Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit With its bold rock score and tale of alienated teenagers in the throes of adolescence, Spring Awakening is redefining the musical for a new generation.

Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.
Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening. Photo by Joan Marcus

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The characters in the landmark new musical Spring Awakening may be hormone-addled, angst-ridden adolescents living in repressive 1890s Germany, but it's hard to imagine the real-life actors in this improbable juggernaut, which captured this year's Tony Award for Best Musical, complaining about "The Bitch of Living" or lamenting how they're "Totally Fu**ed" — sentiments expressed by two of the show's anguished rock anthems.

In fact, chatting with the musical's three leads — Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher, Jr. — backstage at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, there's no trace of the Sturm und Drang or eye-rolling cynicism you might imagine of early twenty-something actors flush with their first success. Instead, they seem easygoing and well-adjusted, with an enthusiasm for the show and each other that's infectious. Squeezed together like sardines on a small sofa in Gallagher's dressing room, the three stars project a palpable affection for each other. The whole cast, they insist, is like one big family. "Jonathan and I have been together since 9:30 this morning," says Michele. "We went to yoga and then we had lunch together. We're all together a lot."

Nowhere was their fellowship more evident than on Tony Awards night. Gallagher, nominated for his role as the wild-haired, troubled Moritz, scored one of the show's eight prizes — winning Best Featured Actor in a Musical. When his name was announced, his fellow cast members went berserk.

For Gallagher, though, it was all a blur. "It was probably the most out-of-body experience I've ever had," he says. "I remember hearing my name, and then the air got completely sucked out of me." Groff, who grew up watching the Tonys, deems the evening "surreal." And all three actors agree that the reality — and significance — of their win didn't hit them until they gathered to watch the DVR the following night. Spring Awakening's Tony triumph is all the more surprising considering the nature of the material. The brash show explores the confusing, thrilling, dawning desires of adolescence and the tragedies wrought when society does everything it can to repress those yearnings. Even today's parents may squirm at scenes of simulated intercourse and a teenager contemplating suicide, among other taboo topics.

Adapted from Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play — so incendiary it wasn't produced until 15 years after it was written, and then only in censored form — Spring Awakening is the brainchild of pop singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, lyricist-book writer Steven Sater and director Michael Mayer. Their central idea? Whenever the show's characters are compelled to lash out at the world, they grab microphones and employ the modern language of rock 'n' roll — the ultimate release for angst-filled teens — to pour out their fears, frustrations and insecurities in feverish interior monologues. When the show landed on Broadway last winter, it was hailed for its bold vision and efforts to blaze a new path for the musical form.

All three actors attest that their roles have challenged them in unexpected ways. The 23-year-old Gallagher says that playing Moritz, who's racked by guilt over his erotic dreams and failure to live up to his father's expectations, has helped him get in touch with his own emotions. "Despite the fact that Moritz's big number is 'I Don't Do Sadness,' I've learned to accept my own sadness and to own it — not wallow in it so much, but kind of live in it as long as I need in order to understand it," says Gallagher, who turned heads last year in a brief but potent role in Rabbit Hole.

Groff, 22, reveals that his own personality is much different from that of his rebellious character, Melchior, a free-thinking noncomformist who's defiant in the face of authority. "He's really outspoken and doesn't let the world around him define who he is as a person. I think everybody has the desire to stand up for what you believe in and fight for something you think is right. So it's exciting for me to be able to do that eight times a week, to step out of my comfort zone and really go for it."

For 21-year-old Michele, playing the conflicted Wendla has given her strength she never knew she had. "What I really admire most about [Wendla] — what I didn't understand about her before — is really how strong she is," says the actress, who did her first workshop of Spring when she was just 14. "Being an adult now, I'm understanding more about her and I'm learning more from her."

So how do they feel about acting out some of the more provocative material in the show, especially the climactic sex scene between the two young lovers? "I feel 100 percent comfortable performing it every night because I know that it's done tastefully and under the right circumstances," responds Groff. "Everything is there for a specific reason — to further the story. There's nothing gratuitous."

But didn't Groff feel at least a little self-conscious when his parents brought in a busload of friends and family from his hometown, who were then treated to a front-row view of his bare backside? "Yeah, that was a little awkward," he admits with a laugh.

Despite any uncomfortable moments, all three actors insist that they're intensely grateful to be performing such a challenging and invigorating show. "It's like eating a big, delicious piece of cake every night," enthuses Michele. "It's just so satisfying."

Jonathan Groff (seated), John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan B. Wright, Skylar Astin and Gideon Glick in <i>Spring Awakening</i>.
Jonathan Groff (seated), John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan B. Wright, Skylar Astin and Gideon Glick in Spring Awakening. Photo by Joan Marcus