‘Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known’ is a Scrapbook for Superfans (Review)

I was just a few years shy of being the prime demographic for Spring Awakening when it made its splash on Broadway. But by the time its two leads, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, landed on the late 2000s TV hit Glee, the musical entered my periphery, and I became obsessed. I immediately downloaded the cast recording onto my clunky iPod and listened to it repeatedly. I found bootleg recordings brave souls had uploaded to YouTube and couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched pixelated footage surreptitiously filmed from the balcony of the O’Neill, desperately wishing I could see a production of this magical show where actors dressed as German schoolchildren pulled handheld microphones from their pockets and belted out rock songs. I had never seen anything like it, and I was instantly in love.

Being dubbed too young by my mom to see it when the touring cast first came to town, I finally saw a production when the University of Minnesota put on a production when I was sixteen. My mom (who had gone with her friends to the touring show I was banned from seeing and raved about it when she got home) took me on a mother-daughter date night. I remember counting down the days in my high school planner until the day of the show. As the lights went down in the theatre and the actors took to the stage, I felt my breath be taken away. It felt like something was finally connecting; a fix to a circuit I didn’t even know was shorting out. When the lights came up at intermission, I felt myself settle back into my seat after floating above it like a hummingbird since the first swell of the orchestra.

It was something electric.

When I first heard that the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening was reuniting for a one-night-only benefit concert for The Actors’ Fund, I quickly explored my financial options. I considered traveling to New York in a whirlwind trip to maybe get a glimpse of the show. Tickets inside the actual theatre seemed off the table; I could settle for “casually” walking past the stage door at the show’s end and catching a glimpse of the cast leave. When I realized that wasn’t going to be an option about ten minutes later, I learned that the show would be filmed and presented as a documentary and felt equally excited. A filmed Spring Awakening reunion concert sounded like the perfect thing to watch alongside a glass of wine in the living room so I could sing along without shame.

John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff, and Lea Michele reunite in Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known. (COURTESY: Sarah Shatz/HBO Documentary Films)

For the uninitiated, Spring Awakening is a 2006 Broadway musical with a book by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Set in late-19th century Germany, it follows the coming-of-age of various teenagers as they come into their sexuality. The smash-hit collected eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and amassed a rabid fanbase of teenagers. It is, without any exaggeration, one of the best musicals of the 2000s.

The HBO documentary, Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known, not only lovingly captures the benefit performance from late 2021 but reunites the cast and creative crew, allowing us to watch them recount their memories from the show’s initial production, both professional and personal. For the die-hard Spring Awakening fan, it’s essential viewing. Alternating between talking-head interviews, pro-shot footage from the original Broadway production, and the electric in-concert staging from 2021, everything flows nicely. Stories about the show’s development are soundtracked by “The Bitch of Living;” its feared failure by “Totally F*cked;” stories about the growing bond and friendship between the cast members interspersed with pro-shot footage of “My Junk.”

It likely goes without saying, but the theatre kid energy in this is palpable, and nowhere is that more felt than when Groff and Michele are detailing their friendship over the years. Aside from the now-infamous story of Michele giving Groff an anatomy lesson with a desk lamp, moments of their friendship feel like moments anyone who did theatre in high school or college will find familiar. There’s something disarming (in the best way) about seeing people and realizing that those theatre kids you knew in high school growing up at the end of the day. With the two having achieved the highest rank of a celebrity among the cast, it would have been nice to hear from other cast members (Lili Cooper, John Gallagher, Jr., and Jennifer Damiano, just to name a few) about their relationships, as the bonds feel strong among them all from the moment they enter the rehearsal room together.

For making so much noise about this anniversary production being filmed, however, very little of it is seen—at least, not enough to be worth revisiting. With Broadway tickets being more financially inaccessible than ever before, filming performances and releasing them on streaming sites is the best way to have them reach the masses. For every moment that feels like it’s about to kick into gear and allow us a glimpse into this exceptional performance, another feels like it’s impeding what we want to see. The balance of performances, old and new, with interviews is off—or maybe it’s just the superfan in me. I could watch another hour of the Spring Awakening cast and crew talking about their time spent together on Broadway.

Throughout the film, a group of young women is shown in the benefit concert’s front row. Despite wearing face masks with half of their expressions hidden, you can sense the overwhelming joy and excitement they have for being seated for this performance. They bounce up and down in their seats; they fawn over Groff as he sings directly to them; you know they’re singing along and learning every word. If the documentary exists for one reason, it should be to showcase these women and who they represent—the scores of teenagers for whom this musical was so life-changing. I wish the audience members were interviewed; their varied stories would have buoyed this documentary with the real-life connections it so desperately needed.

As sparse as it ultimately is in terms of performance footage, I can only hope that this documentary causes the musical to enter a Renaissance era. It was particularly poignant to watch this the night after the Supreme Court had a document leaked that indicated its intent to overturn Roe vs. Wade, knowing that their lives could potentially be changed forever for many women, teenage or otherwise. Life itself is a precarious thing. How fun to page through a scrapbook from a cast which meant so much to many? And how lucky we are to have these texts and songs to go back to, even after fifteen years, that feel like they were made specifically for us and have changed the lives of so many.

Rating: 8/10

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