In 2007, the diverse young actors in the new musical Spring Awakening were Broadway’s equivalent of rock stars. Hundreds of rabid fans regularly congregated outside the Eugene O’Neill theater after every show to meet its then-largely unknown cast — led by Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher, Jr. — who so affectingly portrayed 19th century German teens struggling with their sexual identities and anxieties amid a repressive society. After Spring Awakening won eight Tony awards, including best musical and best featured actor in a musical for Gallagher, Jr., the insanity only increased. (In perhaps the clearest sign that it had become the zeitgeist, a giant Gap ad starring the cast went up in Times Square.)
Fifteen years later, Spring Awakening’s pop/rock-tinged score (composed by Duncan Sheik, with lyrics by Steven Sater) sounds as modern as it did when it premiered, and the show’s fanbase is strong enough that when its original cast reunited for a one-time concert performance benefiting the Actors Fund in November of 2021, it sold out almost immediately. Now a much wider audience will get to see it, when HBO premieres the documentary Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known — featuring performances from that night, along with archival footage and interviews with the cast and creators — on May 3.
And though it took years and plenty of other jobs for its actors to get some emotional distance from one of the most intense creative experiences of their professional lives, they were as thrilled as their fans to see one another again. Michele, Gallagher Jr. and Lauren Pritchard (the show’s original Ilse, who now records as Lolo, and who was instrumental in getting the reunion to happen) spoke to Billboard about what it took to make what Pritchard calls “the most wonderful, strange high school reunion of all time.”
Lauren, it was your idea to get this reunion together. Why after 15 years was now the right time?
Lauren Pritchard: It started as a literal dream. We’ve all been in a group text for quite some time, and we always wish each other happy anniversary on the anniversary of the Broadway opening. And there was a conversation in Year 14 — Lea and I had just had kids — of, “Our kids are gonna have to see the show and understand Spring Awakening one day.” And I had a very vivid dream that we did a reunion. A couple days went by and I called Jon Groff and was like, “All these other shows get to do reunions – it’s the 15th anniversary, we’re all at the age when we can look back at this thing in a reflective way where we want to visit it again if we could make it happen — why can’t we do it?”
In the middle of January 2021 we started calling people: “Hey, we have this crazy idea, would you want to do this?” We didn’t know where people were at. And it was amazing, because everybody said yes very quickly. We really didn’t have to coax anyone; there was no weirdness or tension. Everybody was as excited as we were to get back together. It was the most wonderful, strange high school reunion of all time.
The show was such a phenomenon and must have been such an intense emotional experience for you all. Did it take some time to figure out life outside Spring Awakening?
John Gallagher, Jr.: Oh sure, it was shell-shocking to walk away from Spring Awakening. We had humble beginnings, in a 200-seat off-Broadway theater, and we thought that might be as good as it gets — and then it went to Broadway and it became this kind of phenomenon, which was mind-blowing for everyone. I remember being really scared to leave: I just thought, “How do you top that? Where do I go from here? What is my life going to look like?” It was a weirdly destabilizing uprooted year or two trying to find my footing away from Spring Awakening. It was only with a few more times onstage, and some more acting experience under my belt, that I was able to look back and see it for what it was and appreciate it all the more.
Lea Michele: I knew we were all so fortunate to play such rich characters, and I was hoping I’d ever find another character as interesting and deep as Wendla was. But playing these characters was really weighing on us emotionally, and for myself my well-being a bit. I was really ready to step out of that world. I remember walking off stage, literally covered in blood, sweat and tears, and I looked at Jonathan and said, “I want to be in a show that’s the happiest show in the world. I want to do musical numbers with fireworks and tap-dancing with Kristin Chenoweth.” And I guess put it out there and it’ll come to fruition – because three years later I ended up on a show called Glee – but I truly knew I needed to do something a little lighter.
Pritchard: When you have to do the same thing every day, you can end up in a weird head space. It’s art, but it’s also a job. Trying to live in a consistency head space while performing something that emotionally you have to go to zero to 100 for every night is very challenging for anybody, especially for young people who are also going through their own emotional development and growth at the same time. I personally found that very challenging. Those were college years for anybody else, and I’m showing up to work every day, and the work was heavy, and then also the relationship to how people responded was also very heavy. And then when it was time to leave the show — I’d moved to New York three days before we started rehearsal, and everybody in the show were my first friends in New York, they were my family. Leaving the show was like leaving home in a lot of ways.
Michele: Because there wasn’t all the time we spend now on social media, we would really spend so much more time with each other. It was such a good thing in so many ways. We were on our own trying to figure out who we were as people. I feel like I had 19 breakups throughout Spring Awakening. [Laughs.]
Pritchard: We were thrust into this craziness, but we were thrust into it together as this little weird batch of misfit kids.
It’s all eerily reminiscent of what happened to the cast of Rent. If anyone could have prepared you for what happened, I guess it would have been them…
Michele: I know!
Pritchard: They were actually really lovely. They’d come see us every now and again and be like, “Hang in there guys, you’re doin’ great!”
Gallagher: I remember I was reading Anthony Rapp’s book – Anthony Rapp, who originated Marc Cohen, who I looked up to massively as a young theater nerd in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware – and when we were off-Broadway he published a book [Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent] about his career and specifically the runaway success of Rent. And looking back on it now, it’s probably a good thing I read it. I remember his stories of how overwhelming it was to move to Broadway and suddenly be on the covers of Newsweek and Time and this massive zeitgeist thing, the crazy photo shoots. Every time we ran into anyone from that show, there was definitely that look of, “Oh, I remember that. Stay safe!”
At the reunion concert, were there certain songs for each of you that felt entirely different – or that took you right back to the moment years ago when you first sang them?
Gallagher: I was lip-syncing. I lost my voice entirely. [All laugh.]
Michele: I feel for me the minute I hear “My Junk.” I think of my knees swaying side to side, and me looking at Phoebe [Strole] and Lilli [Cooper] and Remy [Zaken], and the minute we started it in the concert [sings opening notes] I was thinking, “Holy f–king s–t, oh my God” — it brought me right back. And the song that felt the most different for me personally — I struggled with singing “Whispering” on Broadway every night, I could never figure out how to make the song come to life. I was always thinking, ”The audience hates this, they just want Lauren and John Gallagher to come back and sing the second reprise of ‘Spring and Summer’ — he’s dead but bring him back again!” I felt so self-conscious.
And I don’t know, something about being 35 — I felt much more of a sense of power and strength I wish I’d felt back then, because that’s what Wendla’s feeling at that moment. But I was so overwhelmed [at the time] by my own insecurities. And this time when I came offstage, I was like, “I get it now.”
Gallagher: Well, I always thought it was amazing back then, Lea. I was nervous about all of the songs: I was 22 when we did the show and I’m 37 now, and I thought, “What if I don’t have it anymore?” In particular, the swan song of my character, “Don’t Do Sadness,” has this flip into falsetto on the chorus — and I literally hadn’t sung it since 2008, until we went to the first rehearsal.
There’s always that fear that comes with time and distance and age… that you sound the best, the most vital and hungry when you’re young. And then every time someone got up to sing [at the reunion] I was like, “This is the best it’s ever sounded.” It was just chill-inducing to hear everyone sing those songs again, and own them and have their voices just as beautiful and strong as back then, and somehow even more so.
Pritchard: When Lea walked out and stood up on her chair to do “Mama Who Bore Me” with the hand motions and everything, I felt like I was actually floating up out of my body and time traveling back 15 years. It was kind of trippy. The room was vibrating with energy at that point, and I remember thinking, “She seems so calm up on that chair…I would freak out and fall the f–k down.”
Michele: Oh my God, I was dying inside! If they could have put a speaker into what was happening in my mind, it was like, “You don’t know this song. You’re gonna forget the next word. What’s the next word? Mama who…what? Good luck to you, Lea! And then you’re gonna pass out and fall off this chair!”
Pritchard: It was an amazing moment. And then the song I had an unexpected emotional reaction to in a way I hadn’t in the past was “All That’s Known,” Melchior’s first song. That lyric at the end — “You watch me/ Just watch me/ I’m calling/ And one day all will know” — I always found that lyric compelling; it’s a great descriptor of the message of the show. But there was something about it that night, all those years later with all these people who love the show as much as we do….all do know now. That really hit me.
You’ve all put out albums as artists in your own right in the years since. Are there ways in which the Spring Awakening fanbase still surfaces in your creative life?
Gallagher: Definitely. I’ve just been playing a month of solo shows at the Rockwood Music Hall, this tiny venue downtown in New York that I started playing during Spring Awakening, and there’s this fan named Rachel Parks who was one of the original Guilty Ones [the original fan forum], and she started coming to my solo shows and seeing my band play, and she’s been at all my shows at Rockwood this month. The music thing for me is still very DIY, so my fanbase is small but loyal and mighty, and I never know who’s going to show up. But Rachel Parks has been to all my shows in NYC, and it all started with her being a teenager and coming to see Spring Awakening.
Michele: I remember when I started working on Glee and they had us go on these mall tours very early on. And 1 out of every 20 people would come up to me and say, “I loved you in Spring Awakening,” and Corey [Monteith] would turn to me and go, “What the hell is Spring Awakening?” I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, and any time someone told me they loved Spring Awakening, it felt like getting a hug from home. A real sense of comfort, because it felt like my life had changed so much.
Pritchard: Yeah, the fanbase is a very, very deep loyal fanbase. They’re the kinds of people who will show up to your show whether it’s at Madison Square Garden or on a street corner – they just want to support you.
Besides the premiere of this documentary, what’s coming next for each of you?
Michele: I have some concerts I’m working on right now. I’m so excited to get back and perform in front of an audience again. I did a great run with Darren Criss for awhile and some solos by myself, so I’m putting together a fun show right now and we’ll announce those dates soon. And I moved back to the East Coast! It’s so great: I get to see Jonathan all the time, Johnny, and you guys — the other day I was in Philly with my husband and his family for Passover, and it so happens that Jonathan is filming a movie there, so we met up, and then Gideon [Glick, an original cast member] texts me and is like, “Happy Passover! I’m in Philly with my family,” and I kid you not, ten minutes later he was with us at dinner. And Gideon and I saw a show together… It’s so nice to be back.
Pritchard: I have a new record I’ve been working on that’ll be out in August – it’s a Lolo record but it’ll be called Lauren. And I took a job last week: I’m doing a new musical for the first time in 14 years, down in Nashville for the summer, an original country musical, and if all goes well I think we’re gonna try to move it to New York. Which is why I have blonde f–kin’ hair right now. It’s called May We All – it’s partly created by one of the guys from Florida Georgia Line, and there’s some original songs but also a good chunk of the music is country songs, going back to Dolly Parton, up to current Kacey Musgraves kinda things.
Gallagher: I just did a musical with Michael Mayer of Spring Awakening fame called Swept Away, with music by the Avett Brothers, and we just premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I’m sure there are many conversations happening behind closed doors as to where to take it next, but I’m really hoping it’ll make it to New York. And I’ve been developing a musical as a book writer for the first time in my life, based on Walter Tevis’ novel The Hustler, and my friend Dave Sherman who plays for Nick Cave, among others, wrote the songs. And then I have a movie coming out this summer called The Cow starring Winona Ryder. I’m throwin’ ‘em all at the wall to see what sticks.