Signs of the Times- A History of SPRING AWAKENING's Deaf West Theatre on Broadway and Beyond!
"Theatre for the deaf? On Broadway?" It's a question that many theatre fans have asked since July 7, when official word came that Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening would land on Broadway this fall. The upcoming production, which will run September 8 through January 9 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, will sound the same to fans of the 2006 Tony-winning musical, but it will be performed simultaneously in American Sign Language by a cast of 27.
Wait...what? That's right- this production, which marks the first Broadway revival of the show since it closed in 2009, comes complete with ASL, and though the concept seems revolutionary, this is far from the first time that it has been done (and has worked). Let's review:
The North Hollywood-based Deaf West Theatre Company has served as a model for deaf theatre worldwide since it was founded 1991, by Ed Waterstreet. Noted for being the first professional resident Sign Language Theatre in the western half of the United States, the institution's productions, actors and directors have won more than 80 theatre awards for artistic merit.
DWT was created to directly improve and enrich the cultural lives of the 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who live in the Los Angeles area, providing exposure and access to professional theatre, filling a void for deaf artists and audiences. Just some of their recent productions have included Pinocchio, Children of a Lesser God, My Sister in This House, and Cyrano.
Spring Awakening director Michael Arden already has a rich history with the theatre company. In 2009, Arden led DWT and Center Theatre Group's joint production of Pippin, alongside deaf actor Tyrone Giordano. Directed by Jeff Calhoun, the New York Times' Charles Isherwood said of the performances: "They share the role with an easygoing rapport that turns pointedly testy when Pippin faces moments of inner conflict. Mr. Arden sings with an expressiveness that is matched by Mr. Giordano's warm, questing performance." He continued: "Although the device of using two actors in some roles is obviously determined by the presence of hearing-impaired actors in a musical, in the case of Pippin it is a trenchant embodiment of the character's inability to settle on a fixed self, to determine who he really wants to be."
"Alright, cool. So this has worked in LA," say east coasters. Even more notably however, DWT successfully staged another musical over a decade ago that made it all the way to Broadway. Big River ran for 67 performances in the summer of 2003, led by the previously mentioned Giordano, Daniel H. Jenkins, Michael McElroy, Melissa Van Der Schyff, and who else, but Michael Arden as Tom Sawyer. The revival and McElroy both earned Tony nominations, and the company even picked up a Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre in 2004.
Isherwood wrote in a Variety review: "Sound confusing? Distracting? Or worse, worthy? No sirree - exhilarating is more like it. This big-hearted, beautifully conceived production is not just a sterling revival of a sturdy musical, but also an eye-opening adventure, a new kind of theatrical experience. What's more, it is both a practical illustration of, and a moving homage to, the embracing humanity of Twain's touchstone novel."
So will this model translate on a Broadway stage for Spring Awakening? We think so. And furthermore, so do the show's creators.
Following the recent West Coast production, Duncan Sheik said, "Spring Awakening is very much about the difficulty that parents and children have with communication. So there's a beautiful metaphor to it being done with this particular set of actors. The musicianship and the vocal performances of the Broadway cast being assembled are second to none, and that combined with the amazing physicality of the signing actors really raises the emotional bar."
"I couldn't be more grateful than I am to Deaf West, Michael, and Ken," Steven Sater added. "It will surely be one of the thrills of my life to watch our young cast sing to New York, every night, in this pure language of the heart."
The complete 28-member cast of Spring Awakening is Robert Ariza, Miles Barbee, Katie Boeck, Alex Boniello, Joshua Castille, Lizzy Cuesta, Daniel N. Durant, Treshelle Edmond, Sandra Mae Frank,Kathryn Gallagher, Sean Grandillo, Elizabeth Greene, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Van Hughes, Lauren Luiz, Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Camryn Manheim, Daniel Marmion, Academy and Golden Globe Award winner and Emmy Award nominee Marlee Matlin, Austin McKenzie, Andy Mientus, Patrick Page, Ren, Krysta Rodriguez, Daniel David Stewart, Ali Stroker,Alexandra Winter, and Alex Wyse.
Spring Awakening, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2007, will play a strictly limited Broadway engagement at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street) with previews beginning on Tuesday, September 8 and opening night set for Sunday, September 27. The show will run 18 weeks only, through Saturday, January 9, with no extension possible.