and got better sounds overall the second time around.
PLAYING SPRING AWAKENING
The Guitar 1 book is immensely satisfying to play, and not particularly difficult (it even provides fretboard diagrams, to help with the unusual voicings and extensive use of capos). However, because the guitar is so prominent, it’s important to play accurately and to keep good tempo, especially in the many solo passages. The band is usually on stage, and the conductor doesn’t conduct too much. There’s also a partial Guitar 2 book – the violinist doubles – but this can easily be dispensed with without losing much texture (see my detailed notes on the Guitar 1 book for more information).
The Spring Awakening Guitar 1 book requires six guitars:
- Acoustic #1
- Acoustic #2, tuned C-G-C-G-G-D for #14 – “Left Behind”
- 12-String Acoustic
- Nylon String Acoustic for #1 – “Mama Who Bore Me”
- Electric #1 – a Gibson-style guitar with humbuckers, not a Stratocaster or Telecaster
- Electric #2, tuned D-A-D-G-A-D with capo at 3rd fret for # 4 – “The Bitch of Living” – another Gibson-style, but with a brighter sound.
I used a 1974 Gibson ES-335 as the main electric guitar, and a 1987 Fender Thinline Telecaster with wide range humbuckers for Electric #2. Use of fewer guitars requires you to make major re-tunings, fast, in front of the audience (remember, you are likely to be on stage). However, it is possible to reduce the number of guitars. Here’s how you could do it:
- Use one electric, and re-tune to standard tuning after “The Bitch of Living”.
- Use Acoustic #1 to play “Mama Who Bore Me”.
That gets you down to 4 guitars (electric, acoustic, acoustic 2 and 12-string). Any fewer and you really start to lose the feel of the piece, so why bother. I should also point out that you cannot practically dispense with Acoustic #2. You would be trying to re-tune your acoustic from standard to C-G-C-G-G-D right in the middle of the quietest and most emotional scene of the show – don’t go there!
- Capos for Nylon String Acoustic, Acoustic #1, Electric #1 and Electric #2.
- E-Bow for #10 – “The Mirror Blue Night” – much nicer than using a slide.
- Electric and acoustic amplifiers or DI boxes, depending on the requirements of the production.
- Switching for the different guitars (I used a Boss LS-2 to switch the electrics and a GigRig Quartermaster QMX4 for the 4 acoustics).
I used the following pedals (I provide more information in my detailed Notes on the Guitar 1 book):
- Overdrive: moderate, not too heavy, and definitely not a distortion pedal. I used a Fulltone OCD, which responds well to changes in attack (hit harder, get more distortion!).
- Analog delay: about 500ms for most uses, except #4 and #12. I used an MXR Carbon Copy.
- Compression: not too much, just a little to add sustain here and there. I used a Keeley 4-knob compressor.
- Harmonizer: set to 1 octave up, used in “The Bitch of Living” only. I used a Boss PS-6 for one production and an Ibanez PDM-1 for another.
- Tremolo: light tremolo, used in “The Guilty Ones” only. I used a Boss TR-2.
- Parametric EQ: I used an Empress Para EQ throughout to get the tone basic coloring I wanted for the ES-335.
- Volume pedals: 1 for electrics and 1 for acoustics.