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Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele on Spring Awakening's Chosen Family, Queer Themes

Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele on Spring Awakening's Chosen Family, Queer Themes

Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele

The best friends chat with The Advocate about the smash musical's anniversary concert and documentary, and how its themes are still critical 15 years later.

It's tough to absorb the reality that the themes of 19th-century dramatist Frank Wedekind's play Spring Awakening continue to be hot-button topics in 2022.

But the HBO documentary Spring Awakening: Those You've Known (available now), which follows the hit musical's original cast through a 15-year reunion and concert, proves the enduring relevance of the piece -- it includes stories of queer desire, sexual abuse, suicidal ideation, and abortion. The musical moved to Broadway in 2006, predating national marriage equality, the #MeToo movement, and the recent furor over Roe v. Wade. In Those You've Known, cast members including Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., Skylar Astin, Lilli Cooper, and Lauren Pritchard -- who became instant idols to legions of musical theater fans -- return to the musical that rocked Broadway to reflect on how its timeless themes forever impacted them.

The documentary chronicles Spring Awakening's beginnings, when there was no guarantee that audiences would embrace the frank material. After all, there's teen sex depicted onstage between Groff's Melchior and Michele's Wendla (and a botched abortion that eventually follows). A major musical number, "The Dark I Know Well," has Cooper's Martha and Pritchard's Ilse confiding about the sexual abuse they've endured. But the modern music from "Barely Breathing" singer Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics from Steven Sater, set in a 19th-century milieu, struck a collective nerve that continues to be of the moment. The show was a bona fide hit, and the cast became Broadway stars as they were coming of age. A central narrative of the documentary from director Michael John Warren is about the "logical family" they created, as Groff puts it. Another of the film's threads leans into Groff's coming-out journey and the lifelong platonic love story that defines his friendship with Glee star Michele.

"I'm so happy to be sitting next to Lea right now. And we were saying that this day of press talking about this documentary is [not work] because it means the world to us. This experience changed our lives. It bonded us together forever," Groff tells The Advocate.

"We're as passionate about Spring Awakening as we were in 2006. And we are now in 2022. Jonathan was saying earlier today that we did our show in the time that was pre-social media, and it was this huge success," Michele adds. "But we have this incredible gift right now of this documentary and reintroducing this piece to people who may not know it and talking about these themes and the subject matter that is just as important now as it was then."

Spring Awakening

John Gallgher Jr., Jonathan Groff, and Lea Michele

Regarding the material, Groff says, "This play was banned for 100 years almost -- 1891 [in] Germany. This documentary ... tells the story of Spring Awakening and why it's always been an important piece of theater, why it's always been a controversial piece of theater, and how it really takes young people and what they're going through seriously."

With a rich mix of interviews with cast members and creators and archival footage, Those You've Known follows the cast as they came together to shoot the reunion concert (with cheering but masked audience members signaling a sign of the times). The film follows each major musical number from Michele's character Wendla's opening "Mama Who Bore Me" through to the hopeful finale "The Song of Purple Summer." Throughout the film, the cast, creators, and producers (including Amadeus Oscar nominee Tom Hulce) weigh in on various numbers then and now.

Much ado has been made on social media recently about archival interviews in the documentary in which Michele (14 when they began to workshop the show) admits to an early and intense crush on Groff while he was grappling with how to come out. But Groff confirms that they fell in love each night onstage and off (as lifelong friends).

"It's wild to look at those videos of how young we look.... We were young and trying to figure out who we were onstage and offstage and having relationships that were inter-cast relationships and highs and lows," Michele says of the chosen family they became.

"To have this opportunity to reconnect now as adults and reintroduce ourselves as the people that we are now is a real gift. We always have such a deep acceptance for one another and unspoken support and love that has sustained time, and that's what family is," she says.

In the film, a tearful Groff, now 37 and having starred in HBO's Looking, Netflix's Mindhunter, and that little Broadway smash Hamilton, recalls investigating themes of teen sexuality and desire each night in Spring Awakening while he was coming into his identity as a young gay man.

"I had to come to terms with who I was. And a month after I left the show, I came out of the closet and I started my life," Groff, who grew up in a religious community in Lancaster, Pa., says in the film. He adds that Melchior, a singular spirit who spoke his mind, gave him the strength to come out in some ways. "It wasn't a quick transition. It took a long time to own my identity for the first time and then felt like 'Oh, thank God I'm this way. I'm so happy to be this way. I wouldn't want to be any other way.'"

Spring Awakening

While Groff was finding his authentic self through playing Melchior, elsewhere onstage, the characters Ernst (Gideon Glick) and Hanschen (Jonathan B. Wright) explored a queer love story. A good bit of the Those You've Known delves into Gallagher's misunderstood Moritz, who dies by suicide. Given its subject matter, Spring Awakening has always felt modern and critical, but with the documentary dropping just days before the Supreme Court's leaked opinion showing that it intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 50-year-old ruling that legalized abortion, it's as prescient as ever. Toward the musical's close, pregnant and with no apparent viable options, Wendla undergoes an abortion that eventually kills her. In her Advocate interview even before the leaked Supreme Court decision, Michele was struck by the immediacy of her character's story.

"We still live in a world where a woman's right to choose is still a question is devastating," Michelle says. "Touching on the show's other plotlines, she says, "It's also devastating to think that what we were talking about in doing our show in 2006 is still happening. Suicide rates, especially in the gay and trans community, I think, over the past couple of years were higher than they've ever been. And it's horrible to think [about]."

"It doesn't happen often. But we are given the gift to be a part of a project where we can take our art, and hopefully make a little bit of a difference," she adds.

"We knew that we had that responsibility back in '06, but now that this documentary is going to air on HBO, and have it be literally in people's homes and have more people view it ... if just one conversation can be had that can relieve some of the pressure or fear that a child might be feeling, then we've done our job."

Watch the trailer for Spring Awakening: Those You've Known below. And watch the film on HBO now.

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