Review: 'Spring Awakening: Those You've Known' a Fascinating Look Back

by Rob Lester

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 3, 2022

'Spring Awakening: Those You've Known'
'Spring Awakening: Those You've Known'  (Source:Warner Media/HBO)

Tears, fears, cheers, fleeting years, blossoming careers — all that appears in HBO's documentary tracing what the musical "Spring Awakening" meant to those involved. Being involved creatively, emotionally, onstage, off-stage, was, we're told repeatedly, majorly memorable. You won't doubt it.

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" has excerpts of November's reunion benefit concert (marking the 15th anniversary of the Broadway opening) and much more. History includes the creative team's frank remarks about a largely disastrous early presentation for potential producers, the off-Broadway run, and the early Broadway weeks of disappointingly small audiences. When we do hear songs, they illustrate points being made, generous enough in length not to feel frustratingly like rationed snippets. Past and recent present are artfully interwoven, sometimes time-surfing within one song between an early in-costume performance to a clip from last year's concert where they basically wore basic black.

Masked for COVID, the packed reunion crowd of devotees screams like rabid rock stars' followers. (We don't hear from them otherwise, perhaps a wise avoidance of the inarticulate gushing fan drooling that eats up time in other such documentaries.) Much screen time goes to director Michael Mayer, showing warm but sober perspective, and the three main stars: The ever-emotionally unloading Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff (he's also one of the doc's exec producers, recently working with Groff again in the "Little Shop of Horrors" revival), and relatively more sedate John Gallagher Jr.

Out actor Groff, who's had gay roles ("The Normal Heart," "Looking") was closeted when "Spring Awakening" had him entwined self-consciously in heterosexual passion. He speaks from the heart about his struggle with sexuality, coming out shortly after leaving the show, and other matters. (The play's notable male/male attraction with two other characters is barely visible in the documentary.) Lea Michele tells how life imitated art when she fell in love with Groff. She later offered to let him explore, with a lamp, something she had which he'd never seen: A vagina. (Too much information?)

When show biz folks are interviewed, it's no surprise to find them sounding quite dramatic and describing their cast as "a family." Here it's less hyperbolic given that they were early-career, very young actors, some involved from the workshop (Lea Michele was only 14 when she was hired), diving into intense subject matter. "Spring Awakening"'s 19th century teen characters are confronted with mega-confusion and ignorance about sex, deal with suicide, abuse, pregnancy, cold parents, school failure, and general insecurity and angst.

Lyricist/bookwriter Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik are alternately enthused and offhand (admitting their ambivalence about writing for musical theatre). Like some of the musical's text, anecdotes are free with the F word and, like one lyric that goes "blah-blah-blah-blah," some tales perhaps meandering and solipsistic for the non-ardent theatre fan. But home movies of a fondly remembered bonding group getaway in the country are sweet.

Come awaken or re-awaken your interest in "Spring Awakening."

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" debuts May 3 (9:00-10:23 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at www.TalkinBroadway.com for almost 15 years.