Parkland Survivors Get a Broadway Master Class in Healing


They began rehearsals five weeks before the shooting and they insisted on continuing after. The show opens May 2.

As Broadway musicals go, “Spring Awakening,” with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, is arguably the worst show that a town in South Florida could stage right now. Or if you believe in catharsis, in theater’s ability to transmute painful feelings into something constructive and cleansing, maybe it’s the best.

Photo

Lea Michele, second from right, offered advice to the Florida students. With her, from left, were her Broadway castmates Gideon Glick, Lauren Pritchard and Jonathan Groff.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Photo

Phoebe Strole, right, another original cast member, is overcome while watching the rehearsal.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, it’s a story of adolescents failed by an older generation, with tragic results. The character of Melchior, which vaulted Mr. Groff to stardom and is played here by the 17-year-old Never Again activist Cameron Kasky, sings a second-act number flanked by the ghosts of a dead friend and a dead lover.

But for many of the students, rehearsal has been a reprieve, a temporary escape from real-life dramas.

As Sawyer Garrity, 16, who plays Melchior’s lover Wendla (Ms. Michele’s role), said before rehearsal began: “Nothing has been normal. This isn’t even fully normal.” (Because of death threats some of the students have received, a police cruiser waits in the parking lot during every rehearsal.) “But this is the one place where I’m centered,” she said.

Photo

Kirsten McConnell, 17, left, and Sawyer Garrity, 16, shared a moment during warmups for the “Spring Awakening” rehearsal.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

When the Broadway actor Gideon Glick read about the production in a New Yorker article, he reached out to its director, Christine Barclay, asking if a visit would be welcome. With her approval, he began to muster his former castmates.

Many of the actors had flown in that day. Several of them were bunking together at a house Remy Zaken had borrowed. Lilli Cooper couldn’t make it. She’s starring in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.” But she FaceTimed the girl playing Martha, her “Spring Awakening” role.

Theater-world support has become a part of this new not-normal. Every current Broadway show has provided the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Drama Club with signed posters or similar swag. The evening before this rehearsal some of the “Spring Awakening” student actors had performed alongside “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” cast members in a benefit concert called “From Broadway With Love.”

But even generosity can breed exhaustion and complicate grieving. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, there were so many fund-raisers and celebrity stop-ins that Newtown’s first selectman requested an end to outside events in town.

With that in mind, Mr. Glick hadn’t publicized the visit and he and Ms. Barclay had conceived it as a respite with occasional music, a chance for the young actors to chat “Hair” with Mr. Groff and “Glee” with Ms. Michele, to “feel good and supported,” he said, speaking by telephone the week before.

Photo

Remy Zaken, left, another Broadway veteran, surrounded by members of the Florida cast after rehearsals.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Ms. Barclay wanted that, too. But she also hoped that the professional actors could counsel the students on taking a character to a dark place without staying there yourself, on making it “not so personal and raw,” she said a few days before the Broadway actors arrived.

In the theater, after the breathless warm-up, the rehearsal began in earnest, with the original cast watching from three and four rows back. “They’re here to support your rehearsal. They’re not here to cast you in the next Broadway show,” Ms. Barclay said.

“I wish someone would cast me in the next Broadway show,” Skylar Astin, who played Georg onstage, murmured jokingly.

Performing in front of the invited guests wasn’t always easy. Alfonso Calderon, 17, had to mime masturbation right in front of what he called “his celebrity crushes and dreams.” He looked ashen when he finished the scene, though he still managed to compliment Mr. Astin on the “Pitch Perfect” movies.

The Broadway actors praised the vulnerability and even the discomfort of some of the student actors. “I can see in your faces and on your bodies what we felt as well when we were first doing the show,” Phoebe Strole said during a break. “It’s like taking your heart out of your chest and shoving it at us.”

“But you also have to be loud, guys,” Mr. Glick said, adding an apologetic, “I don’t want to be like a Jewish mother here.”

Photo

Christine Barclay, right, who is directing “Spring Awakening,” watched as Ms. Garrity and Mr. Kasky rehearsed a scene.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

“Please Jewish mother them,” Ms. Barclay said. (A new mother herself, she’d brought her 2-month-old baby to the rehearsal.)

Eventually a prop gun required by the script would be used, but Ms. Barclay hadn’t introduced it yet. No one wanted to mention the shooting head-on, though there were some oblique references to Valentine’s Day.

When a question for the Broadway actors seemed to veer that way, Mr. Kasky, who had spent most of the rehearsal threatening to break into “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid,” tensed up. “We want to talk less about the shooting,” he said. His character cried during a funeral scene in a way that seemed to bypass technique.

The professional actors had advice on handling the hard stuff.

“You choose when you want to use what you went through to cry or to laugh or do whatever, and if you don’t, if you just want to go into the song, you can do that, too,” Ms. Michele said.

The younger actors studied their counterparts as though searching for clues about what their own lives would be 12 years from now. But mostly they wanted to be near the people who had sung the same songs and mumbled the same speeches and known what it is to show up for rehearsal with a face full of pimples or perform a love scene when your own body is still a mystery.

“I felt like, ‘Am I going to have to pretend I have any clue what I’m doing?’” Mr. Groff confessed.

Continue reading the main story