Wide Angle

What Made Spring Awakening So Good Happened Offstage

The Broadway show was more than just great music—it was great therapy too.

A young woman sits on the floor buttoning her top as a young man next to her puts his hand on her shoulder onstage
Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening. Joan Marcus

In Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known, a new HBO documentary from director Michael John Warren, 37-year-old actor John Gallagher Jr. reflects on the journey of a fictional 19th century German teenager named Moritz. Fifteen years after playing that deeply troubled teen onstage—and earning a Tony Award for Moritz’s anguished sobs and impressive high notes—Gallagher timidly admits: “If I were offered a part with this [type of] arc today, I might pass.”

That arc, which includes paternal abuse, extreme sexual anxiety, academic failure, and, eventually, suicide, shows the results of teenage angst and parental negligence taken to its nadir. But Moritz isn’t the only adolescent tortured in some way in the smash hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening, which ran to sold-out audiences from 2006 to 2008. Other characters face unrequited love, schoolyard violence, sexual abuse, an illicit abortion, social ostracization, and the mundane horror of a dad knocking on the bathroom door while his son’s jerking off.

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It’s a doozy of a show: a dizzying, devastating rock musical adapted from a play by Frank Wedekind, whose story has caused a stir just about everywhere it’s appeared since the play’s publication in 1891. When the show exploded into the theatrical zeitgeist in 2006, it turned its young performers (all in their late teens or early 20s) into major stars—and, most importantly, folk heroes for youth all over the world experiencing the exquisite pain of growing up. But all that fame and adulation didn’t exactly soften the emotionally brutal nature of the show; in the film, Gallagher describes departing the stage after his character’s suicide by gunshot one night and collapsing into his costume dresser’s arms. Most fans already knew Spring Awakening as a show that’s equal parts exhilarating and exhausting for its ensemble. Hearing about it from Gallagher himself underscores it in a more visceral way than ever before.

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Those You’ve Known documents Spring Awakening’s rise from tiny workshop concert to hyper-emotional Broadway megahit, a look back prompted by its 15th anniversary. The 90-minute nostalgia trip sparkles when it digs deep into stories like Gallagher’s and the unbreakable bonds developed among the musical’s cast members; it drags when recounting the somewhat dull business journey of an unusual musical becoming a phenomenon. But where Those You’ve Known is at its most affecting is when it intercuts performances from 2006 with footage from a one-night-only anniversary restaging with the original cast in November 2021, held at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre as a benefit for the Actors Fund. You’d have to be a staunch cynic not to be moved by these self-assured adults returning to the frayed nerves of characters they literally grew up with.

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The one-off anniversary event’s documentary companion isn’t a shameless ploy for public reminiscence; it’s a testament to how powerful it can be when grown-ups allow themselves to indulge their long-forgotten teenage feelings. Even though John Gallagher Jr. concedes that he probably wouldn’t take on a role like Moritz again, he couldn’t resist one last chance to play Moritz, especially when it was the original cast—that original crew of people who went through the emotional wringer with him—who came knocking.

To its benefit, the film has ample performance footage from 2006 and 2021 to make use of, and it does. The moments shown from the original Broadway show are propulsive and fearless, particularly during songs like “The Bitch of Living.” In a casual hangout scene filmed in the bar that the cast would frequent during the original run, present-day Lea Michele describes the cast’s fearlessness back then as akin to a child’s ability to zoom down a ski slope without a second thought. And while the 2021 performances also have a kinetic quality to them, the real present-day gems of Those You’ve Known are found in clips from the cast’s three days of rehearsal before the reunion concert. It’s a rare opportunity to watch all these thirtysomethings, some of whom have kids of their own now, chase that naïve but daring pluck that earned them eight Tony Awards all those years ago.

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Throughout that chase, there are tears. Boy, are there tears. At the moment of their first reunion, while watching other cast members return to these songs, in talking head interviews about how the show changed their lives—and, if you’re Jonathan Groff, from when you attempt to recite the line “How have you been doing?” while in character again for the first time in ages. He makes it halfway through the question before blubbering, then punctuates his line with a warm and resigned “Fuck!” (Any theater kid can understand!)

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As these adults stumble through the intense feelings they once endured onstage eight times a week, they marvel at their youthful selves. Take Lauren Pritchard, who originated the role of Ilse, a runaway who suffers sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and was tasked with singing the brutal song “The Dark I Know Well” every night when she was just shy of 20 years old. In a talking head, she shares that she was molested at a young age by a family member, much like Ilse. The devastating disclosure highlights Pritchard’s teenage resilience while emphasizing the safe space fostered among the Spring Awakening cast both at that time and now. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Pritchard recently described how much harder it was to sing “The Dark I Know Well” as an adult and as a mother than it was to sing it on Broadway. As a viewer, I was in awe of her strength and moved by her decision to artistically return to that trauma, aided by the warm embrace of a trusted community. But this heart-wrenching moment is ultimately undermined as the film stitches Pritchard’s brave words together with the musical’s trouble to secure a producer and its potential economic failure.

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Where Those You’ve Known does successfully integrate the show’s development with a personal story is in Jonathan Groff’s journey to coming out as gay. Groff, raised in a religious household in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was in the closet when he took on the role of the charismatic and decidedly heterosexual Melchior. He loved the role, he said, but also lived in fear that audiences would discover from his performance that their leading man wasn’t straight. In between stories about the anxiety of the closet, Groff and Michael Mayer, the director of the original production and the 2021 reunion, and a gay man himself, share the minutiae of choreographing Spring’s intimate, controversial sex scene at the end of Act 1. By moving between Groff’s individual journey and the very deep care that Mayer took while staging such a potent scene, the film underscores how essential a sensitive leader was for tackling heavy thematic material, especially when young, extremely green actors are the ones tasked with figuring it—and themselves—out.

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The film makes it increasingly clear that a core part of the creative process—and the musical’s success—is dependent on tapping into that depth of care and comfort. All the cast members attempt to confront their characters’ extreme feelings from a rational adult remove, but as the rehearsal process continues, they come to realize they can only perform this piece if they really let loose, just like when they were young. The show’s knockout number, “Totally Fucked,” is the best example of that release. Onstage in November 2021, the castmates exchange knowing smiles and bob their heads to a roaring guitar as Groff sings with a coquettish lilt: “There’s a moment you know / You’re fucked.”

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When the song approaches its anthemic “blah blah blahs,” a youthful defiance inhabits the actors’ bodies. They dance, jump around, flip their hair, and flail their limbs all over the stage. On the last group exclamation of “TOTALLY FUCKED!” they hoist their middle fingers in the air. The crowd roars, and the people who brought Spring Awakening to life get to relish a true return to their brave, silly, deeply feeling past selves—and so do we, the superfans who remember how seen and understood we were by the show all those years ago.

For more on how the Spring Awakening documentary revived online debate about star Lea Michele, listen to this recent episode of ICYMI.

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