After being met with massive success on Broadway (including 8 Tony Awards in 2007, 4 Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy, among others), Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock musical Spring Awakening has taken London’s West End by storm. Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same title, the musical chronicles the adolescent search for a logical adult world and deals with issues of sex, rape, suicide and homosexuality. I met with Iwan Rheon who plays Moritz Stiefel, the “sad, soulful sleepyhead” who can’t quite come to grips with the changes that face him. Shy and playful at 23, he spoke about his experience in the show and as a newcomer to the West End stage.
So, could you possibly start by talking about how you got to where you are now? Training? The audition process?
Yeah. I, em, I trained in London at LAMDA and I graduated in 2007. And then I think it was either in October or November 2007 the audition process started. And that’s when I first met the casting directors for the first time. Em, and then later on the creative team came and that’s when auditions began. And then they went back again and then they came back again. And that lasted for about a year. Em, and then in September we had the sort of final round, em, and then that ended up being a week long workshop and learning scenes for each character, doing some parts and we learned songs and started to do the show. Em, and then a week later, or a little over a week later, then I heard I got the part. So it was a long process.
Yeah, it sounds like it. It must have been weird being put together with the other people you were in direct competition with.
Yeah, it’s quite strange because you get to chatting with them and become friends. It was quite a relaxing atmosphere. There was a lot of cameras – (Laughing) it wasn’t relaxing, it was very stressful. But, and then you sort of clung to each other, especially the two Moritzes in the corner going (gestures nerves) and this and that. But yeah, it was a shame that at the end of it only one person was going to get picked. We did scenes in front of each other, which was very difficult. But it all worked out okay in the end.
Were you familiar with the musical or with Frank Wedekind’s original text before you came into this?
No. I read the original play – the Edward Bond translation – as soon as I started auditioning. And then I sort of just searched the musical as well. But no, I never heard of it. I’ve never really done musicals before. It’s been sort of straight acting and then singing, etc. and I’ve been in bands so it was - yeah, the two mounded together really quite well.
And what have you done with bands? Do you usually sing? Do you play an instrument?
Yeah, I sing and play the guitar. Yeah, but obviously I can’t do that any more. So hopefully when this finishes I’m going to pick that back up again.
Very nice. And what about the things you’re auditioning for in the foreseeable future? Are you going to go for more musicals? Straight plays?
Well, I’d like to do some more straight plays. I’m pretty open to what I’ll do – I’d like to do something different after. I think not a musical next. Yeah, we’ll see what happens. It is quite difficult at the moment to audition for things because we don’t know how long this is going to run.
Right, of course. And you do eight shows a week, yeah?
So what do you do in your free time when you’re not going crazy here?
(Laughing) Em, well I mean I just try and relax really and not think about the play and the musical – try not to get downtrodden with myself. Yeah, just try and relax. Just try and read or whatever so my life isn’t completely taken over by the show because that would be dangerous. (Laughs)
Is there any talk about recording a cast album?
Em, there are many rumors but it’s never been said. They haven’t mentioned it. It’s just a lot of speculation I think. It’d be lovely to do it but, em, I don’t think it’s in the near future.
Personally I would be so excited if you guys recorded. You sound great. I’ve been listening to these terrible bootlegs on YouTube and I would love to not have to do that. It’s a bit pathetic of me, I think. (Both laugh)
Okay, one thing I’ve noticed, having seen the show several times both here and in New York, is that the effect of the non-musical scenes here is very different. The stakes seem higher. I hate to use this word, but I think it reads as much more “truthful” here. What was the focus on these scenes like in the rehearsal process?
Yeah, there was a lot of focus on the scenes. I mean, the way it was staged – because it was already so formed on Broadway – it was already like sort of choreographed in a way and that. We got through that and sort of then found our own way into it. I think the cast over here is a lot younger in general. Yeah, I think it must be sort of a British sort of theatrical thing that everything is just sort of really gritty and maybe a little bit darker. I never saw the Broadway version so I have nothing to compare it with but yeah, I mean, I think from what I’ve heard it seems to be a lot darker and I think the innocence of the characters comes through a lot more - from what I’ve heard.
The creative team was the same here as it was in New York. How was it to work with Michael Mayer?
It was great. He obviously had such a strong idea of what it was and it was helpful in many ways. I’m used to kind of getting a script and then finding it whereas here we learned the script, did all of the blocking and then had to find it so it was kind of working in reverse, which was quite strange. And it was great working with Kimberly [Grigsby, musical supervisor]. She’s got a great passion for the music, so it was great to work with someone like that.
How was the switch from the Lyric Hammersmith to the Novello? Do you feel like much changed in that transition?
Em, I don’t think it changed massive amounts. I think we just had to be aware that we were in a bigger space. The set is exactly the same, just a bit wider. I don’t think it’s changed a massive amount. It’s still just very important to keep to all of the things we rehearsed and all the actions and the intentions of the scenes. I think it’s pretty much stayed the same.
How much time did you have in between to get used to the new space?
Em, well we had like three days off after the end of the Lyric run. And then we came here – it was the Wednesday – to do a sort of safe-through on the new stage. And then we started teching on Thursday and we opened on Friday night. So it wasn’t a great deal of time. But I think that might be a good thing because we didn’t get a chance to think about it. Everything was so quick that we just did it and then thought about it afterwards which is good. Probably. (Laughs)
How do you feel about the onstage seating? That’s obviously pretty unusual for any major commercial production. Is it strange to have people right there staring at you?
Yeah, it’s strange. I’ve gotten used to it now, but at first it was a bit weird. Bit I think, em, I try not to think about it. It’s kind of strange. I think it’s a really good way to bring the audience into the world of the play. Em, it just gives a really nice intimate feel, which is great. Em, but no I mean it doesn’t really affect – well, I mean you obviously have to be aware of everyone when you move around. But, no, I quite like it.
Yeah, it feels so weird sitting onstage. I love it but I also always feel like ‘Oh, God’.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s always quite interesting watching the sort of body language of the people in the front row and onstage – all looking around and sitting there (Imitates people sitting compactly and nervously) all closed. It’s quite funny. (Laughs)
Yeah, that would be me with my long legs. I’m always afraid I’m going to trip somebody. Actually, the first time I saw the show was from onstage and I got kicked really hard during “The Bitch of Living”.
(Laughing) You should have sued.
Seriously. So, I’m assuming that a lot of your friends and family have come to see the show. How has that been?
Yeah. I think obviously when your parents come to see something you want to make them proud. But I mean you have to try and treat it as a normal show. And then just trust in the work. And then usually everything will go alright.
There are advertisements and posters for this show all over the city. In the tube, on busses, in shops. How does it feel to all of a sudden see your face all over the city when you’re just walking around? Is that weird?
It is a bit strange. (Laughing) My housemates though, they think it’s quite funny. The other day they were in a kebab shop and then (Laughs) they saw a poster of me and stole it off the wall and took it home and put it up in the bathroom. So when I woke up in the morning and went into the bathroom I was like ‘What the hell is that doing here?!’ (Laughs) But yeah, it’s quite funny. You can’t really take it too seriously. It’s quite weird to see your face on the wall. But luckily I’m sort of facing away and I have that crazy haircut so it’s not so obvious that it’s me.
Speaking of that, how do you feel about the haircut?
Em, I mean it’s part of the character. (Laughs) I think it works really well onstage. But obviously in real life it’s quite difficult to hide. I wear a lot of hats. (Laughs) Yeah, it’s doable. It’s just part of the job.
So you’re not going to stick with it after?
Alright, alright. A bit more seriously: your character obviously deals with and brings up some of the more serious issues in the show, suicide especially. I would imagine that it must be really trying to go onstage get yourself to that place every night. How do you get there without just totally dragging yourself down in it offstage?
Yeah, I just try, I mean, I think you’ve just got to believe it. As an actor you’ve got to believe what you’re doing and really try to feel those emotions. I kind of like just sort of think, let myself go, just think about the thoughts of the character and all of the different things that sort of build – build into this situation. So you really have to go there I think. But obviously there has to be a sort of process of sitting down, trying not to – trying to get out of it, think of something else. That’s why I like to when I’m not doing the show do something else and not think about it too much. And I think it’s really easy to really get into it too much and get a bit, em, self-indulgent about some things. But then that’s something where I really have to just try and think ‘Just tell the story, just tell this boy’s story’ and try to make it as real as possible because you’re dealing with real issues and real things. You have to be respectful to the people that go through this and you can’t sort of half do it. So have to really do it but also not go too far into it that you feel like you’re becoming suicidal yourself. It’s quite difficult. But you’ve just got to try and let it go afterwards.
It must be great then that you have this ensemble supporting you. Obviously you are all together a lot. How is the group dynamic? Do you spend time together outside of the theatre?
Yeah, on a Saturday night we’ll normally do something. We’ll all go out. Yeah, and a lot of the cast live together.
Yeah, because for a lot of them it’s their first time living in London. So they kind of just went into it together. But I don’t live with any of them. Which I think is a good thing. (Laughs) But yeah, it’s been great. It’s like a group of friends that you have offstage which I think comes across really well onstage when we go out there and do the show together.
And what about the two adults proper? How do they fit into that whole situation? They’re kind of surrounded by this crazy youth culture thing all the time.
(Laughs) Yeah, I think they enjoy it. It’s really good because they’re so experienced. It’s great for us to have that kind of experience for us to sort of draw from. You know, little things they say and do, just to watch how they do things themselves, and it’s really good for us. And I think they’re kind of the mother and father of the company. (Laughs)
Have any of the original cast members from New York come to see the show?
Yeah. Well, Jonathan Groff came. He was really nice. Yeah, he loved it. I think he was the only one, actually. Oh, no! Lauren Pritchard. She’s seen it a couple of times I think. Yeah.
Okay, I have to ask this. Do you have a dream role that you hope to play at some point in your career?
I would love to play Iago in Othello! (Laughs) Yeah, that would be my dream role. I think I have to wait a few years for that though. (Laughs)
You said you spend a lot of free time reading. Do you read many plays? Or do you prefer to read other things, like novels and such?
Em, novels. I don’t know. I find that watching a play is much better than reading it. Especially the Shakespeare. I have a hard time to sit down and enjoy reading a Shakespeare. (Laughs) Because it wasn’t written to be read. So, em, yeah I try and read other stuff when I have the chance. It’s quite good actually after I come offstage in Act II and just have a book about something completely different and just read that. It kind of takes you out of the weight of the world and all that…malarkey. (Laughs)
It must be a bummer, though, not be able to go and see other shows that are running right now.
Yeah, it’s a shame. Especially because some of my friends who I went to drama school with are all in shows that I’m not able to go see. Yeah, it’s a shame. But when I get time off from the show I’ll try to go see some things.
How does that work out? How often do you get a break? Is that predetermined?
Yeah, we all get 27 days off. But we’re not all allowed off at the same time and that. And I’m not allowed to take time off at the same time as Ilse. And Melchior and Wendla, they can’t take time off together. So it’s just trying to keep as much of the cast on so that when the swings come in it’s not too different.
Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of understudies here. It really changes the dynamics onstage and it’s interesting to see different people’s takes on these characters. Would you ever consider coming on a day off and watching somebody else do your role?
Em, I dunno. I think it’s good to watch the show. Right at the beginning of the run at the Lyric I injured my back so I missed the first five previews. So, and then I watched it twice. And you learn a lot that way. But no, I don’t think I could do that to my understudy. (Laughs) To have him know that I’m somewhere in the audience like this (Arms and legs crossed, making a face) watching him. (Laughs) It wouldn’t be fair.
Okay, finally I just want to ask you a sort of silly question. If you had to switch roles for one night who would you want to play and why? Regardless of gender and age.
Oh, gender! (Laughs) Hmm…No, but seriously I would have to say Melchior. Because he is sort of the opposite of Moritz and it would be quite good to do the whole picture like, full circle. That would be quite fun.