This season presented Lea Michele a problem that any actress would be happy to face: Should she star as Eponine in the Broadway revival of the epic musical Les Misérables or should she create the role of Wendla in the Broadway mounting of Spring Awakening? The young actress says that it was the hardest decision she has yet to make, but after spending six years working on Spring — including the production's acclaimed, much-extended, Off-Broadway engagement at the Atlantic Theater Company — she would opt for the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik musical that is based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionist play. Spring Awakening casts Michele — whose Broadway credits also include Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime and Les Miz (the show's first incarnation) — as Wendla opposite Jonathan Groff's Melchior, two adolescents who are drawn to each other in a shame-filled world where the silence of their parents and the other adults in their lives leads to the loss of the teens' innocence. I recently had the chance to chat with the enthusiastic, talented and well-spoken actress, who is thrilled that Spring has finally sprung on Broadway. That interview follows.
Question: How did you originally become involved with Spring Awakening?
Lea Michele: I have been involved with Spring Awakening for six years. I am 20 now — I just turned 20 in August — and I originally auditioned when I was 14 years old. I auditioned for [director] Michael Mayer, [composer] Duncan Sheik and [lyricist-librettist] Steven Sater. This was way before [choreographer] Bill T. Jones or [costume designer] Susan Hilferty or anybody else got involved. I have since done about five workshops, including the most recent one a year ago at Lincoln Center, which was really the jumping-off point that got us to the Atlantic Theater.
Q: Have you always played the same role?
Michele: I have. I've been playing the same role, which is pretty unbelievable. [Having been] a kid in the business . . . it’s just so difficult to stay with a role. You grow out of it or you want to go to school, but thankfully everything worked out. They were wonderful enough to keep taking me back and to keep wanting to work with me, and I was just so invested in the piece that I couldn’t miss out on it any step along the way.
Q: When you first started working on the show, were you concerned or were your parents at all concerned about the content of the show?
Michele: My parents are really cool about everything involved in the show, and I think that they know I wouldn’t do anything and they wouldn’t have me do anything that wasn’t tasteful and that wasn’t right. And, for me personally, I didn’t have them come and see the show when I was 14. I actually waited for them to see it at Lincoln Center. It was never that I felt uncomfortable, it was just that [I thought] it might be best if they didn't see it at first. [Laughs.]
Q: When did you realize that the show might have life after Off-Broadway?
Michele: I've known since day one of working on Spring Awakening — back in 1999 — that it was special. I think that the idea of using this piece that was written in 1890 and was banned for years and piecing it with Duncan Sheik's amazing music and Michael’s fabulous directing . . . was special. When we got to the Atlantic, I saw how well not only the cast worked together but the creative team and how their ideas just sprung off each other: Every little piece just fit into place, whether it was Bill’s choreography or Kevin [Adams’] lighting, Christine [Jones’] set — everything just flowed. And this piece was everything I had imagined it would be on stage 'cause I’d never seen it onstage with costumes or anything over the five years that I had worked on it. At that point I said, "This is the perfect cast. This is the perfect creative team, and we have a really special show on our hands."
Q: What was it like performing for the Off-Broadway audiences as the show kept getting extended?
Michele: Oh my gosh, it was amazing! For so many years I was saying to people, "There's this show. It’s called Spring Awakening, and the music’s so awesome," and to finally be able to have an audience see it was such a relief. I think it’s so important for people to see this show because it's important not only for my generation but for everyone. The thing is ticket prices these days are astronomical, but I think it’s the best [money] you'll ever spend because it will affect your life immensely forever.
Q: What is it like performing with audience members onstage?
Michele: You never really know what’s going to happen. Towards the end of our run at the Atlantic, we had a couple of people who became really strong fans and would come all the time. They started to think that we’re sitting next to them and we’re their friends — just like, "hey we're hanging out watching the show together" — and you'd get a couple people talking to you. [Laughs.] I remember this one girl sat behind Jonathan Groff, and I was sitting across from him, and she looks at him and mouths, "Oh my God, he’s so hot!," and she goes to squeeze him, and he couldn’t see it, and I was hysterical laughing. [Laughs.]
I couldn’t imagine it any other way. If you really want to get philosophical about it, you could say there will be someone in the audience every single night who will be affected by something. There will be one person who understands what Lilli Cooper is talking about when she sings "The Dark I Know Well." There is one person who will be able to relate to John Gallagher's singing "I Don’t Do Sadness," and having the audience on the stage really illustrates that this is everyone’s story. They are in our world, we’re in their world, and we’re not putting on a show, we are involving everybody in the lives of these people.
Q: What has the Broadway rehearsal process been like? Have there been many changes?
Michele: It’s been awesome. The great thing about the Atlantic was it was the perfect place for us to start off, and it was a great experience. And, a lot of people were afraid [about] taking it to Broadway. A lot of people come up to me and say, "Are you worried about it in the new house, in such a big space?" But they have worked it so well that, yes, it was a wonderful experience at the Atlantic, but this experience is going to be out of this world. The way that Christine Jones has worked the set — now that we're in a bigger space — all of the artwork on the walls is spread out, and you're able to enjoy every single one so much more, and [lighting designer] Kevin Adams. He's placed lights all around the theatre, in the way back of the mezzanine, and on the sides of the house, everywhere, so that no matter where you're sitting, you are in this piece. They really worked very hard to accommodate such a large house, and I think that now people are going to say, "Yeah, that experience at the Atlantic was great, but this, the energy of all these people in this one room listening to this music and watching this story is going to be so strong."
Q: Have there been any text changes or music changes?
Michele: At the Atlantic we really learned that we have a good piece on our hands, and the good thing is that we have the time now to try some changes. We tried a bunch of stuff, and I think we realized we have something good here . . . we have a couple new songs. All of the changes I love so much, and the great thing is they've worked so hard on the text to really strengthen the characters — the three main characters, Melchior, Wendla and Moritz — and help their arc and their storyline and just really tweak all of the loose ends.
Q: Of all the actors, have you been with the show the longest or are there others who have been with it for the six years?
Michele: I'm the only one that's been with it this long. The only other two cast members are Skylar Astin and John Gallagher — they did the workshop at Lincoln Center, but I'm the only one who's been involved with it since Day One.
Q: Do you feel like it's your baby in a way? Even though you didn't write it, do you feel protective over it?
Michele: I feel the need to let everyone know that I've been a part of it for so long because it's pretty amazing that that's actually happened, but everyone is so involved with it now. I feel very connected to my character. I was just thinking, literally, a couple of minutes ago when I was onstage, it's going to be so weird when there's a music book out there and people are using these songs for auditions. I think it's wonderful, but it's like we're passing it on to everybody [now].
Q: If you had to describe Wendla to someone, how would you describe her?
Michele: She's 14 years old, and she's been very sheltered by her family and her mother, and she's curious and she's smart. What she really wants is just an experience, and she just wants to feel something, and she goes through a series of events to try and find that something, and she eventually does at the end of the show. She finds sort of what she's been looking for. And she's just learning and discovering herself without the help of parents because they are so uninvolved in their children and their growth and their learning, so she does it on her own.
Q: Who do you think the show appeals to?
Michele: Oh my God, the show appeals to everybody! . . . The first point is the music everyone will love. I think of it along the lines of the way that I grew up listening to Alanis Morissette and Kelly Clarkson — those are theme songs for my life [and] these songs are going to be theme songs for our generation. There are so many storylines — not only everything that the kids are dealing with but the two adults as well. Parents can learn so much and teachers. The piece in and of itself has been around for so long, and it's just a wonderful piece of art that everyone will enjoy.
Q: You have a couple new cast members for Broadway. How have they been fitting in with the rest of the company?
Michele: We have four new cast members for Broadway who are swings, and we have two cast members — Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella — the two adults. I worked with Frank Wood. He was involved with every workshop with me for six years, so not having him involved was very hard for me, and I loved Mary McCann so much, but working with Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella is like taking a mini master class because they are fantastic. I didn't go to college, but this is my learning experience. They're so professional and so sweet, and they are so insanely talented. They are going to tackle these two characters and just make them fabulous.
Q: You mentioned that you weren't able to go to college yet. Is that something you would want to do?
Michele: I really had a wonderful experience in high school — it was the perfect high school experience, and I was accepted into the CAP21 program at Tisch, and I had been deferring for so many years. Something kept keeping me from going — I kept booking jobs, and I never really felt that it was absent in my life. I never felt that need. Theatre just fills me up so much. I think that college is so important, [but] it will always be there. Right now, I'm just so happy where I am, I could never imagine being anywhere else.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Michele: I have so many favorite moments! This is kind of a silly moment, but they just put me in the song "Totally F***ed," which I was never in before. They added me into it. And to get to jump around and feel the energy with everybody was amazing. . . . The new song that's at the beginning of Act Two is extremely special, and I love singing it. And I also just love every single moment that John Gallagher has onstage playing Moritz. He and Lauren Pritchard work so well together, and I watched him sing "Don't Do Sadness" yesterday . . . They have new orchestrations now in the show that are out of this world, and I started to cry. For the first time I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, we're on Broadway. I can't believe it's finally happening."
Q: What is it like working with such a young cast? Do you all hang out together after the show?
Michele: That's why there was not a question going from the Atlantic to Broadway that there wouldn't be any cast changes [of the young actors] because we work so well together. We're all around the same age, and the group dynamic — offstage and on — is very, very special. It's unique. This doesn't happen a lot. I love Jonathan Groff with all of my heart — he is my best friend in the entire world, and I couldn't imagine being here without him — or anybody, I couldn't imagine this show without any [of the young cast].
Q: Was it difficult to give up the role of Eponine in the Les Miz revival to bring Spring Awakening to Broadway?
Michele: Honestly, it was the hardest decision I've ever had to make. I have loved Les Miz for so long. It was the first Broadway show I'd ever done. Not only do I love it because I was in it, but I knew nothing about theatre [before]. I went on an open call for Les Miz in support of a friend, and I booked it. It just opened my eyes to the world of theatre, and I hold Les Miz on such a high [level]. I never thought in a million years that I would ever have the chance to play Eponine [on Broadway] because when you want something so badly, you never think it'll actually happen. I was so happy when I [got] the job I couldn't believe it.
When I did find out, however, that Spring Awakening was going to Broadway, I did feel that it was important. I think I owed it to myself and to my family — for giving up over the six years to help me with this piece — I really felt I had to take it to this next step. It was still so hard, but when I found out that Celia [Keenan-Bolger] was going to be Eponine, it was the most amazing thing. She's a dear, dear friend of mine. I've known her my whole life, and her brother's a good friend of mine, too. And I couldn't imagine anyone else playing it other than her — I think she is so insanely talented. And knowing that she's down the street playing the part is just such a wonderful feeling, but I do hope that I'll have the opportunity at some point. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!
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