Spring Awakening: Those You've Known Review: A Nostalgic Documentary Brimming With Warmth

I saw "Spring Awakening" on Broadway for the first time on December 5, 2007, just about a year after the off-Broadway production transferred to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Alongside a small group of girls, I was invited by a friend to celebrate her birthday at the show. And I had no idea when we took our seats that night that my life would be changed forever by what I was about to witness. Fifteen shows later over the course of two years, I had a pretty good idea. That's the level of passion Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's coming-of-age rock musical set in 1891 ignites in its fans, many of whom now get overwhelmed with emotion over how formative the musical was for us when we were the same age as the characters of the show. My fifteen-year loyalty to this musical is what brought me to "Spring Awakening: Those You've Known," a documentary focusing on the show's origins and its recent reunion concert. Needless to say, it was a transformative hour and a half watch, one that made me truly remember why this musical was so needed and deeply beloved by teenagers like me.

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" tells the story of the show's road to Broadway, from its conception via an original German play from 1891 discovered by Sater in 1999 through to the fifteenth anniversary concert the cast reunited for in November 2021. Director Michael John Warren weaves archival footage of the show into that story somewhat chronologically, moving the audience through the show's inner and outer timelines — but he also makes the choice to meld that archival footage with the reunion concert footage of the same songs. The clips are threaded throughout the show's origin story in a way that at some points takes you by surprise, but only because it is so exciting to revisit those moments as they were then — as someone who saw the original show (or even performed in it) would remember them. Coupled with the cast's current confessional moments the effect is incredibly emotional, as you might expect, and it illustrates both the beauty and magic of the original work from the early aughts through its Broadway run as well as the poignant tear-jerking nostalgia of the 2021 concert.

Toward the end of the documentary, Jonathan Groff says that in doing the reunion show, the cast — who had not been together as a group for over fifteen years at the time of the reunion — was able to "[meet] each other as adults." In this documentary, we fans, who are overwhelmingly the audience for this revisitation, feel as though we're meeting them too. Despite the fact that several of these people went on to have Hollywood careers and we see them pretty often in the entertainment world, watching them again in this light brings about a whole different feeling. It truly feels like a reintroduction, and it is impossible for the gravity of time passing from adolescence to adulthood in the real world to be lost on the viewer because of Warren's tactic of meshing the stage performances. As much as fans of the show needed to rediscover it, the cast did too, and to rediscover each other. It's truly beautiful to watch people whose bond was so influential reconnect and reignite that soft burning flame of unique kinship that can only come from working on a project like this together. 

A feast of nostalgic emotions

The documentary really taps into the importance of this show: why it needed to be seen and how much good it did despite its dark subject matter, not only for its fans but for its cast, who were growing up with the characters they played. In the film, Groff recalls his struggle with his sexuality during his tenure as Melchior, the show's blossoming heterosexual young lead. Original cast member Lauren Pritchard, who played an outcast child excommunicated from her small town named Ilse, revealed she suffered similar bouts of childhood sexual abuse to that of her character. Whether or not we knew it as fans of the musical in its heyday — and we knew a lot, but there was so much we never knew about the lives of the people we idolized in this show — they were personally affected by the story they were telling. "I think that's what got us through it every night," original cast member Lili Cooper, who played another victim of childhood sexual abuse named Marta, said in the film. "Knowing how important it was to tell these stories." Thanks to this documentary, viewers can really see that connection, and those of us who were around then can grapple with it in a way we may not have had the wherewithal to do so at a younger, less experienced age. At that time in our lives, we were seeing passion, but not necessarily reason, and this film laces those two concepts together once and for all.

While the documentary is a lovely and moving trip down memory lane, there were two directorial choices that slightly cheapened the meat of the film, where all of the sentimentality of the musical's journey lives. The movie's opening and closing sequences were very succinct and lacked the flair and creativity that the musical is so widely known for, as well as the romanticism for the show's pinnacle days. The dramatics — the push to make sure the audience understands the weight of this reunion — simply aren't there. The opening and closing moments of the film are messy and broad, and while they certainly highlight the perspectives of the actors who are returning to these formative roles, they don't do much to make the average audience member appreciate why we're revisiting this piece of theater. They are fairly momentary slumps, and they don't entirely ruin the film, but they are curious choices when there is enough to highlight about the show's greatness without giving too much away, or, in the case of the film's finale, leaving us wanting something less fleeting and more final in those opening and closing sequences.

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" hits the majority of the marks you'd want it to. It's nostalgic and brimming with warmth, funny and heartbreaking secrets are revealed, and the archival and reunion footage of the show transports you to the emotional peak akin to the kind of highs you might've experienced watching it live, either back then or if you were lucky enough to see the reunion concert in the flesh. Despite somewhat weak opening and closing moments, the documentary succeeds in giving folks who weren't there a sense of the alchemical magic at work during the show's conception and subsequent peak. And for us fans, it succeeds in bringing us back into the world of the show, where everything hurt, yet everything was beautiful, and you were in good company when you needed to sing about the pain. It succeeds in transporting us back to a place of innocence a lot of us would do anything to return to.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10