Lea Michele says the idea to reunite the original Broadway Spring Awakening cast came in a dream.
while talking to The Hollywood Reporter on the New York premiere carpet for the new HBO documentary Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known — which is part performance, part reunion special — the actress, who played the leading character Wendia, recalled one other time the group had considered it: “Maybe during the 10-year anniversary” of the show from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, based on the 1891 teen drama by Frank Wedekind.
But mostly, she said, the special event came together after a conversation between fellow cast member Laura Pritchard and Jonathan Groff. “Laura had a dream that we were all reuniting — like, an actual dream when she was sleeping at night — and she called Jonathan and was like, ‘We need to get back on the stage together again,’” Michele recalled.
That performance would be a benefit show for The Actor’s Fund during the pandemic. Beyond navigating COVID protocols and a live audience, the team had only days to rehearse, according to star Jonathan Groff, who played lead Melchior in the award-winning rock musical.
“You rehearse for two months for a Broadway musical, and we put Spring Awakening back up in, I don’t know, three days of rehearsal?” Lili Cooper, who originated Marta, explained. I remember [original Broadway director] Michael Mayer telling us, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna have books, but just don’t look at them.’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean? You expect us to know all this?’ Of course, we got to rehearsal, and it just flowed out of us, like it was always in us for the last decade and a half.”
The film team and RadicalMedia — the global media and communications company behind filmed productions of musicals for hamilton and Come From Away — were also working within fast-paced, high-pressure unusual circumstances on their end.
“Because this was a one-night-only performance, it was a different challenge for us. We didn’t have those four or five days that we normally would have. We had one shot just like they had one shot,” said Dave Sirulnick, the doc’s producer, who explained the team usually shoots multiple times with and without an audience and is able to capture certain angles and close-ups through this process without disrupting the live experience for theatergoers. “So, I think it was just about everybody being very collaborative and really being connected to what we were doing.”
Despite all-cameras being on them, Groff and John Gallagher Jr. (who played Moritz) both agreed that the filming of the performance didn’t feel “intrusive.” A more significant challenge, said Gallagher Jr., was the simple act of reuniting the team. “It’s hard to get everybody in the same place again with this many people after this many years. Everyone’s scattered and then has their life and their calling,” the actor told THR. “So it would be enough just to get back together for one night only, but then to have it be captured for posterity the way it is and to be shared with the world on the global stage — it’s almost overwhelming.”
While the doc captures the live benefit performance of Spring Awakeningit also goes behind the scenes, bringing familiar and new fans of the core company an inside look at the making of the Broadway show from years ago.
“I think this one is special because, as you’ve seen, it’s not just the performance, but it’s the story of these people and what they put together,” Sirulnick said. “The story of Spring Awakening is a remarkable story and an inspiring story, so we were really glad to be able to tell that story, while also bringing the performances front and center.”
“We, of course, loved doing our show every night, but the real joy came offstage and the time that we got to spend together. So I’m so glad that we have the footage from 2006 at Jonathan’s family’s farm together,” Michele added. “We didn’t show as much of the backstage antics of the reunion — although I think we were up together every night until about five in the morning — but we are a family both on stage and off, and I’m so grateful that this documentary shows all of that.”
For Cooper, it reignited that giddiness—and, at one point, insecurity—of when she was younger. “At least for me, it brought me back into that insecure teenage world, where I was like, ‘Oh, I hope everybody likes me. I hope we’re still friends,’” Cooper said, laughing. “Someone had a really beautiful thought — I forget who it was — but they said it felt like we were reintroducing ourselves to one another. And when do you get to do that?”
It’s also a chance for a new generation to see this original cast in this story and its (unfortunately) enduring messages for the first time. “For me, what’s contained in the film are such profound stories that I think a lot of people need to hear. And so my dream for this film is that it travels far and wide,” the doc’s director, Michael John Warren, said. “There are a lot of people who have been marginalized by society or something that’s happened to them personally, and I love the fact that we made this film that can go anywhere, so people who might not get to hear the really important messages of this film suddenly get to hear them.”
Yet, the doc itself didn’t just serve as a timely return to discussions about sexuality, gender, religion, abortion and authority, among other topics. Nor was it simply a trip down memory lane for its cast or a means of reaching a wider audience. Because they performed pre-social media, the experience has allowed the cast to revisit the show with each other — and with fans — in a way they didn’t get to before.
“Spring Awakening was happening before the wave of social media, so all of the videos and performances that you have now didn’t exist,” Groff said. “So to be able to come back and do the songs together and talk about the show, and have it recorded is so profound for us because we never got that video record, either from the show being recorded or even from just like the record that we’re now so used to with social media.”
Another new part of the experience was seeing the grown cast inhabit their roles. “The biggest difference for me was that I was a 16-year-old. I was a very different human back in 2006. I’ve grown a lot into who I am. I’m a mom now,” Cooper said. “I think the reunion concert itself felt so profound because we were looking at it through a different lens, and that allowed us to tell the story in such a powerful way.”
“I feel like coming into this role as an adult, we had so much more clarity about what we were actually saying — what it meant,” Michele added. “Coming back as an adult — not only having a better understanding for what we were saying, having had life experiences — was with a lot more confidence. It was really about having fun with our friends and telling the story. It wasn’t so much the pressure of doing a good job every single night. That really made our shoulders relax, and we gave a really honest and grounded performance.”
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known premieres Tuesday at 9 pm ET on HBO.