Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez return to their Spring Awakening roots in Michael Arden's revival of the musical for Deaf West Theatre.
Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez return to their Spring Awakening roots in Michael Arden's revival of the musical for Deaf West Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

"It makes me feel like I'm a thousand years old," Andy Mientus says of returning to the musical Spring Awakening nearly a decade after starring in the national tour of the Tony-winning Broadway production. But while Mientus is once again taking on the role of the seductive Hanschen, this version, directed by his fiancé, Michael Arden, couldn't be more different than Michael Mayer's innovative original.

This Spring Awakening features a cast of 27 that seamlessly blends deaf and hearing actors, who now perform the iconic Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language. Deaf West Theatre originally presented this production last fall, and they're bringing it back to Los Angeles for a run through June 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Along with Mientus onstage is another Spring Awakening alum (and Smash cohort), Krysta Rodriguez, who, amid shooting the television show Chasing Life and receiving treatment for breast cancer, returns to the role of the bohemian Ilse, a role that she understudied as part of the original Broadway cast. Neither could have predicted they'd be back with the show that launched their careers, but for this pair, it happened at the perfect time.

Since this is a remounting of a production you weren't initially part of, how did you two come to be involved?
Andy Mientus: When this production started two years ago, Michael and I approached Deaf West together about codirecting. He was not sure about what to do and I had always wanted to direct Spring Awakening, because when I was sitting there during my run in the show the first time, I would dream up my own production. We codirected the workshop, got the go-ahead for the full production, and then I got Les Misérables [on Broadway] and had to be pulled away. Michael took on full-time directing. In between that production and this, Joey Haro, who played Hanschen and was terrific, got a big, fancy movie and there were only two weeks to rehearse this production because it's a remount. Michael was freaking about how they could find somebody [who] could learn the part and the ASL fast enough, and I was like, "Well, I'm available." So here I am.

Krysta Rodriguez: Besides the beginning part of Andy's story, that's pretty much what happened to me, too. I got a call from Michael that the girl [who] had done it before had gotten a fancy job on Broadway and they needed a quick replacement who knows at least fifty percent of this version of the show, and it happened to fit right into when I was available. I never thought I'd be getting the call to be playing Ilse again. You think you close that chapter, but it's a chapter I wasn't ready to close [and] I didn't realize, until it was offered to me.

Andy Mientus as Kyle and Krysta Rodriguez as Ana on the NBC series Smash.
Andy Mientus as Kyle and Krysta Rodriguez as Ana on the NBC series Smash.
(© Will Hart/NBC)

Did it all come flooding back to you after all that's happened in your careers in the intervening decade?
Andy: I found when we were rehearsing music I was getting lost if I was trying to follow along on the page, but if I closed my eyes, it would come back really quickly. What's fascinating about this process, because ASL is not directly analogous to English, is that sometimes we're signing stuff that's very different from what we're actually speaking. That memorization took a lot of time, because it's like learning a second script in a language we don't really know.

Krysta: It's nice to be able to reapproach these roles with a little bit more knowledge of things. We were both young [when we first did the show], and now we know where this is going. Everything about it still feels relevant, except for when we both sort of chuckle during "Totally F**ked." We're both a little bit like...

Andy: Saying the F-word lost its novelty.

For those who can't get out to Los Angeles to see this production, can you describe how the ASL fits into the world of Spring Awakening?
Krysta: So much of this show is about a lack of communication, a lack of being able to understand what people are literally saying or figuratively saying, or where people are coming from. It really adds another layer of miscommunication, especially in this production, where the deaf [actors] are actually deaf as their characters. The hearing people, in this community, have had to learn how to communicate with [the deaf] people, and very important information that needs to get across is lost in translation.

Andy: This production gives the characters something really specific to be fighting against, which I think makes them a lot more sympathetic. I totally related to the original production, but I think it was an easy criticism that these kids were just whining about teen angst. In this production, you're seeing what the deaf characters are going through in class and it gives them something very concrete that they're fighting against. It makes their struggle crystal clear.

Ben Fankhauser as Ernst and Andy Mientus as Hanschen in the national touring production of Spring Awakening.
Ben Fankhauser as Ernst and Andy Mientus as Hanschen in the national touring production of Spring Awakening.
(© Paul Kolnik)

Andy, what is it like to be directed by your fiancée?
This project is its own animal because I started out on the team and then moved into the cast. When he gives me a note about something, I don't really take it the same way [I would] because this project is [also] my brainchild and I want it to be as good as it can possibly be. Any modicum of ego I may have about "oh really, you don't like my choice there?" goes out the window. I still feel like I'm filling a slot and letting the show go on, because I'm so in love with Joey, who did it [in downtown L.A.]. That element has saved us from any lover's quarrels after rehearsal.

We're really careful about keeping things separate. A lot of the time, we don't even eat lunch together. And then when we get in the car, we can be ourselves again out of the eye of the rest of the cast. [Otherwise] it's a strange thing that I think could make the rest of the cast feel like I'm not their peer.

Krysta, how are you balancing rehearsals, shooting the television series Chasing Life, and your own personal health matters?
It's a balance, for sure. I go to my doctors appointments in the morning before rehearsal, getting information that's life-and-death sometimes, and then I come into the rehearsal room and I'm like, "Let's play!" It's nice to have something else. It's hard to let that go sometimes, all the other things I'm going through. With the TV show, they've been really flexible. I'm only a guest star and my episodes are not guaranteed, so they call and ask if I'm available, and they work around it or don't. It's been very nice to have that flexibility. Everyone is so lovely and wonderful and really interested in telling my story through this character, and I really like that. I just finished chemo three weeks ago, so [Spring Awakening] was the perfect thing. I have to gear up and heal myself before my surgery, and this is sort of healing in its own way. You can't stay in a bed with your feet up. You have to get out and do what you love to do.

A promotional image for Michael Arden's Deaf West production of Spring Awakening at the Wallis-Annenberg Center.
A promotional image for Michael Arden's Deaf West production of Spring Awakening at the Wallis-Annenberg Center.
(photo courtesy of the production)