NEW YORK — Like most successful performers, 19-year-old stage actress Lea Michele has one of those “Star Is Born” moments in her repertoire. Hers just happened to strike when she was eight.
Growing up in New Jersey, Michele, who is currently starring in the hit Off-Broadway rock musical “Spring Awakening,” went to an open call for the Broadway production of “Les Miserables,” but only because a friend wanted to audition.
“I learned ‘Angel of Music’ from ‘Phantom of the Opera,'” says the fresh-faced Michele, digging into some granola at Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper West Side, not far from her studio apartment here. Her mother was a nurse and her father owned a deli; neither had any familiarity with the business.
“It was the only show I’d ever seen,” she explains.
Of course, as these stories tend to go, Michele — not her friend — was cast in the roles of Young Cosette and Young Eponine. She went on to snag parts in the original Broadway cast of “Ragtime” and the recent revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
This fall, she’ll graduate to grown-up Eponine and sing “On My Own” — every girl’s dream — in a Broadway revival of “Les Miserables” after finishing her current run as Wendla in “Spring Awakening.” (It plays at the Atlantic Theater Company through Aug. 5 and will transfer to Broadway at a date to be announced.) Written by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik and based on an 1891 play by Frank Webekind, “Spring Awakening” traces a group of German schoolchildren experimenting with their sexuality. There is masturbation, sadomasochism, implied rape, adolescent pregnancy and homosexuality. “I get chills every night I sing this music,” says Michele. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.”
“Spring Awakening” marks the first time Michele is not the youngest cast member on stage — the show is filled with talent as dewy and exuberant as she is. Her parents and peers have been as supportive of her decision to skip college for her career — she was accepted to Tisch in 2004 but felt she didn’t want to be taught “how to work with a director” — as they have been of her working with such racy material. (She’s still your typical teen. MTV’s “The Hills” is “my oxygen,” she says.)
This story first appeared in the July 20, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I’m in a see-through nightgown and in a beating scene,” Michele admits, somewhat surprised at how far the show has taken her. “A friend told me, ‘I didn’t know that side of you.'” A particularly climactic moment has the actress baring her breast, though “it’s tastefully done,” she insists. There are stipulations to the display: If any family members are in the audience, she’s contractually allowed to skip it. The same isn’t true for her male co-star, Jonathan Groff, who, no matter the crowd, has to bare his backside. “But that’s just a butt,” Michele explains, bursting out laughing. “Who’s looking at that anyway?”