Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff Want a ‘Spring Awakening’ Movie: ‘It Needs to Happen’

·14-min read

The internet was ablaze Monday with the news that Lea Michele once gave an anatomy lesson to her “Spring Awakening” and “Glee” co-star Jonathan Groff using a desk lamp.

The two close friends disclose the intimate story in the upcoming HBO documentary, “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known,” which revisits the groundbreaking musical through the lens of a 15th anniversary concert that reunited the entire cast, many of whom have gone on to have fruitful careers since the show — Tony nominee Lilli Cooper, “Pitch Perfect” star Skylar Astin and Krysta Rodriguez from “Smash” are among them.

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“Those You’ve Known,” directed by Michael John Warren and produced in partnership with Radical Media, is a truly comprehensive examination of the original production and its cultural impact, as well as the joys of the cast reuniting as adults. It covers the development and reception of the coming-of-age rock musical, which explored every topic imaginable: puberty, abortion, masturbation, suicide, abuse, sexuality — to name a few — told through music that defined a generation of theater lovers.

The documentary has a number of revelations (Michele and Groff’s “love story,” as they call it, among them), but also takes an unflinching look at the reality of tackling such heavy material at a young age. Michele was 14 when she first joined the production in the lead role of Wendla, and stayed with it for seven years. Night after night, she and Groff’s Melchior performed a controversial sex scene and depicted physical abuse, which they disclose in the doc occasionally led to whip marks, blood and bruising. Of course, the subject matter of “Spring Awakening” — by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater — was revolutionary in its candor. And the cast belabor the sentiment of how safe they felt with one another, but the play admittedly took a toll on its young cast members, they say in the doc.

“Everybody was so beautifully honest, and I think that’s what makes the film work so well,” Dave Sirulnick, an executive producer on the film, told Variety.

Variety sat down with Michele and Groff to discuss the making of the documentary (out on HBO May 3), why they decided to tell that story, the possibility of a “Spring Awakening” movie, and how this show led to another generation-defining project: “Glee.”

So, what was it like to relive the memories of “Spring Awakening”?

JONATHAN GROFF: The documentary was shot over five days. Michael, the director, had an hour with each person. It’s crazy how fast it came together. It speaks so much to the power of the show and how brilliant it is that the documentary is as profound and deep as it is, because we did it so fast. It was a one-night-only concert, getting the opportunity as adults to look back at this time in our lives and reflect on who we were then, who we’ve become, and just the power of this piece. Listening to lyrics and reading lines that mean something so much deeper as an adult was truly fascinating. The show came out before social media was really a thing, so there’s not a lot of record of what this ephemeral, modern theatrical work of art means and meant to the theater community. It changed Broadway, it paved the way for “Next to Normal,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hamilton.” So to have this record of something so big, while also getting the opportunity to tell our personal stories and how the show changed our lives is such a gift to us.

I believe that this documentary is the first time we’ve heard you guys speak so openly and in detail about your own relationship while you were working on the show. What went into that decision?

LEA MICHELE: There really was no plan. It’s not like we came out and said, “Hey, let’s really go there and tell these stories that we’ve never told people before.” There was such trust with Michael and with the whole Radical Media team, and also knowing that it was going to be in the great hands of HBO. With the time and space from the project as well, having experienced a lot of life between then and now, I could also really sit back, having reflected so much, and talk about things so honestly and openly. I’m so proud of this documentary because it’s a great opportunity for people to get to know us for who we really are, not what you see on social media or what you read or what you see on television. I was opening up and talking about things in regards to my relationship with Jonathan, stories from my life and our life together in ways that I didn’t think I would. But they’re all true, and this is part of our experience and our journey together. It’s also only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the two of us.

Jonathan, you talk in the documentary about how the show helped you find yourself. Since then, you have played a mix of roles specifically pertaining to their sexuality, so I’m curious if you have any reflections on your career path since leaving “Spring Awakening” and where it took you.

GROFF: When we were doing the show, I was in the closet and we had to do this very epic sex scene. I talk about this in the documentary, but I thought, “I’m just going to sit here quietly. I’m not going to share anything. I’m going to let Michael Mayer — thank God for him — give me the moves.” Lea was so open and we were so connected and it was such a lucky environment for me in that regard. Once I came out and could go into a creative experience as myself with all of my life stories and bring my entire truth into a room, the sky’s the limit as an artist. In the end, “Spring Awakening” is what gave me the strength. A month after I left the show, I came out of the closet because I had cultivated this strength from playing this part. The show changed our lives and started all of our careers.

Some of the scenes that you had to do in the show are very emotional and could be really taxing. You talk in the doc about some of the things that happened, like the whip accidentally hitting Lea. Did you have an intimacy coordinator working on the show, and did you have any new reflections on how that process was for you, since you were so young?

GROFF: Just that we completely lucked out. I mean, it was such challenging material, and Michael Mayer, our director, took incredible care of us.

MICHELE: Things are different now, there are intimacy coaches and it was a different time back then. But Michael treated us like adults and respected us. I remember in the Atlantic Theater when it was first discussed that I would get naked and that I would show my breasts, I said, “OK, that’s fine, but if my father’s ever in the audience, then that’s going to be the night where Wendla doesn’t take her top off.” And everyone was really understanding of what I needed to feel comfortable. But for us, to do it as actors, it was like therapy. Getting to express ourselves in that way, I don’t think I would have changed anything.

GROFF: It’s such an opportunity to tell that story. Yes, it’s a beating scene and it’s a sex scene and there’s masturbation and suicide, but it’s such a gift to young people to allow them to have the confidence, to be able to hold that complex material and to be able to execute it. We were never talked down to and we were always supported, and it was a dream environment. In the documentary, they show some of the rehearsal of Lea and me staging the sex scene for the reunion concert, and that is exactly what it was like. What you see is what it was. It was all about storytelling and nothing else. We felt so safe, and then we could soar. Getting to do that scene with Lea where we were making love, I got to come into my body for the first time. It was a gift.

I was wondering, are all of the slaps in the musical full-impact?

MICHELE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Looking back on it, were there things that you realized you had remembered differently from your experience?

MICHELE: We were so present during the experience of “Spring Awakening” and so respected in our opinions that we were part of the creative process along the way. Inevitably as actors, there are going to be nights where you don’t feel like getting naked in front of an audience. One too many times, people would laugh at the beating scene and that made me feel really uncomfortable. I couldn’t even recover from the discomfort before I had to do the scene all over again. It was very challenging material to handle, and I do know how lucky we are because I know that people are not as fortunate to be in safe environments on set. They handed us a big job every night of talking about subject matter that needed to be talked about. What we were doing was really saving lives in a lot of ways. It was an important job. It might have been hard sometimes, but we knew we had to do it.

Speaking of the impact and where you guys went from there, could you talk about how this show led to “Glee” and where you saw the two intersect in your experiences?

MICHELE: Ryan Murphy came to see the show. He had just hired Jonathan to do a pilot of his, and he met both of us backstage. Jonathan went off to go and do the pilot, and while he was gone, “Spring Awakening” and the rest of the Broadway shows shut down for a strike, which never really happens. I had nothing to do for a couple of weeks, and Jonathan was like, “Oh my God, come out to L.A. and visit me, and then we’ll go back to New York together.” So I flew out to L.A. I’d never been there before, and that’s when I went out to dinner with Ryan Murphy and Jonathan. I was wearing a purple silk mini dress with ruffles down the front. I stood out like a sore thumb at the Chateau Marmont. I talked all night with him about Barbra Streisand, “Funny Girl” and Celine Dion. And then a few weeks later, Jonathan was like, “You know, Ryan is writing this show and he’s thinking about us being in it.” And I said, “It will never happen. I’ll never get the part. I’m not pretty enough. I can’t be on television.” I was always told that my Jewish nose gets in the way. But Ryan wrote this incredible project. We left “Spring Awakening,” and just a few months later, we were in L.A. filming “Glee.”

Jonathan, did you have any thoughts on how “Spring Awakening” led to it for you? Because I read that you were offered a more regular role initially.

GROFF: Yeah, Ryan sent us the script and said, “Finn and Rachel is you and Lea.”

MICHELE: Can you imagine?

GROFF: I can’t imagine.

MICHELE: My God.

GROFF: It’s so crazy and at that time, we had done “Spring Awakening” for a total of two years. At that point when we left the show I was a little older than Lea, and I was feeling like, I don’t know if I can sign on for seven years to be a teenager singing again after doing “Spring Awakening.” I want to do plays, I want to try to act without singing because I’d only done musicals up to that point. So I wanted to flex a different muscle, and Ryan heard me on that and then wrote me this villainous recurring character, so I could flex a muscle and still come hang out on set and sing, and it was amazing. It was so joyful. I remember the first day of “Glee” when we sang “Hello,” I was so nervous. It was so crazy because we had done two years on Broadway together, but “Glee” at that point was a huge sensation, and I was coming to sing this song with you, [Lea], and I wanted to be good for you. Then we had many years of interactions on that show. But it was a total jump from one to the next, and one wouldn’t have happened without the next for either of us.

MICHELE: To have the opportunity as actors to be involved in two projects that were more than just being entertaining, they really helped their generation, that’s, as an actor, such a gift.

With “Spring Awakening,” there has been for a long time talk of a movie happening. Is that something that you would ever want to be involved in?

MICHELE: It needs to happen. I watched the documentary last night and I turned to Jonathan in the middle and I was like, “This movie has to happen.” When you watch the documentary, you fall in love with “Spring Awakening” all over again and I want to be in that world. I really want to see it come to life again. Jonathan did an incredible job as an executive producer of this documentary, and having some behind-the-scenes part of it would just be so incredible.

GROFF: Artistically, I think about the play “Cabaret,” and I think about the movie “Cabaret.” Part of what makes “Cabaret” work as a film is that the characters don’t sing to each other. The music is separate from forwarding the plot. It’s part of why it’s so perfect as a film, and in “Spring Awakening,” the songs happen in a completely different reality, and I can only imagine what a brilliant filmmaker would do with this concept musical. The device that Michael Mayer invented of the kids pulling the microphones out, it seems like it could lend itself so beautifully to a film. I would love to see a group of 15-year-olds we haven’t met have their lives changed in a film the way that this show changed our lives.

MICHELE: Or even a television series, and you have each episode follow a different character. The storyline and these themes are just as relevant now. Suicide rates are higher in teens and early 20s than they’ve ever been before. It’s so important that “Spring Awakening” is introduced to this generation in whatever form.

So is that something that’s just an idea between the two of you right now, you haven’t actually heard anything, right?

MICHELE: Oh, about the movie? No, no, no, nothing. We’re hoping, though, that if we keep talking about it, that maybe it will happen.

I wanted to also ask you, in regards to “Glee”, it has obviously become such a staple and it’s popped up in a lot of other things, like with Elle Fanning’s character in “The Girl From Plainville.” I’m curious if you had any reaction to that.

MICHELE: I haven’t seen that show. I’m a huge fan of Elle and everything that she does, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’m really caught up right now in “Bridgerton” and really loving it. I am taking my slow, sweet time with it, as I’m sure everyone understands who’s also watching “Bridgerton” right now.

But “Glee” had this incredible impact. Having the opportunity to be involved in two incredibly iconic, groundbreaking shows that really paved the way, I don’t take it lightly. I really understand how incredible it is and what an honor it is as an actor to be involved in something that goes beyond just being entertaining, that really made its mark in the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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