How Spring Awakening Inspired a Generation of Theater Fans

Photo: NBC/Virginia Sherwood/NBC

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening that made me a devotee at the age of 16. It could have been when the plaintive melody of the opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” turned into a foot-stomping anthem filled with rage. It could have been when I first saw John Gallagher Jr.’s sky-high hairdo. Based on a 19th-century play by Frank Wedekind, the musical from Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik was about teens with issues, so maybe the reason I found myself so thoroughly obsessed was because I myself was a teen with issues — not as dramatic as the ones depicted onstage, but issues nonetheless.

Whatever the reason, I went back to see Spring Awakening again, that time without my parents. I listened to the cast recording constantly and drove around belting the melodies and just-shy-of sexually explicit lyrics in my car. (Though, to be honest, I didn’t really understand what Sater was getting at when a bunch of schoolboys sang, “Oh, we’ll work that silver magic / then we’ll aim it at the wall.”) Most of all, I knew I wasn’t alone in my fandom: It was the early days of Facebook and I joined a group known as “I BELIEVE IN SPRING AWAKENING,” where other teenage diehards would post photos with the cast and describe what it was like to sit in the coveted stage seats. (One of my ecstatic comments, typos and all: “AAAAAAAAAAH! I saw it for th second time today. So amazing…”)

Even now, more than a decade later, Spring Awakening touches a raw nerve that takes me right back to when I was an inexperienced, stressed-out junior hoping that a boy would just notice me. Sheik’s melodies tapped into the parts of my brain that loved Richard Rogers and Death Cab for Cutie in equal measure, and Sater’s profane, anxiety-laden words were perfect for the times I was feeling hopeless, desperate, and a little dangerous. The Broadway production was certainly R-rated, complete with onstage nudity and a song titled “Totally Fucked,” but as Sheik tells Vulture, it was always intended to reach young people. “It’s a show meant for everyone, but it is meant for kids to see it,” he says. “It’s kind of naïve to think that kids aren’t really thinking about this stuff and grappling with these issues.” Since 2006, it has found its way to teens in high schools across the country —- and now, it’s hitting prime time as the focus of NBC’s Rise, a new drama from Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims.

In Rise, a Coach Taylor/Mr. Schuester hybrid named Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) decides to dump his colleague’s rendition of Grease and put on a production of Spring Awakening instead. “Why a show about sexually repressed teenagers coming of age in 19th-century Germany?” Lou says as he practices a speech to an empty auditorium in the pilot. “Because just like you, they are dealing with intolerant parents, teachers that don’t get it. These kids are you. Their story is your story.” Sure enough, the themes in Spring Awakening quickly dovetail with the Rise plot: The budding romance between football star Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) and talented theatrical neophyte Lilette Suarez (Auli’i Cravalho) plays out as they portray the rebellious Melchior Gabor and sheltered but curious Wendla Bergman; meanwhile, one student trying to hide his sexuality (Ted Sutherland), is cast as a gay character, Hanschen, to the dismay of his intensely religious parents. Sheik has only seen the first episode of Rise, but he approves. “They managed to make the music feel like actually pretty cool, which is tough to do for any kind of musical,” he says with a laugh.

Ahead of the show’s premiere on Tuesday night, I reached out to people who were active in “I BELIEVE IN SPRING AWAKENING” during the show’s first Broadway run. (There was also a 2015 revival from Deaf West Theatre.) My desire to do so was admittedly out of nostalgia — I wanted to connect (or in some cases reconnect) with people who shared my own nerdy habits — but I also was interested in confirming that Rise was on to something by choosing Spring Awakening as the ideal musical for the drama of high-school drama.

While the fans I spoke to mentioned their love of the music and their crushes on the actors, almost all of them found some deeper, personal connection to the material itself. Sondra Kusse, now 24, latched on to Moritz, Melchior’s friend who is tormented by his own sexual arousal and the academic pressure from his father. In the second-act number “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” Moritz rejects the offer of friendship from runaway Ilse and commits suicide. “I’ve struggled with depression and mental-health issues my whole life and looking and seeing what Moritz is dealing with in the show where he’s failing his classes and he’s going through depression and he reaches out for help and no one goes and helps him … was really relatable,” she recalls. “It was like, oh my God, other people go through this. It’s not just me.”

Chicago-based Janie Bryant, 28, originally from Indiana, got wind of Spring Awakening in high school from her friends. Like Kusse, she became acquainted with the recording before seeing a performance. It ended up being her first Broadway show. “I grew up a repressed religious kid,” Bryant says. “The whole idea of these kids not knowing how to talk about sex. I super-identified with that.” Aaron Wright, a 25-year-old actor who saw it when he was around 14 on a whim during a trip to New York, similarly described the experience as “sort of an explosion in me,” which came at a time he was figuring out his own sexuality.

“I think that Spring Awakening was this perfect storm for a 16-year-old theater geek,” says 27-year-old Ali Elkin, currently a researcher at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. “When you’re 16 and you are not the most socially confident person in the world, exploring feelings of sexuality can be scary and a forum that is a safe space to explore those feelings feels revolutionary to you.” Elkin, who grew up in the New York suburbs, saw the show five times. “I went with people every single time even though it really was this very individual experience,” she remembers. “It was almost like you would go and you would see it and there were parts that you wouldn’t talk about after. It was very personal.” She cites the sex scene between Melchior and Wendla at the end of the first act as one of those moments.

The cast members of the original production — including a pre-Glee Lea Michele, pre-Looking Jonathan Groff, and Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr. — were routinely greeted by fans at the stage door. When Kusse went with her mother, traveling from Florida, she says she made sure to leave during the curtain call to get to front of the throng. She even made key chains as gifts for the stars, and a duct tape wallet for Gallagher Jr., her favorite, who played Moritz. Wright remembers running back after leaving to tell Gallagher Jr. to thank him in his Tonys acceptance speech. “Now that I look back I’m like, ‘What the hell was I doing?’” he says.

New Jersey–raised Lauren Kay, 28, saw Spring Awakening for the first of seven times when she was in high school. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is the best thing ever, but I’m sitting next to my theater teacher, which is a little weird for that subject matter,” she says. Tonight, she’s planning to have a small gathering of friends over to watch the Rise premiere. She says she knows little about the show, but hearing the song “I Believe” in the promo, plus the fact that it’s made by the producers of Hamilton and Parenthood, was enough to entice her. “I think it’s a show that high-schoolers really connect with,” she says, later adding, “It’s not just like another Phantom of the Opera or Lion King or whatever.” Or, as Lou Mazzuchelli might suggest, another Grease.

While Kusse is excited by the idea of Spring Awakening reaching new audiences with Rise, Elkin is more skeptical as to whether the series will accurately capture the experience of being a musical-obsessed teen. “I feel like portrayals of high-school theater kids by very glamorous professional actors generally don’t get to the messy reality in a way that feels satisfying to me,” she says. Elkin’s worry is a valid one — the initial episodes don’t really portray the enthusiastic dorkiness of true theater kids — but with Spring Awakening in tow, Rise is working with the ideal material for getting at what’s particularly painful about adolescence.

How Spring Awakening Inspired a Generation of Theater Fans