By Jo Swenson
2015 was a landmark year for Broadway. It boasted a handful of new hits as well as long-running classics. One of the aspects of last year on Broadway was the diversity of characters represented, from the 2015 Tony Award-winning Fun Home that was the first musical to star a lesbian main character to Hamilton that cast the founding fathers as people of color. Along with these new musicals there was also a revolutionary revival of Spring Awakening.
The original production of Spring Awakening opened in December 2006 starring Lea Michele, of Glee fame, and Jonathan Groff, who you can hear as the voice of Kristoff in Disney’s Frozen. At the time the production was a bold new musical that explored teenage sexuality and life at the turn of the century (the musical was based on a play by the same name). Given the setting the characters spoke formally but when it came to the songs they employed contemporary musical styles and language. The show was successful and gathered a strong following of young people before it closed in January 2009.
It is unusual for a musical to be revived on Broadway less than 10 years after the original production closed but the 2015 production added a new, revolutionary element. It was going to star hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing actors alike and be accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. As opening night of the revival approached many wondered how it was possible for a musical to star deaf actors. Many people I know thought that there was not going to be any singing, just signing. Others were unsure how many of the actors were actually going to be deaf or if it was simply going to be hearing people signing and singing. Yet director Michael Arden pulled it off beautifully.
About half of the cast was deaf and half was hearing. Of the three main characters two were deaf and one was hearing. All of the actors signed the majority of the show. The moments when they were not allowed to sign—for example, in a classroom scene where they were told off for signing instead of speaking—the words were projected onto a screen that was incorporated into the set. The characters who were portrayed by deaf actors were given another actor to sing for them. This allowed for the musical to employ deaf actors without the show being silent for the hearing audience members. It worked seamlessly and even at points added an extra depth to the characters as the actors and singers interacted. Also having deaf and hard of hearing characters play characters who are misunderstood and not listened to by the adults of the show was a powerful thing.
In addition to employing more deaf and hard of hearing actors than any other musical currently running, the show also had the first person in a wheelchair on Broadway. Well, I should clarify while there have been actors who have been in wheelchairs as part of their characters, but none of them needed the wheelchair. Ali Stroker uses a wheelchair on and off stage and was cast as a character who was not written as needing to have a wheelchair but she was the best actress for the role so she got it no matter her mobility.
This revival of Spring Awakening proved that anyone who works hard enough has a right to be on a Broadway stage. The original production did not include deaf and hard of hearing actors or anyone in a wheelchair, yet this new production musical still had the same power, if not more, with an inclusive and diverse cast. Hopefully 2015 was the beginning of a trend of diversifying Broadway.
If you would like to see what the production looked like, here is a link to one of their rehearsals (warning: mature language):
For more information about Deaf West (the theatre company that put on this production) head to www.deafwest.org