Reasonable criticism arose when Deaf West announced that they would be taking their production of “Spring Awakening” to Broadway, slated for a mere six years after the original production. Critics and New York audiences alike grumbled that little was to be improved upon from the universally acclaimed original; however, no such grumbling was heard from the audience as the show opened this past Sunday–the first Deaf West Broadway production in 12 years. The need for this new interpretation was unshakably evident.
Detailing the tragedy caused by a lack of communication through generations, the show captures the life of German teenagers at the end of the 19th century, as originally conceived in the Frank Wedekind’s play of the same title; as they are denied sex education and, to a greater extent, respect, the characters stumble into devastating situations involving more than one, not entirely unpredictable, death. Under Michael Arden’s refreshing direction, the characters now face these challenges with any disabilities their actors may have: if the actor is bound to a wheelchair, as in the case of Ali Stroker; if the actor is deaf, as is most of the cast; so will be their character.
The show began and ended in silence for the audience; in the world, no character even uttered a word. The roles were double cast for a signing and singing voice, and any line sung or read was a convenience for an able-bodied audience. First and foremost, the entire piece was made by and for the deaf, with the entire cast signing, and the occasional lines appearing on the set, although those were just as often for the able-bodied audience as they were for the deaf.
These decisions redefined the original text, in scenes as simple as a hearing teacher asking a struggling deaf student “Do you even know what you’re saying?” and in lyrics that naturally include the vernacular of the hearing, such as “Have you heard the word of your body.” The divide between a both literally and figuratively nonspeaking older generation and an expressively gesticulating youth only grew in scenes that transpired in silence, interspersed by the occasional, unintelligible shout, as each party wrestled with their communicative limitations. Also, with the double cast came inspired moments of metaphor, in which passing a guitar or a mic from a singing to a signing actor came to represent moments of surrender, of a voice lost; oppression was expressed with a more formal ASL (American Sign Language), while joy was supported with the ASL equivalent of slang, aligning with the dissonance created from 1800s characters that sing rock songs, their forward ideologies too anachronistic to survive.
Written with a purposefully vague ending, this production now forces upon its audience more questions about the nature of theatre than the original did with respect to sex education. Upon leaving one can’t help but notice an entire cast of able-bodied people in every other production, whether on Broadway or in community theatre. Arden notes in the program that “[Deaf] children were told if they failed at speech, they failed at life.” Why then should signed productions be a niche experience confined to one theatre company? Not only is this production accessible to deaf audiences and actors, the entire show is audio-described for the blind. There is no excuse for future productions not to do the same.
While this show has a limited run ending in January, one can’t miss this hopefully game-changing production; there’s no need to break the bank as tickets are only $35 for those who win the day-of lottery. Beyond that, we’ll all have to hope it won’t be another 12 years until a Deaf West production comes to Broadway.