Back in the summer of 2008 just before graduating high school, one of my closest friends suggested we go to an amazing Broadway show together from which she had heard rave reviews. Knowing little about said show before actually taking our seats at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, Spring Awakening completely blew me away (and I didn’t even get to see the original cast in these roles)! Now, just over fifteen years after experiencing it for the first time, I sat down on my couch ready for all the major nostalgia feels. This documentary from HBO Max chronicles the one-night only reunion concert to benefit the Actors Fund; once one gets over the disappointment that Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known isn’t just a filmed concert, the project becomes a profound deep dive into the world of a groundbreaking Broadway production that workshopped for over three years before reaching peak excellence.
From the very beginning, it is clear how much this 15-year reunion show means to the entire original cast and creative team. Based on a controversial play from 1891 playwright Frank Wedekind, the journey from workshops to Off-Broadway to Broadway itself was an arduous one indeed. By opting to combine 1890s Germany with explosive modern rock music, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik made magic. In the wake of Columbine, two practicing Buddhists wanted to “touch the troubled heart of youth around the world.” For a show dealing with sexual identity, abortion, and suicide, it checks off nearly every major taboo one could imagine, yet still stays grounded and emotionally moving throughout. Who would have thought it would become a touchtone of Broadway culture? These are songs that bore into one’s very soul, drilling to the core of what makes these characters tick as they deal with oppression from their parents and teachers.
Along with following the show’s inception and creation, this documentary intersperses vintage performance footage of the original cast with new footage from their 2021 on-stage reunion. The growth from one extreme to the next is staggering. Song selection is also smartly cherry-picked and juxtaposed against interviews that frequently match the intended tone of the material. I found it rather shocking that the show was never really intended or envisioned with the end goal of reaching Broadway. Even more shocking was the lack of attention it received prior to a staggering eleven Tony nominations. After those came out, Spring Awakening exploded into a frenzy of rabid ticket buyers. I remember waiting outside in the cold for hours just to get student rush tickets for the show, and this was well after the original cast had departed, so picturing merely 300 people seated for a performance in that 1100-seat house makes little sense.
Involved from the very beginning (and at only 14!), a young Lea Michele helped craft the role of Wendla. Her voice belting out “Mama Who Bore Me” is one of the show’s most enduring images. She befriended Jonathan Groff, who she viewed as her little countrymouse bestie, and the two soon became nearly inseparable. Groff filled the lead role of Melchior, acting opposite Lea. Their nightly sexcapades onstage translated to an unmistakable bond in their daily lives. I found it interesting that Michele once had real feelings for Groff, and did not understand why he was not reciprocating them to her in a romantic way. Of course, for those who know Groff today, he is an out and proud gay actor. During the show’s full run, however, he was firmly closeted apart from those in his close circle. Groff’s own insecurities about people finding out he was gay if he couldn’t sell the sex scene the correct way are heartbreaking, as one should never have to feel so at odds with their own sexuality.
I loved seeing nearly every cast member get full-blown emotional, meaning this show was just as important to them as to us, the audience. I cannot possibly imagine carrying the weight of a nightly suicide, beating, or death by bootleg abortion—as we follow the original trio departing the show, the need for this little family reunion becomes all the more clear. “The Song of Purple Summer” closes it out in a satisfying way, but the most telling impact is the actors as they exit the stage and onto a NYC party bus. They have just given the performance of a lifetime, and are reveling in the glow of delivering something special. Hatched from a dream that Lauren Pritchard had about a reunion, this crew has come together to create a soaring epic once again. If I could have given a standing ovation of my own, I would be on my feet clapping.
In essence, Spring Awakening is a jet-black coming-of-age story, but Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known is a sweeter and lighter coming-of-age. There are now several faces that have gone on to have fulfilling lives and storied careers. I will never forget watching Glee for the first time during the arc when Rachel and Jesse, played by Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff respectively, share a duet together. The two have undeniable chemistry; as Lea went on to play Rachel for six seasons and a two-year tenure on FOX’s Scream Queens, Jonathan returned to the stage in Little Shop of Horrors and Hamilton, and made big imprints onscreen in HBO’s Looking and Netflix’s Mindhunter. Other cast members like Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. (Broadway’s American Idiot and Jerusalem, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) have continued steadily working in the years since Spring Awakening concluded. Revisiting these people as full-grown adults injects Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known with an almost meta self-actualization that seems to make its own commentary on Spring Awakening’s grander themes. Are we all just “totally fucked,” or is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known laments the bitch of living when it debuts exclusively on HBO Max on Tuesday, May 3rd.