When Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known premieres Tuesday, everyone should be watching. The HBO documentary will command a sizeable audience and huge social media buzz from fans of the Broadway musical, especially those who were unable to attend last year’s reunion concert in New York. But even people who have never heard of the Tony Award-winning musical need to see this—because the Spring Awakening documentary should start its own conversation, the way that the show did 15 years ago.
Spring Awakening has remained one of Broadway’s best-known and most beloved productions over the last decade and a half for multiple reasons, which we won’t discuss here in fairness to anyone who might want to experience it (or experience it again) on Tuesday. But what is worth discussing is exactly what Radical Media and director Michael John Warren put together, which flies in the face of convention. Retrospective programs and anniversary shows are not uncommon; viewers see them all the time. Doctor Who, for example, is gearing up for its centenary special that will be not only Jodie Whittaker’s farewell episode but also a tribute to the BBC reaching 100 years of broadcasting.
These shows are wonderful, but they’re tailored in a very specific way. They’re primarily geared toward fans of the property or franchise and they’re mostly celebratory in nature. The thesis statement of these projects is always “this popular thing is great” and viewers aren’t likely to come away with anything but even more appreciation of what they already loved. Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known is not that show. It’s a different kind of documentary, one that is fully realized and three-dimensional, and one that fits into our modern perspective of entertainment, making it timely even as it delves into something that started over a decade before.
The thesis statement of the Spring Awakening documentary is not “Spring Awakening is amazing,” though it was and still is. It’s an exploration of where the cast and crew were then, and how their participation in this radical show impacted them to make them the people they are now. It’s very rare that actors have the chance to go back to a role, yet alone in a different phase of their lives, and so there’s an artistic bent to it as well. What truly sets Those You’ve Known apart is everyone’s willingness to be honest. Including the way it’s directed, people are able to be critical when criticism is deserved, and offer up more than superficial recollections.
That’s what makes this an incredible piece of filmmaking (and theatregoing by extension). Viewing audiences have never spent enough time thinking about the media we consume. Yes, it’s entertainment, but there’s also a lot to be gained if you put thought into it—especially if you look at it years or decades on. The recent Law & Order revival is an example of this in action; the original series was pivotal for television, helping to establish the whole crime drama genre with its famously “ripped from the headlines” storytelling. Watching episodes now from the early 1990s, they still hold up because of the strength of the characters and the show’s sense of purpose. In contrast, the current revival has yet to have that same impact. Yes, it’s still using the same format and it’s still using storylines based on actual events, but the genre landscape has changed and we’re seeing how what was novel then is exhausted today.
There are parts of Spring Awakening that are more uncomfortable now, just as Frank Wedekind’s original text was controversial when it debuted in 1906 (more than a decade after it was written!). In this case, there’s a bit of fascination that goes with that, as controversy and pushing boundaries is the heart of Spring Awakening anyway. But it’s worth having the discussion and talking about how we see the production as adults when many people watching will have grown up with it. We may learn different things about it now, viewing it detached from the intense personal experiences that many people have with the original production. We can gain a greater appreciation of Spring Awakening by re-watching it and talking about it, not just celebrating it. There may even be some teenage Broadway fans out there who have only heard of the show and Those You’ve Known will be the first chance to see any of it for themselves.
Therein lies the other equally important reason that Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known deserves to be required viewing. Theatre, by its form, has always been a “you had to be there” form of art. It’s a personal, in the moment experience shared between the production and the audience on any given night. That makes it special, but it’s also altered the way plays and musicals are appreciated. They’re not easily accessible or constantly in our faces like films, TV shows or even music. They’re not promoted in the same way. That means they’re not part of the regular entertainment conversation unless something like Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen breaks through to become its own cultural phenomenon. Streaming platforms like BroadwayHD and National Theatre at Home are changing that, but there’s still a long way to go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked an artist to name their best performance and been told “Well, I can’t say that because it was theatre, so nobody can see it.”
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known can change that conversation. Because of how well-crafted it is and how much this production and its cast still have to say, it is an incredibly compelling argument for more respect and better preservation of theatre. It’s powerful proof of the impact that a Broadway play can have not only as a part of entertainment, but as a discussion piece in broader culture. The story of the production is as important and moving as the story within the play itself, and both deserve to be heard by more than theatre kids and Broadway enthusiasts. If just a handful of people watch the Spring Awakening documentary and decide to go to a play in person, or change the way they think about theatre, or even pick up Wedekind’s original text, that’s priceless. Theatre is not some kind of exclusive club—it welcomes everyone and it deserves to be appreciated much more by mainstream audiences.
In that sense, it’s fitting that Spring Awakening is the subject of this documentary. Wedekind was opening up minds when he first produced it and the Broadway production affected a generation when it happened, so it makes perfect sense that Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known can start its own artistic revolution.
Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known premieres Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.