No hit Broadway musicals have been set in high schools in hell, but "Spring Awakening" is close enough to count.
Its characters grapple with suicide, abortion, profound depression and what was quaintly called "self-abuse" when its source material - a German play by Frank Wedekind - emerged in 1891.
German authorities suppressed that play for 15 years, unwilling to believe their sexually oppressive culture fostered such feelings. Tony Award voters were more receptive: They gave the show eight prizes in 2007, including best musical and best score (by composer Duncan Sheik).
Is the musical a love story about Melchior and Wendla, two students whose passion seems headed for disaster? A cautionary tale for parents? A frank (and briefly undressed) look at all kinds of eroticism, from hetero to homo to auto?
All of the above, which is why the Performing Arts Center will swap "Awakening" tickets for any other PAC event. (Call 704-335-1010, if you've made up your mind.)
Yet Sheik would rather that parents thought of the show's national tour as a chance to connect with their offspring.
"Kids who watch MTV at 3:30 in the afternoon will see things way more prurient than they see here," he said.
"I don't think 'Spring Awakening' is going to scar anybody. It deals with things frankly, but with dignity and some sweet humor. Nobody escapes these feelings, and we're not doing or saying anything that doesn't happen every day, thousands of times."
Sheik, now 40, began this collaboration with playwright/lyricist Steven Sater shortly after the Columbine shootings in 1999. They decided to keep the German setting of the late 19th century but write modern-day, angst-driven songs. That may be one of the reasons the show took seven years to find its feet.
"The first issue for commercial producers ... was the huge disconnect between the story being set in 1891 and the contemporary music. That did compute for the 50 or so people who came to workshops we did once a year. Finally, we did a performance at Lincoln Center for about 400 people, and folks at Atlantic Theater - who'd never done a musical - liked the piece.
"Nobody was saying, 'This is a Broadway show.' Steven and I secretly harbored the hope it might be, but everyone said, 'It's too racy, too out there. The music has nothing to do with Broadway.' But the critics spoke, and the public spoke, and that convinced the producing team we could (move) it to Broadway. The rest is a dream come true."
Does the show reflect his own high school experiences?
"I wasn't one of the popular kids, but not unpopular - kind of on my own track. There's always a huge amount of angst about who you are, what's cool and what's not, so there are roiling emotions.
"There's probably a small percentage of people who coast through on Cloud 9. They're the freaks of the world, and it's going to end in tears for them!" (He laughs.) "But it's those challenges to your psyche that help you become a person of character and moral strength. I don't see it as a bad thing. That's just the road you follow."
Sheik and Sater didn't target a young audience, and the composer got used to seeing older faces in the crowd.
"So many people in their 60s, 70s, even 80s told us, 'This brought me back to my adolescence,' and they were moved by that. This isn't a show like 'Wicked,' which targets a teen demographic.
"It has more of a psychographic, I think. Our audience runs the gamut from the late teens to the intellectuals who listen to NPR to people who never go to the theater at all and are just music fans. That was the goal: to get people in who'd never seen a musical."
The musical may endear itself to people because, unlike the original play, it offers hope. "The Song of Purple Summer" reminds us that time and distance from pain make it possible to process and learn from that suffering.
"The solution is to wait it out, (until) winter turns to spring," Sheik agrees. "This feeling is not going to last forever, (though) as an adolescent, it seems like it will.
"We did have a number of younger teens in New York who went to see the show with their parents. I know that started conversations that hadn't happened yet but were good ones to have."