Marlee Matlin earned a Best Actress Oscar at age 21 (and remains the record-holder as the youngest performer ever to win the award) and has appeared in numerous films and TV series since. Russell Harvard, meanwhile, made his film debut in the Oscar-winning drama "There Will Be Blood" as Daniel Day-Lewis' son, and earned a Theater World Award for his performance in the Off-Broadway production of Nina Raine's Tribes in 2012. Last year, he had a featured role in the FX series "Fargo" in a role not written for a Deaf performer, but adapted to suit his talents.
Joining the Team
Both Harvard and Matlin joined Spring Awakening when the transfer was announced, having seen the production in California. "My mind was blown," Matlin recalled of the original West Coast run. "The story, the acting, the writing, the direction — everything came together in one giant package." She was approached to join the show in Los Angeles, but prior commitments made it impossible. Still, she held onto her dream of performing on Broadway and waited to see if the show would continue beyond California. "At the end of June, I got a text from the one and only Michael Arden, [the production's director,] who said, 'Hello, lady, we're going to Broadway. Would you do us the honor of being involved in our production?'" she said. With the support of her family, she jumped at the opportunity. "And here I am!"
Harvard, meanwhile, also saw Spring Awakening in Los Angeles, and felt "inspired" by the production. "I just wanted to be a part of it," he said. But at 34, he was told, he was too old to play a child and too young to play one of the adult characters. Determined, he filmed himself performing the song "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd, posting the video to YouTube and proving that he could convey emotion through song. Following some more auditions, he was cast as several adult men in the show, and while he admits he would prefer to play one of the younger characters in order to perform more songs, he is excited to portray several different characters over the course of the evening. "I'd never had that experience before," he said. "I found a talent that I could use for the show. To play all these different characters is amazing."
Understandably, while both actors dreamed of appearing on Broadway someday, they did not expect to perform in a musical. "That's a dream, because I love music," Matlin said, adding that appearing in a musical is "the cherry on top" of her Broadway debut. This is not, however, her first experience performing with music, having appeared in school musicals as a child. "We did signing with songs," she said of her school productions, "so I've had a good sense of rhythm for a good number of years. We did things like 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Pinocchio and 'Mary Poppins' and A Chorus Line — I was the one who signed, alone, 'What I Did for Love.' So I've done this before."
Harvard also has experience with music, having created ASL music videos and as a founding member of HipZu Funk, a troup of Deaf dancers. "The Deaf community loves it," he said of the group's dance performances. "They love the feel! It's not just music in general — you have to feel it! You have to feel the loudness. They crave that vibration! If you have that, it will work with the Deaf community and the hearing community as well." Reconsidering History
Without changing the original script, Deaf West's production of Spring Awakening adds extra layers to the story of angst-ridden and sexually confused 19th century German teenagers by depicting the struggles Deaf children have faced throughout history. In one memorable scene, a teacher mocks his Deaf students for struggling to speak orally, and forbids them from using Sign Language to communicate — an accurate depiction of how Deaf children were treated following the Second International Conference on Education of the Deaf, commonly known as the Milan Conference.
"I've heard stories from people who went to Deaf schools — where I actually went myself — that that had happened to them, that they weren't allowed to sign, that they had to have their hands behind their backs," Harvard said. Matlin, sympathetic to the mindsets of the time, believes that the rules were made in ignorance rather than in malice. "People didn't have the knowledge of what was best for Deaf children," she said. "They thought they were doing what was best for them, that you shouldn't use your hands to speak and you should try to speak with your voice, but that's not the case for Deaf children. It blows your mind to see what happened!
"I can't imagine what Deaf kids in the 1800s went through," Matlin continued, wondering how those children would feel if they saw how much progress the community has made in the century since the play debuted. "Today, we have laws like the ADA that guarantees people the right to sign." Harvard agreed: "Today, we're allowed to be ourselves," he said, noting the wide range of identities that are recognized for people with hearing problems: hard-of-hearing, hearing-impaired, Deaf (part of the Deaf community) and deaf (unable to hear but not part of the overall Deaf community).
Matlin, as the Deaf daughter of hearing parents, connected with this interpretation of the musical immediately: "I started signing when I was five," she recalled. "I went to an oral school before that. I remember being told not to sign and just to speak, but I wasn't necessarily exposed to sign language, so I didn't know about it." At five years old, she attended her first Sign Language classes and met other Deaf people for the first time. "I had never seen hands moving around before," she said. "That was life-changing for me." She also connected with the musical's themes of communication, generational conflict and domestic abuse. "That happened in my life," she said. The memories are so painful that she avoids watching the more violent scenes of the musical from the wings.
Harvard, meanwhile, thinks the musical is a good fit for high school classrooms. "It could expand knowledge that people aren't aware of," he said. "There are a lot of issues that can be talked about."
Progress and Opportunities
Spring Awakening is Deaf West's second musical to come to Broadway after the 2003 production of Big River, and while both Matlin and Harvard are optimistic about increased opportunities for Deaf performers on Broadway, they acknowledged a long road ahead. Harvard's first professional stage performance was in Deaf West's production of Rachel Sheinkin and Groovelily's Sleeping Beauty Wakes in 2007. The show was considered for a Broadway transfer — but members of the creative team, Harvard said, were concerned about using Deaf actors on Broadway, and it has still not reached New York.
"We need more writers that are brave and bold and fearless and want to use Deaf actors on TV and on Broadway," Harvard added. "Many writers aren't like that."
Matlin agreed: "So many people don't have the ability to get into the mainstream because diversity hasn't reached across to people who are Deaf," she said. "People are still afraid to think of what might be if there's a Deaf character in the show — how will it affect the project financially?" Like Harvard, Matlin has played characters who were not originally written as Deaf, but when she was right for the role, the writers and creative teams were willing to accommodate her needs.
"We have to stop judging people based on what abilities or disabilities they have, and thinking of Deaf people as having a handicap," she said emphatically. "We're just people who happen not to hear. That's all. If we have the talent and the ability to perform it, give us the opportunity. It's as simple as that. We each have our own skillset that we bring to the table."
Diversity is vital in all walks of life, she added. "It's more authentic to see somebody who's Deaf, or somebody who's Black, or somebody in a wheelchair. It expresses the diversity in our culture."