At 8, Michele accompanies a friend to an open casting call for Broadway's Les Misérables, where she lands the role of Young Cosette. "I didn't know I could sing until I auditioned for Les Misérables," she tells Glamour. "My mother was like, 'You can't sing.' I'd never tried!" When she outgrows the role, the budding stage star follows up her debut with Ragtime in 1998 and Fiddler on the Roof in 2004.
Michele matures from child actor to stage ingénue with the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening. The coming-of-age rock musical, costarring Jonathan Groff, earns rave reviews and a Tony Award for best musical in 2007 – a year before Michele exits the show to pursue work in Hollywood.
Michele jumps from stage to TV, playing neurotic glee club diva Rachel Berry in the FOX musical hit, Glee. "It was written for her," co-creator Ryan Murphy says of the role. "We had the prototype, which was a Reese Witherspoon Election-esque Broadway baby that was a mix of Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. I really believed in Lea's talent because her talent was once in a lifetime."