Is there a better time to debut a documentary about “Spring Awakening,” a musical that features a lead character who dies after a botched back-alley abortion?
“Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known” launched yesterday on HBO Max, the day after the leak of the draft of a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade.
The film is ostensibly about the 15th anniversary reunion concert by the original Broadway cast, a one-night event that occurred in November 2021. But, over the 83 minutes of the documentary, directed by Michael John Warren (who also directed “Rent: Live from the Broadway stage” in 2008), there are ample excerpts from the show – including scenes in which Wendla has sex with Melchior, discovers she is pregnant, and is sent screaming by her mother to an illegal abortionist.
It’s not always clear which excerpted songs and scenes are from the 2021 concert and which from 2016, when the musical debuted first Off-Broadway then on Broadway, winning eight Tony Awards.
There are also extensive interviews with the performers, especially remarkably candid ones with Jonathan Groff, who portrayed Melchior, and Lea Michele who was Wendla.
“Getting to play Wendla all those years was emotionally and physically exhausting,” Michele says. “I came off stage one night. I had blood, literal blood from something, sweat and tears, and I said to Jonathan ‘I can’t do it anymore.’…and Jonathan said ‘Ok, let’s leave.” They had performed the show together on Broadway for eighteen months, but Michele had started doing workshops for “Spring Awakening” seven years earlier, when she was 14.
The creative team – book writer and lyricist Steven Sater, who came up with the idea of adapting German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play; composer Duncan Sheik; and director Michael Mayer – didn’t think it would fit on Broadway; they hadn’t expected its lead producers Ira Pittelman and Tom Hulce would transfer it.
“The gay scene. Abortion. The sex. The suicide. There was nothing that was ever like this that ever happened on the stage,” says Lauren Pritchard-Cobb, who played Ilse in the production. Now better known now as the pop star LOLO, she was one came up with the idea of holding a reunion concert, after she had a dream about all of the original cast members performing together again.
Her claims for the musical’s uniqueness are an exaggeration (Even Wedekind’s play itself had been adapted into English-language stage plays in New York, at the Public Theater in 1978 and at Provincetown Playhouse way back in 1955), but an understandable one. So are a few hints of self-congratulations in the documentary, which seem to be endemic to these kinds of behind-the-scenes accounts. But while we certainly get details of the unlikely success of this dark coming-of-age musical about stymied and frustrated teenagers, the documentary focuses more on the coming-of-age of the members of the cast – many of whom were teenagers themselves, or close to it.
Lilli Cooper was just 15 when she portrayed the role of Martha, singing with Pritchard as Ilse, “The Dark I Know Well,” (an excerpt of which is in the documentary), about being molested by her father. Cooper, a Tony nominee, is now on her fifth Broadway show, POTUS. She’s not alone. The cast is full of performers who since have become familiar names in the Broadway community and beyond: Besides Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, Skylar Astin, Jennifer Damiano, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick, Krysta Rodriguez.
Gallagher says that he struggled with some of the same issues of anxiety and depression of his character, Moritz (though clearly more successfully, since Moritz commits suicide.) “In a sense every night was a chance for me to say it does get better, it does get easier,” Gallagher says.
Groff says: “Playing Melchior was such a gift. He was everyone I wanted to be but wasn’t. He had this ability to not let the world define him.” He tells us that Melchior’s strength helped him, a boy who had grown up on a farm in Amish country, to come out as gay.
Like the recent book, “Putting It Together,” about the making of the Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park With George, “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known” is at its most fascinating when these talented and now established artists reminisce — and review — their youth and the start of their creative lives.