For many audiences, Spring Awakening was such a revelation because they had never seen anything like it before. Frank Wedekind’s 1891 coming-of-age story isn’t the most obvious choice for a Broadway musical, but the stage adaptation is one of the most beloved pieces of theater from the last twenty years. The fanbase is passionate and voracious, and I distinctly remember seeing the original Broadway cast back in 2007 (and I had “Don’t Do Sadness” as a ringback tone for the longest time). For HBO’s Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known, the cast reunites for a benefit concert, and, even if you didn’t like the Duncan Sheik musical, you will be floored by the true journey towards adulthood.
Who can you trust to come back for a reunion more than theater kids? At the start of the pandemic, the schedules of every original Broadway cast member was open, and a benefit anniversary concert was proposed. At the start of Michael John Warren’s documentary, we see stars Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele preparing at their apartments and venturing off to their first rehearsal, and the anticipation to get back together is palpable. Not only is it reunion for the cast members of this landmark musical, but Broadway had just slowly opened mere months before this concert took place in November of 2021.
What made Spring Awakening so unique is that it was a timeless story of self-discovery with modern influences. Sheik composed a truly contemporary rock score filled with aching and yearning even though the characters were dressed in 19th century German clothes and holding microphones. It was thrilling because it felt so new and traditional at the same time. Michele recalls how her husband asked her, ‘Is it like Rent?’
When the cast is together again, it is an emotional experience. Groff unexpectedly starts to cry when Michele sings the first few notes of ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ during rehearsal, and, even though the material lends itself to angst and raucousness, there are only tender feelings amongst this group. In confessionals, Michele details just how deeply she fell in love with Groff as they started working together, but it’s Groff’s recounting of his own coming out experience that really tugs at your heart. Director Michael Mayer thought the actor might be gay, but he told himself that he would let Groff come out on his terms, if he felt so inclined.
Those You’ve Known is beautifully edited. It bounces around from those confessionals to footage of the original production in 2006 to the eventual benefit concert last fall. Even though 15 years have passed, some of the movements on stage are exactly the same.
The film does detail the musical’s worrisome preview attendance numbers and its triumphant night at the Tony Awards, but that’s not what this film is about. These actors and creatives have the ability to lovingly look back at the piece of art that truly changed them. Michele is not the same performer that she was when she originated the role of Wendla at the age of 14, and Groff, surely, approaches the lyrics of Melchior’s songs (especially the emotional finale) with experienced eyes. The timbre of the actors’ voices is familiar yet shaded with experience and time.
There is a lot of beauty when it comes to reminiscing. We all wish we could go back or change something about ourselves, but the cast of Spring Awakening wouldn’t have it that way. They created a purple summer so singular and meaningful that it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known premieres on HBO on May 3, and it will be available to stream the following day on HBO Max.