With the current revival of Spring Awakening, the Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theatre Company has come to Broadway for the second time since 2003. Many were surprised to see Spring Awakening back after the original closed only six years ago. But director (and popular stage and screen actor) Michael Arden's fresh take, integrating American Sign Language into the production and re-creating a number of roles as Deaf characters, has introduced audiences to a method of storytelling we didn't know we needed.
This added element pushes audiences to really focus, leaning forward in their seats. Think reading — the way your imagination conjures the world suggested by the text. The use of ASL encourages active engagement. With a piece like Spring Awakening, about the intensity of adolescent upheaval, this participatory experience makes the show even more compelling. With that in mind, here are nine shows we want Deaf West to conquer next:
9. Next to Normal
It's taken many years, but the success of Deaf West is a wonderful indication of how far our culture has come in accepting differently abled people as a vital part of mainstream society. Perhaps the next frontier in this evolution is the realm of mental health. A Deaf West production of Next to Normal would take inclusivity to the next level. The rock-and-roll energy of the music expresses the high stakes of these characters' struggles and ASL could exacerbate this power. Moreover, the rock score and instrumentation would enable Deaf audiences to feel the music's vibrations and connect to the live theatre experience as they have with Spring Awakening.
Another rock musical sure to shake the rafters is Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking 1996 Rent. In its act one finale, "La Vie Boheme," the cast passionately sings a toast "to people living with, living with, living with—not dying from disease!" This message about embracing the HIV-positive as vital members of our community was revolutionary when Rent first opened and still has ground to cover today. (The signing could also morph into new exciting choreography.) Form will match content if ASL were used to convey this message of togetherness.
There was a beautiful moment in the Deaf West production of Big River during the song "Muddy Water," when the singing cut out and left the ASL chorus to stand on its own. The audience knew this ASL chorus, having already heard it with music and lyrics. The effect was a deeper meaning and a new understanding of the signed text. It's the ultimate magic of theatre, turning the audience into participatory learners. Carousel's "When The Children Are Asleep" could achieve the equivalent effect and acquire increased intimacy (and sensuality) when performed silently in ASL. Even more powerfully, our protagonist Julie Jordan could deliver some of "What's The Use of Wond'rin?" in ASL as if she dare not speak out loud the possibility that her love, Billy, is not a good man.
Fiddler On The Roof depicts a community of turn-of-the-century Jews living an insular life in their shtetl of Anatevka, closed off from an increasingly violent mainstream Russia. The delineation of insiders and outsiders (be it the Jews within Russia at large, or the Russians infiltrating Anatevka during the pogroms) could be palpably brought to life by the use of ASL — an enactment of the idea that these people do not speak each other's language.
Even more firmly grounded in its themes of community and the role of storytelling in group culture is the popular 1990 musical Once On This Island, about the power of love in overcoming social barriers. As with Fiddler On The Roof, ASL could be incorporated to highlight the differences between people. Once On This Island takes the conflict to a progressive place, with the characters ultimately transcending the class division. Characters who sing and sign in counterpoint eventually join in a new kind of harmony.
Falsettos also explores themes of social isolation and community. With its sung-through format and strikingly conversational lyrics, Falsettos seems to take place in a heightened reality where the characters know that they are in a musical. They acknowledge the performative aspect of what's going on. This opens up tremendous possibilities for staging (the surreal is immediately justified in the world of Falsettos) as it did with Spring Awakening. The psychedelic dreamscape of "March of the Falsettos" would feel more intense, yet also more relatable, if the language were grounded in the tactile realness of ASL. The addition of ASL to other moments, like "The Baseball Game," could pay off in comic gold when the audience is in on the joke, as characters repeat in ASL lyrics that have already been sung, adding layers of ironic commentary to this satire of "Jewish boys who cannot play baseball."
To see the gang members leap across the stage in the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography is as rich a relishing of the performing arts as there is. Adding an ASL component would work the theatrical magic of making the story more immediate and real by virtue of increased presentationalism. We'd love to see a choreographer take on the challenge of preserving the ballet quality of the show while adding ASL. As far as plot, perhaps the hearing/Deaf divide of the cast can be literally distributed between the rival gangs. Maybe Deaf actors portray the minority of the Sharks, or maybe each gang is a mix of hearing and Deaf members, which brings an air of compassion to each group. Either way, the added emphasis on language barriers would be fascinating and effective.
Godspell's touchy-feely peace-and-love milieu aims to evoke a state of open-hearted listening in the audience and its characters. The gentleness of Jesus is front and center in the child-like interplay with the apostles as we watch the Gospel of Matthew via sketches reminiscent of a 1960s variety show. It's important we take in the silliness, tumbling and emotional biblical scenarios — not just the words. The use of ASL would focus theatregoers on the whole presentation. After all, hearing attendees may not be fluent in ASL. Like children in wide-eyed awe of their first show, we would spend passages of the show in rapt attention to the physical production without specific text to limit our imaginative experience.
1. Into the Woods