KTEP - El Paso, Texas

'Spring Awakening' Returns To Broadway — In Sign Language

Oct 13, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2015 12:22 pm

One of the best-reviewed shows on Broadway right now is a revival of a musical that closed there only six years ago. Spring Awakening is based on a play about German teenagers in the 1890s. Part dark morality play, part rock opera, the musical swept the 2007 Tony awards and made TV stars of its two main leads, Leah Michele (of Glee) and Jonathan Groff (of Looking).

The current revival, by Deaf West, features a mix of hearing and deaf actors. But everyone signs, throughout the entire show. The deaf lead actors are shadowed by doubles, hearing actors who voice their roles. But the doubles mostly remain discreetly in the background, to focus attention on the deaf actors. Still, they look at each other, egg each other on, and comfort each other. Somehow, this adds an entirely new dimension to the show — it's as if you can see each characters' subconscious.

"I loved it," says writer Sara Novic, who is deaf. "I cried at the end. I really cried."

Novic has seen plenty of plays where sign language interpreters are stuck on the side of the stage. That means to see them, deaf audience members have to sit on the side too.

"And you kind of look at the interpreter, and through the interpreter, back and forth a lot," she says. "Subtitles are easier." Novic means subtitles are less distracting than good interpreters' expressive performances. Novic had never before seen a mainstream show that assumes deaf audiences are as valuable as hearing ones.

"It felt awesome," she says.

This revival was directed by Michael Arden, a hearing actor with a long history with Deaf West. Arden feels that Spring Awakening's story lends itself to a reinterpretation with deaf characters. After all, it's about a tragic failure of communication — and people being made to feel their bodies are wrong and bad. And it resonates historically. In 1880, 10 years before the play is set, a huge international conference on deaf education in Milan affected deaf culture for generations.

"It was decided, after much deliberation, that the only way deaf students could be fully integrated into society would be if they learned to speak, read lips and not sign," Arden explains. "All sign language [was] banned in schools worldwide."

That's reflected in this staging of the musical. In it, deaf students are punished for signing and painfully forced to vocalize. And it comes out too when a hearing mother attempts to tell her deaf daughter about sex.

"The actor who is Wendla's mom is signing in this clunky way," Novic says. That underscores the chasm of communication between them. As the mother (played by Camryn Manheim) fumbles her way through her explanation, she signs a triangle: Thumbs together, forefingers pointing down in her lap.

"She signs 'vagina,' " Novic explains. "But really quickly, she moves it up to her chest so it looks like a heart," leaving Wendla baffled and with a critical lack of information. It's a literal sign of the repression that sets the musical's main tragedy in motion.

The character is surrounded by a coterie of girlfriends, one of whom happens to be in a wheelchair. She's played by Ali Stroker, the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. "I was in a car accident when I was 2 years old and became paralyzed from the chest down," she says.

Other actors have played characters in wheelchairs, or performed in them while temporarily injured. Stroker is also the first wheelchair user to graduate from NYU's Tisch School of Drama. Her dressing room had to be modified for her. The Brooks Atkinson Theater was built in 1926, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even its stage is treacherously uneven, which took Stroker by surprise during the first rehearsal.

"I'm signing, and my hands are off my wheels" she remembers with a laugh. "And all of a sudden, I'm like ... rolling away!"

Now, another actor holds her wheelchair at that point — one of many ways the cast depends on each other, says actor Andy Mientus. He knows Spring Awakening very well — he was also in the first national tour of the original production. For the revival, Mientus had to learn how to synchronize with his deaf cast mates.

"There's hundreds of internal cues in the show," he says. "There's an unseen tap on the shoulder or flick of a light that lets the deaf actor know where we are in the music."

And that makes the cast focus in a way that's unusual. "You have to look at each other when you're signing," says Arden. "It forces actors to actually play a scene together, rather than playing their own scene."

Arden experienced this himself when he was trying out for the role of Tom Sawyer in Deaf West's production of Big River more than 10 years ago. "I walked into an audition room never having met a deaf person," he recalls. He was nervous upon meeting the deaf actor playing Huck Finn. Two interpreters joined them.

"And we were able to just look at each other and play this scene. And I was so moved by that ..." Here Arden chokes up, even more than a decade later. "The first time sharing this art form with someone from a culture I thought I could never share it with."

It's emotional work, to find a musical's voice with mouth and hands. And it's not a compromise, Arden says. It can make it better.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

One of the biggest Broadway musicals of the last decade was about German teenagers in the 1890s - "Spring Awakening," a dark morality play and rock opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

ALEX BONIELLO: (As Moritz Stiefel, singing) 'Cause you know I don't do sadness.

MCEVERS: The original production swept the Tony Awards in 2007. Now "Spring Awakening" is back on Broadway, but this time, in sign language with a predominately deaf cast. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This revival is one of the best reviewed shows on Broadway right now by, among others, writer Sara Novic, who's deaf.

SARA NOVIC: I think I kind of enjoy it in the same way that everyone else does, which is, like, you feel it. I loved it. I mean, I cried at the end. I really cried.

ULABY: The cast is half hearing, half deaf. Everyone signs. But the deaf lead actors have doubles in the background who speak and sing with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

JOHN GALLAGHER: (As Martha, singing) You say time for bed now child.

ULABY: They're playing the same role, but your attention is on the deaf actress signing her heart out. Sara Novic has seen plenty of plays with sign language interpreters who are usually, she says, stuck on the side of the stage.

NOVIC: And you sit on the side and you kind of look at the interpreter and through the interpreter, back and forth a lot, like subtitles. Subtitles is easier.

ULABY: Easier, she says, because subtitles do not perform, unlike good interpreters. Then you have to pick who to watch. Never before had Novic seen anything mainstream that assumed deaf audiences are as valuable as hearing ones.

NOVIC: It felt awesome. I can't even think of another time when I felt like that. It was probably the first time seeing a show that was like what normal (laughter) normal people feel like when they go to Broadway.

ULABY: The director of this "Spring Awakening" revival is a hearing actor with a long history of performing with this company - Deaf West. Michael Arden said "Spring Awakening's" story is about 19th-century German teenagers failing to communicate with grown-ups and being told their bodies are wrong and bad. That lends itself to a deaf retelling, and it resonates historically. Arden says in 1880, 10 years before the play is set, there was a huge international conference on deaf education that affected deaf culture for generations.

MICHAEL ARDEN: It was decided after much deliberation that the only way deaf students could be fully integrated into society was if they learned to speak, read lips and also not sign. So sing language was banned in all schools worldwide.

ULABY: You see that in the play when deaf students get punished for signing and forced to vocalize and when a hearing mother attempts to tell her deaf daughter about sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frau Bergmann) In order for a woman to conceive a child...

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: It's funny, says writer Sara Novic, because...

NOVIC: The actor who is Wendla's mom signs in this clunky way.

ULABY: The point is she can't be clear with her daughter. The mom signs a triangle - thumbs together, four fingers pointing down in her lap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frau Bergmann) She must love with her whole...

NOVIC: She signs vagina (laughter) but really quickly she moves it up to her chest so it looks like a...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frau Bergmann) ...Heart.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Frau Bergmann) There, now you know everything.

ULABY: It's a literal sign of the repression that sets the musical's main tragedy in motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Mamma who bore me, Mamma who gave me...

ULABY: Wendla's group of girlfriends include one played by recent drama school graduate Ali Stroker.

ALI STROKER: I am the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway.

ULABY: Other actors have played characters in wheelchairs or performed in them while injured. Stroker's wheelchair has been part of her life for a long time.

STROKER: I was in a car accident when I was 2 years old and became paralyzed from the chest down.

ULABY: Stroker is a bright-eyed blonde in a dressing room that had to be specially constructed for her. This theater was built in 1926, long before the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even the stage is treacherously uneven, which took Stroker by surprise during her first rehearsal.

STROKER: I'm signing, you know, my hands are off my wheels and all of a sudden I'm, like rolling, away (laughter).

ULABY: Now another actor holds her wheelchair at that point in the song. It's one of many ways the cast depends on each other, says actor Andy Mientus. He was also in the first touring cast of "Spring Awakening." For this revival, he had to learn new tricks to synchronize with his deaf cast mates.

ANDY MIENTUS: There's hundreds of internal cues in the show. There's an unseen, like, tap on the shoulder or a flick of a light that lets the deaf actor know where we are in the music and that it's, you know, time for them to being their solo or whatever.

ULABY: That makes the cast focus in a way that's unusual, says director Michael Arden.

ARDEN: You have to look at each other when you're signing. It forces actors to actually be - play a scene together as opposed to both playing their own scene.

ULABY: Arden remembers the first time he experienced this when he was trying out for the role of Tom Sawyer in Deaf West's production of "Big River" more than 10 years ago.

ARDEN: I walked into an audition room never having met a deaf person.

ULABY: Then he met the deaf actor playing Huck Finn. Arden was nervous. Two interpreters joined them.

ARDEN: And we were able to just look at each other and play this scene and I thought that - I was (laughter) so moved by that, by, for the first time, sharing this art form with someone from a culture I thought I could never share it with.

ULABY: If Arden sounds choked up, he is.

ARDEN: I am getting a little teary, yeah.

ULABY: It's emotional work, he says, to find the musical's voice with mouth and hands. It's not a compromise, he says. It can make it better. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SPRING AWAKENING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And so I wait... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.