Sign to Sing: New Broadway Big River Is Confluence of Deaf, Hearing and Musical Theatre

News   Sign to Sing: New Broadway Big River Is Confluence of Deaf, Hearing and Musical Theatre
"It sounds like the punchline to many jokes: doing musical theatre for the deaf," explained director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun about the upcoming American Sign Language adaptation of the musical Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Broadway.
Big River director Jeff Calhoun (left) with sign interpreter Jon Wolfe Nelson.
Big River director Jeff Calhoun (left) with sign interpreter Jon Wolfe Nelson. Photo by Ernio Hernandez

However, the staging — already honored as Best Musical from the Los Angeles Ovation Awards and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle — is a serious, groundbreaking and ambitious undertaking, combining deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people into a production that endeavors to not neglect any of them.

At a June 18 press preview for the show, Calhoun said the tradition of theatre for deaf audiences is to have an interpreter on the side of the stage, forcing the eye away from the physical drama. "So, they miss the show," Calhoun said. "What we wanted to do was make the signing the center of the focus and not split focus."

He explained, "What I tried to accomplish — and what I hope we're accomplishing — is a marriage of the hearing world and the deaf culture. Every moment of the show is both signed and spoken. I didn't want there to be one moment in the show that favored the hearing audience or the deaf audience."

Calhoun uses many different methods to achieve this effect — employing hearing actors to voice the roles played by deaf performers, doubling performers on one role or having a hearing actor sign as they speak and sing.

"We found Ty[rone] Giordano and it became clear he had to be Huck: So now you already know, you have a deaf Huck," Calhoun told Playbill On-Line about his casting process. "How are you going to voice for Huck? Well, it makes sense that if you have Mark Twain — he's actually all their voices — have Twain voice for Huck, therefore Twain has to be hearing. "I found another great deaf actor — Troy Kotsur — and I wanted him to be Pap. But, since I already had Twain voicing for Huck, I didn't want to use that same device twice. So, I thought 'Why don't we have two actors, literally two actors, playing one role?' So, we had a hearing actor and a deaf actor, and collectively they become Pap. There is no Pap if they are not both on stage and [the process continued] just down the line that way."

Casting was just the first step in a long journey; then came rehearsals. "Long," was the one word Calhoun used to describe them.

"[The rehearsal period is] about four times longer than a regular show," Calhoun observed. "You have to understand, the deaf actors have to spend a lot of time above and beyond rehearsals seeing and feeling the music that they can't hear. And the hearing actors, also above and beyond rehearsal time, had to put in weeks and in some cases months of learning sign language because every time they speak, they have to sign."

Having choreographed Broadway revivals of Bells Are Ringing, Annie Get Your Gun and Grease (which he also directed), Calhoun said his dance background served him well in blending the "visual art form" of signing into the show. "It just makes the whole show a ballet. Even the book scenes seem choreographed."

At the show's center is actor Tyrone Giordano who makes his Broadway debut in the title role he originated at the Deaf West Theatre and reprised for the Mark Taper Forum run. Giordano, who was born deaf, told Playbill On-Line — through interpreter Jon Wolfe Nelson — that as a child, he "went to a few shows. [There was] a Christmas special that I used to go to all the time called Critters. I loved it." But, the curly-haired, soon-to-be matinee idol never dreamed of being on the stage, let alone Broadway.

"It's undescribable, I don't even know how to describe how fantastic it is," he signed. "It's a dream come true even though I didn't ask for it. It's amazing."

Voicing the role of Huck and playing Mark Twain is Dan Jenkins — who was Tony nominated for his turn as Huck in the original 1985 production of the Roger Miller-William Hauptman musical. The role, however, is not exactly old-hat for the actor.

"I usually forget things," Jenkins told Playbill On-Line. "As soon as I've finished a show, it is gone, blown out of my short-term memory. But the emotional life is still there, so when moments come up — like there's this moment in the second when Mary Jane kisses him and I just remember that beat so fully — so, I have to kind of weed away whatever kind of emotional memory I have."

Jenkins revealed to Playbill On-Line, "Ty[rone] is so beautiful in this role and matching what he's doing emotionally is the challenge for me. When he's hot, I've got to be hot, when he's cooler, I can't be hot. I am definitely following him. At its best, my job will be invisible. You'll just be watching Ty's performance."

Calhoun said, "I feel like this is newsworthy and I'm incredibly proud to be here... I have to say that's nothing short of a miracle. It took a lot of people stepping up to the plate to get us here. Very brave people."

To view photos from this event, click here.

The new Broadway staging of Big River begins performances July 1 at the American Airlines Theatre and opens July 24. The Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre present the work in association with the Mark Taper Forum.

Tickets can be purchased by calling (212) 719-1300 or at the box office, 227 West 42 Street. For more information, visit

The storybook set design of <i>Big River.</i>
The storybook set design of Big River. Photo by Ernio Hernandez
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