The Deaf Stars of Musical Theater
Last year’s Broadway revival of the musical Spring Awakening by the Deaf West Theatre of Los Angeles reimagined the 19th-century story — about a community of teenagers stumbling toward adulthood — in a way that made novel use of its inclusive cast. Founded in 1991, Deaf West had always featured a mix of deaf and hearing actors in its productions; everything was signed but also spoken, with no explanation for why some characters were deaf and others hearing. Spring Awakening offered the possibility of a new approach. The main characters include Melchior, a rebel who learns more from books than from the conservative society around him; Wendla, an adolescent girl whose mother keeps her sheltered from the realities of sex; and Moritz, their academically frustrated and sexually anxious friend. Under the direction of Michael Arden and artistic director DJ Kurs, deafness became central to the plot of the show, to its miscommunications and missed connections. The Deaf West production eventually went from L.A. to Broadway, garnering wide acclaim and, this year, three Tony nominations. The show was a feat of synchrony; hearing actors sang the parts of deaf actors, and the cast performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language. The creative forces behind the show told us how it worked.