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Lea Michele and John Gallagher Jr. reflect on the legacy of 'Spring Awakening' 16 years later

The stars spoke to TODAY about the first-ever "Spring Awakening" cast reunion and how the musical remains topical more than a decade later.

"Spring Awakening" landed on Broadway with a bang in 2006 — and over 15 years later, two of its stars are still feeling its effects.

Lea Michele and John Gallagher Jr., who starred in the original Broadway production of the show, spoke to TODAY about their time in the boundary-breaking, Tony Award-winning musical.

The musical, based on an 1891 German play of the same name, uses alt-rock music to bring the tumultuous story of teens learning about their sexuality and life into the modern day. With songs like "The B---- of Living," the musical was especially popular with younger audiences and became a cult classic.

Michele and Gallagher Jr. recently reunited with other cast members, including Jonathan Groff, to work on a documentary about the show and perform a benefit concert. The final product, "Spring Awakening: Those You've Known," premiered on HBO on May 3.

When “Spring Awakening” premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2006, Michele was 19 and Gallagher Jr. was in his early 20s. Both received critical acclaim for their performances: Gallagher Jr. as a troubled teen who dies by suicide and Michele as a naive, ill-fated young girl.

But during rehearsals, neither expected the show would be a success, or that it would go on to win eight Tony Awards, including for Best Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Gallagher Jr.

The show's rock score, composed by Duncan Sheik, wasn't the first of its kind on Broadway, but it was still unusual at the time. And musical was unabashedly upfront with the realities of coming-of-age, featuring graphic sexual content, mentions of abuse and the topic of suicide.

Lea Michele, left, Jonathan Groff, center, and John Gallagher Jr.
Lea Michele, left, Jonathan Groff, center, and John Gallagher Jr. pose outside the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York, Dec. 1, 2006. Tina Fineberg / AP

The show — which can be best described as a loud, angry cry from teenagers looking for a better world — ran on Broadway until 2009 and returned to Broadway in 2015 in a revival staged by Deaf West Theatre.

While the show opened before social media was a major force, "Spring Awakening" has still found fans online and had a dedicated community of young theatergoers. Even now, songs from the show circulate on TikTok, as do tongue-in-cheek comedic remixes.

“We’re so lucky to be part of something that made a difference."

John Gallagher Jr.

Michele said that no one in the cast initially expected the show to make such a major splash, and have such an enduring impact. In the documentary, Groff recounted a time where the show's director, Michael Mayer, cautioned him not to "get too excited" about the show's possible run.

"We sort of had all the success you could have," Michele told TODAY.

"It's sort of like a gift that keeps on giving," Gallagher Jr. added. "We're so lucky to be part of something that made a difference ... I think Jonathan Groff says it best in the documentary, when he says (that) this material has the has the power to save lives. We’ve learned that it does. That’s something that we are eternally grateful for."

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" New York Premiere
"We're so lucky to be part of something that made a difference," John Gallagher Jr. told TODAY. Pictured, l-r: Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher Jr. at the "Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" premiere.Bruce Glikas / WireImage

The show touches on a number of issues that were topical when it premiered in 2006 — including self-harm, domestic violence, abstinence-only education, and abortion — and resonate still in 2022. Days before the documentary was released, a Supreme Court draft opinion leaked indicating that the court may be preparing to overturn the landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which secured the right to abortion in 1973.

In the show, Michele's character Wendla dies from a botched abortion. A major part of the character's story is that Wendla is unaware of the mechanics of sex and how pregnancy can occur, leading to her tragic, and preventable, fate.

"It's more timely now than ever," said Michele. "It's devastating. I can't believe we're talking about this ... It's heartbreaking. There's such a fight to be had and I feel like the timing of our show coming out right now is really incredible."

Spring Awakening Reunion Concert
Lea Michele performs at the Spring Awakening Reunion Concert.Sarah Shatz / HBO

The performers both said that they hope the show will give hope to those struggling and remind them that they are not alone.

"I really do believe this show, like (Groff) said, saves lives," Michele said. "We felt it from our fans back then, with the letters we would receive. And so I really hope ... that (this documentary) can do something important and impactful."

While the cast has stayed in touch with a group chat over the years, the reunion special marked the first time all of the performers had been together since 2006.

"Spring Awakening: Those You've Known" New York Premiere
Pictured, l-r (back row): Skylar Astin, Jennifer Damiano, Gideon Glick, Robert Hager, Jonathan B. Wright, Lea Michele, Krysta Rodriguez, Remy Zaken, Lilli Cooper, Phoebe Strole, Lauren "Lolo" Pritchard. Pictured, l-r (front row): Gerard Canonico, Brian Charles Johnson, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr.Bruce Glikas / WireImage

"We are on this group text and we have been for many years, and it was Lauren Pritchard (who played Ilse in "Spring Awakening") who then had a dream that we should do a reunion concert and then placed us in a room together," Michele said. "It's pretty incredible that we were able to pull this off, the fact that everyone was available (to) come from their respective homes ... The fact that it worked out was pretty remarkable."

Gallagher said working on the benefit concert and documentary was "special and magical."

"It's like sharing the world's best fantasy scrapbook of a great time of your life, with the world," he said. "There's a soundbite from the documentary that really catches me, when our director Michael Mayer says, 'For me, this reunion wasn't about 'Spring Awakening,' it was about seeing these kids again, who they've become,' and that really boils it down for me," Gallagher said. "At the end of the day, it was so magical."