Jonathan Groff, Lyndy Franklin and Jeromy Smith were aspiring Broadway actors sharing an apartment on 51st Street in Manhattan when Groff got the script that would change his life.
"Before I went in for my first audition, Lyndy was away working, and I read all of my audition scenes with Jeromy," Groff said. "So technically, Jeromy was my first Wendla, before Lea Michele.
"We were reading the beating scene, and Jeromy was like, 'What is this? What are you auditioning for?'"
The show was Spring Awakening, and it turned out to be a ground-breaking, generational rock musical in league with Hair and Rent. It made stars of Groff and Michele, who went on to star in Fox's Glee, and it earned 11 Tony Award nominations in 2007, including Groff's nod for best actor in a musical.
Now, with Franklin and Smith — who have since married and combined their surnames — settled in Lexington as University of Kentucky musical theater instructors, that friendship is paying off: UK Theatre is producing Spring Awakening, and Groff is in town for several days of work on the show.
"The three of us have a relationship with the show that goes back even before I was cast in it, because they were with me through the whole audition process," Groff, 28, said, sitting in the green room below UK's Guignol Theatre before Wednesday morning's rehearsal. "We've shared a journey with the show that's pretty special, so it's crazy to me that they're here directing it."
It's also crazy to the students in the show that they get to meet and work with one of the actors who made a cultural icon of Spring Awakening, a rock musical about teens in turn-of-the-previous-century Germany awakening to their sexuality.
"His interpretation is infectious through any future Melchior that will exist," said UK junior Michael Sheehy, who is playing the role that Groff originated. "So this is so exciting. He brings such a positive energy."
Sophomore Rachel Snyder, who plays the female lead, Wendla, said, "My first reaction was immense nervousness, but that just transformed into this incredible excitement that we have such a fantastic opportunity, because he has such knowledge of the show."
Theater department chair Nancy Jones said excitement over Groff's visit has been burning up social media this week among theater students. "I know some of them have had trouble sleeping this week," she said. "This is like a dream come true for them. He is who they want to be."
Meeting with the UK students for the first time on Wednesday morning, Groff talked about the origins of Spring Awakening and his own journey with the show, including the first time he met a very confident Lea Michele.
"She was so intense," Groff said. "She had been doing it since she was 12. She had done every previous workshop and introduced herself saying, 'Hi, my name is Lea Michele. I have done every previous workshop as Wendla. You must be reading for Melchior.' She did that with every Melchior that came in the room."
Groff went through many of the trials and tribulations of developing the show. He likened acting in Spring Awakening to being in college.
"It is such a gift to be in a show where everyone is around the same age and going through the same thing," Groff told the students.
Before the rehearsal, he said that the most important thing, though, is that the students don't get fixated on "living up" to Spring Awakening's iconic status.
"This show only succeeds if they feel like they created it, if they feel like they were the original cast and it's their own personal thing," Groff said. "The purpose of this show is young people who normally would not get to express themselves in this way getting to express themselves."
Of course, many of those students hope to have some of the experiences Groff has had.
It has been years since Groff and Lyndy Smith got an apartment together in New York after working together in Groff's hometown, Lancaster, Pa. Another Lexington performer, Laura Bell Bundy, was even briefly their roommate.
A few years later after living together, Groff, Bundy and Lyndy Franklin Smith were all reunited at the 2007 Tony Awards: Bundy was nominated for best actress in a musical for Legally Blonde: The Musical, Groff was up for best actor in a musical for Spring Awakening, and Smith was in the cast of A Chorus Line, which was nominated for best revival of a musical and opened the show with a performance featuring her.
Now the Franklin Smiths are back in Lexington with a smiling 15-month-old baby boy, Ben, and directing a show they saw develop from the beginning.
"We had this amazing journey in New York," Groff said. "This is like another expression of our Spring Awakening connection."
IF YOU GO
What: University of Kentucky Theatre's production of the hit musical, with music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 18-20, 25-27
Where: Guignol Theatre, UK Fine Arts Building, Rose St. at Patterson Dr.
Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 students. Available at the Singletary Center ticket office. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to Singletarycenter.com.
Learn more: Finearts.uky.edu/theatre.