Neither Andy Mientus nor Krysta Rodriguez ever thought they would be in Spring Awakening again. While Rodriguez understudied a few roles in the original Broadway production and Mientus starred in the first national tour, both thought they had aged out of playing teenagers.
In fact, neither of them were even supposed to be in Deaf West’s first Broadway revival, which opens at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on September 27.
Mientus has been with the project from the very beginning, but as the co-director with his partner, Michael Arden, for the first workshop when they were exploring the concept with Deaf West. For the production, deaf actors and hearing actors perform together, but instead of just incorporating deaf actors, Arden specifically designated certain characters, such as Wendla and Moritz, as deaf as well, which augments the show’s message about the communication barriers between children and their parents, students and their teachers.
However, when the show had its first production at Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles in 2014, Mientus was committed to Les Misérables, his Broadway debut, and handed the reigns to Arden.
When the show announced a transfer to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Mientus had just finished his Les Mis contract and was excited to just get to observe the process. However, the actors who had played Hänschen and Ilse in the first production landed other jobs and Arden was scrambling to find people who could learn the parts—and then learn the show in American Sign Language (ASL)—in two weeks.
“Just to calm him down, I was like, if you can’t find anyone else—anyone else—I’ll do it,” Mientus says, as he had played Hänschen on tour. “I know the part. I know a little bit of signing, and if I don’t look totally ridiculous still playing a teenager and you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it.”
Then he and Arden made a list of potential actors to play Ilse, and Mientus couldn’t shake the idea that Rodriguez should play the role so he texted her. She immediately responded, “Um, let me check on some things but my initial instinct is absolutely.”
At the time, Rodriguez was in the process of wrapping up chemotherapy for breast cancer, and she had to take six weeks off from treatments before she could have her double mastectomy. Luckily, her required time off was the exact length of the run at the Wallace.
“I literally started rehearsal the day of my last chemo, and I finished the run the day before my surgery,” she says. “It was just something for my soul, something to be creative…Learning sign language really pushed me. The very actor-y thing to say is, ‘Do the thing that scares you.’ Well, in my personal life, I’m doing that already. I don’t really need extra scary things! But I did it anyway, and it really pushed me into an almost, I don’t know, blissed-out state of what we’re capable of.”
The day before their first tech rehearsal, Rodriguez and Mientus meet me at a café near Columbus Circle. When I arrive, Rodriguez is already there, dressed in a simple black romper with a wide-brimmed, black felt hat resting on the seat next to her. She greets me with a huge smile and adds that she’s just texted Mientus, who she jokes that the cast calls the “first lady.” (He’s engaged to the director, Arden.)
Mientus arrives moments later, sporting shorts, a t-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap. He collapses into a chair, trading notes with Rodriguez about how their rehearsal has just been cancelled so the cast is going to hang out in Central Park when they’re done with the interview.
Their rapport is quick and easy, and they immediately fall into a rhythm. Spring Awakening marks the third(ish) time they’ve worked together. They met doing a reading years ago, and Rodriguez recalls that she knew of Mientus from their shared Spring connection. They count the Wallace run of the Deaf West production as another time, and although they both appeared on the ABC Family series Chasing Life, they weren’t on it at the same time so that’s not part of the tally. However, Mientus did suggest Rodriguez for the role after his character on the show (spoiler alert) died.
“I should be paying him commission,” Rodriguez jokes. “He got me Spring Awakening and Chasing Life, essentially. He really has a knack for putting people where they’re supposed to be.”
Their main shared credit—and how they became such good friends—is Smash. They were both cast on the second season—Mientus’s first time on camera and Rodriguez’s first series regular role—and that experience bonded them for life, as they joined the series with a new showrunner, Joshua Safran, and they had to wade through the newness of working on television and bond together against a lot of the hate-watching that greeted the series.
“I was really nervous and learning while I was doing it,” Mientus remembers. “We worked so hard, like countless hours spent, and then you know a lot of people really loved it and a lot of people were really snarky about it and made fun of it.”
“But all we heard was snark,” adds Rodriguez.
Once the show ended, Rodriguez did First Date on Broadway, and she remembers being greeted at the stage door by hoards of fans, who would tell her how much they loved Smash.
“It was so restorative,” she says, then adds that the positives are mostly what she and Mientus hear now. They’ve done a few concerts of the show-within-a-show Hit List, and when asked if there’s a future, they tease a little bit.
“There might be,” says Rodriguez. “You can never see the last of Hit List.”
Mientus and Rodriguez still hang out regularly with Safran and another second season newcomer, Jeremy Jordan. They love going out for a meal—Mientus mentions that he still wants to take Rodriguez to his favorite place, L’Artusi—and they love Disney. One of their favorite trips was to Disney World when Jordan was doing a press event there and got to invite some friends for a few days.
“I maintain that was the best three consecutive days of my life,” Rodriguez says.
“It was also a really potent trip because it was when Krysta told us all that she was diagnosed,” Mientus recalls. “Like the second we got there, she was like, yay, I have cancer, woo hoo!”
Rodriguez didn’t intend to make the announcement so quickly, as she had just received her diagnosis the week before. She knew she wanted to tell Jordan and Mientus, but she didn’t want to put a damper on the day or tell the whole group yet. However, she was on a very strict diet at the time, and upon arriving, the entire group was offered a fruity, alcoholic drink, which she declined.
“We all thought she was pregnant,” Mientus says.
“Jeremy asked me like 12 times before we even got to the park so finally I was just like, ‘I have cancer, okay? Can we talk about this later?’” Rodriguez says. “And then it was like, let’s have fun at Disney World! It was helpful at that time to have something to do and to distract me.”
Rodriguez created the website, ChemoCouture, where she chronicles her journey with the disease and also showcases gorgeous photos of her evolving style during the time. While she thought a couple people in the Broadway community might think the blog was cool, she was astonished at how it took off in the cancer community and has found so much solidarity in getting to share her story with people. Cosmopolitan even asked her to be a contributing writer.
“It was a way to talk about what happens to a younger woman who gets a cancer that attacks all the parts of being a woman,” explains Rodriguez. “Older women are postmenopausal when they get breast cancer; they’ve had their children. They have a different perspective, whereas me who feels like there was still a lot more that my body was gonna do that now it can’t. And so there was a lot of femininity being stripped away at a very rapid pace for me. This was an attempt to counteract how helpless I felt about what my appearance was going to be.”
On her blog, Rodriguez experiments with looks and hairstyles—from a headscarf to a purple wig—and shows that cancer doesn’t have to dampen your look. However, she hadn’t changed her hair since she was in In the Heights so she’s slowly re-discovering the style that works for her.
“Every woman knows what makes her feel good. You know how you do your hair. You know how you do your makeup. You know what clothes make you look the best. And all of that was new to me,” she explains. “I can’t just walk into a store and take this cute thing off the hanger. I really have to put in all these factors and to not get discouraged by the twelfth thing I’ve tried on that doesn’t fit or doesn’t look good or shows my radiation stickers or my scars…So it pushes you in certain ways. I’m still finding it, and that’s part of what the blog is too. I don’t know the answer yet. I don’t know what make me feel great yet.”
At this, Mientus immediately compliments her and says, “I love this look you’re rocking right now!” And he’s right. The red-haired pixie cut brings out the color in her eyes, and the short hair accents her dramatic eyes and defined features. And her smile is infectious.
As we talk, both Mientus and Rodriguez gesticulate a lot—a likely result of their using sign language onstage and to communicate with their castmates. One of Mientus’s favorite signs right now is the sign for “obsessed.” (Make a fist with your left hand and then put your right middle finger in the center of that fist. Circle your fist toward the thing you’re obsessed with.)
However, the most special signs are their “name signs.” In the deaf culture, individuals are given a name sign, instead of constantly spelling out a name. The sign usually says something about the person, but a hearing person cannot give another hearing person a name sign. The sign has to be given to you by a deaf person, and it is usually given after a deaf person has gotten to know the hearing person. The deaf cast members of Spring Awakening put a lot of care into selecting name signs for the hearing members of the cast. Rodriguez’s is the sign for “I love you”—fold your middle and index finger down to your palm and keep the other fingers up—and then touch the index finger to the corner of your mouth. (It’s also the name sign for her character, Ilse.)
The deaf cast members are fascinated by the corners of Mientus’s mouth so his name sign is the sign for “Scorpio”—hook your index and middle finger like horns—because he’s passionate about astrology (he’s a double Scorpio) and then touch your index and middle finger to your chin.
When asked about his fashion sense, Mientus responds that he’s not really into fashion but more into style, as designers and labels always feel somewhat out of reach.
“I’ve had really varying degrees of income over the years so I’m less into brands and more into like costuming myself for any given occasion,” he says. “When you start out in theater, you never lose that gypsy hustle mode. You are always convinced that you’re broke and whatever job you’re doing is your last one no matter what your situation is.”
Rodriguez agrees, recalling a time from elementary school when Doc Martens were a thing, but she couldn’t afford them. Then her mom bought her a pair of low-top, purple ones at a garage sale.
“I might as well have walked in covered in tin foil,” she jokes. “But it basically taught me that sometimes the more interesting things are not the most expensive things, and sometimes you have to walk in knowing this is what I wanted to wear. And now, at this point, there are times when I can have what everyone has, and I still want to go to Forever 21 or buy something from a thrift store. I still get a thrill from putting together an outfit that I feel embodies who I am.”
Both Mientus and Rodriguez are returning to Spring Awakening with a self-awareness that they didn’t have when they were younger. Just as Arden has made the characters played by deaf actors actually deaf, he has incorporated aspects from all of the actors’ lives into their characters. In the Wallace production, there was a moment when Rodriguez would reveal her bald head, showing that there was something sick about Ilse, but that moment has been edited out as she’s no longer ill and she’s incorporating new things from her story.
For Mientus, he feels like his maturity and knowledge accentuates Hänschen’s self-proclaimed worldliness, an aspect of the character he feels much more fit to play now. However, he can assure you that this will actually be his last time in the show.
“Until we do it in 10 years at the MUNY!” he jokes.
“When I told Jeremy, I was doing this show again, he was like, ‘Are you playing the adult women?’” Rodriguez adds. “I was like, ‘Bite your tongue, sir!’ So I guess that will be the next step. You and I will play the adults.”
When I mention Ellen Greene returning to play Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at New York City Center Encores! Off Center this year or Cathy Rigby playing Peter Pan in her 60s, he laughs.
“I’m the Ellen Greene of Spring Awakening!” he says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted.”