Editor’s Note: This film and review delves into adult topics. Viewer discretion is advised.
Picture this: a 13-year-old girl furtively sneaks to the computer room at the back of her house. She quietly – oh, so quietly – shuts the door behind her and fires up a cinderblock of a desktop before typing “Youtube.com” into the browser. She finally finds what she came for – a grainy, shaky-cam bootleg of “Spring Awakening.”
“This video contains adult content,” the browser warns before asking her to confirm that she is, indeed, 18 years old. She lies, and settles in to watch her favorite musical for what must be at least the 50th time, blushing, gasping, and weeping throughout.
That 13-year-old was me, and sitting in my computer-room oasis, I wept about as much as Jonathan Groff does in “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known,” a new HBO Max documentary that chronicles the unforeseen rise of the hit Broadway musical that had 19th-century German children expressing their angst and anxieties through the power of modern rock. With a book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the musical takes an unflinching look at themes like sexuality, mental health, and the general tumult and confusion of being a child on the cusp of adulthood when no adult is willing to lend a helping hand.
“Spring Awakening” features a masturbation scene, a sex scene, a love scene between two male characters, an onstage suidice, an abortion, domestic abuse, sadomasochism– I could go on – all set againt a backdrop of late 19th century repression and mixed with a healthy dose of alternative rock. On paper, nothing about this sounds like it should work – and yet, the overwhelming intensity of the musical struck a chord with a budding generation of theater kids all over the country, thrusting its cast into the spotlight nearly overnight. As star Lea Michele says in the documentary, these weren’t just musical theater actors: “We were rock stars.”
But the documentary itself is more interested in rehashing the musical’s meteoric rise than finding anything new to say about the phenomenon and the pressure cooker it created.
The film documents a benefit concert the original cast performed in November of 2021 for the Actors’ Fund, marking the first time they had performed the material together in 15 years. The reunion is soaked through with a heightened earnestness that only theater kids can truly muster, and while it’s interesting to see these now full-fledged adults reflect on such a formative, strange time in their lives, the filmmakers don’t necessarily interrogate the intensity of that experience, only hinting at that pressure from behind a veil of celebration. That being said, it’s hard not to enjoy the full-hearted sincerity with which the cast members approach the reunion, and even harder to ignore the exuberance that radiates back at them from the audience.
One of the strongest parts of the film is its focus, however brief, on reflection, looking back at adolescence through the lens of adulthood. We don’t see the reunion concert in full (although I wouldn’t mind a release of that cut), instead moving back and forth between interviews, the 2021 concert, and filmed snippets of the cast during the show’s original run. The cuts between then and now create a simple visual language to remind us just how young these performers were in 2006. The three major leads from the production – Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., and Jonathan Groff – are only in their mid-to-late 30s now. Remy Zaken, the youngest member of the original cast, is just 33.
But while the film takes time to highlight the youth of the cast, it doesn’t really explore what it must have been like living day-in and day-out with such serious subject matter. In a brief scene, Gallagher Jr. talks about his role as Mortiz, an anxiety-ridden teen struggling academically who dies by suicide in Act II. Gallagher Jr. says now that he’s older, he might not take on a character with a similar arc, worried he wouldn’t be able to sustain the level of emotion needed to pull it off. Lauren Pritchard, who played Ilse, a character who is exiled from the community after she runs away from an abusive home, talks about her own experience with sexual assault at a young age. But beyond a brief recognition that performing as a character with a lived experience so close to hers is “f*cking weird,” there’s no real examination of what burdens or catharsis that sort of experience could bring.
Most of the emotional heft from the documentary is instead devoted to the relationship between Michele and Groff. This is an understandable choice; they were the stars of the show, probably its most recognizable figures, and their relationship – one borne of having to simulate sex onstage with each other every night for years – is one fans have been keen to mine and explore. There are a few moments of revelation, and Groff in particular offers key self-reflections on how the experience helped him come to terms with his sexuality (Groff came out as gay in 2009). But the focus on this one particular connection – however funny a story about Michele once showing Groff her vagina for “science” may be – takes up a bit more space than it can fill, pushing out a more thorough examination of story’s like Gallagher Jr.’s and Pritchard’s. Other cast members – Skylar Astin, Krysta Rodriguez, Lilli Cooper – are almost rendered invisible.
“Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known” works better as a musical showcase and celebration than an actual documentary. The moments of performance and the reactions to those performances are breathtaking, whether it be Groff sobbing hearing Michele sing the opening number for the first time in 15 years, or a group of fans in the front row rocking out to “Totally F*cked.” At one point, Michele says if you were able to see “Spring Awakening” during its Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater, you were able to see something very special. But if anything, this film proves the power of “Spring Awakening” still holds true and can be felt almost anywhere – from a theater to a grainy YouTube bootleg.