With a Grammy category dedicated solely to musical theatre, it’s safe to say that Broadway is largely defined by how good the music is. So when I heard that Broadway actor-turned-stage-director Michael Arden is taking Spring Awakening, a musical near and dear to my heart, and reinventing it with American Sign Language, my first thought was: how?
Spring Awakening is, in the barest of definitions, a coming-of-age story. It’s a rock musical that I, in my first time listening to it, thought to be more messed up and more tragic than it could have been. The musical is set in late 19th-century Germany, and follows a group of teenagers as they discover their own sexualities while faced with adults determined to prevent them from exploring their own lives and bodies. When the play which this musical was based on was first released, it was censored for its unashamed and blunt portrayal of issues such asrape, abortion, the queer identity, child abuse and suicide. Looking back at it now and seeing it in a new light, Spring Awakening is neither messed up nor tragic for the heck of it. It’s not even didactic in the way people seem to assume it is. It’s a musical that’s nothing if not honest and personal, and under Michael Arden’s careful hand, it comes alive again with a newfound intimacy and an intense poignancy.
The musical opened last 2006, with Glee’s Lea Michele and now Broadway vet Jonathan Groff starring as the show’s main pair, and proceeded to sweep that season’s Tony Awards. Last July 2015, Arden spearheaded the first Broadway revival of Spring Awakening by moving it from its home at the Deaf West Theatre and into New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. With him came a cast of both non-hearing and hearing actors and a show presented simultaneously in spoken English, sung songs and choreographed ASL. The result is another take at Spring Awakening, yes, but with double the passion the 2006 production had and with the content even more hard-hitting than before.
Deaf characters are introduced into the story this time around, and for a musical where communication is a key theme, it opens up the show for a different kind of in-depth exploration. It cuts open the musical everyone had gotten to know and love, and bares its bones not just to the audience but especially to the musical theatre community. ASL is a constant part of the choreography for Spring Awakening, and each actor uses ASL, whether or not they’re singing, speaking or signing. The spotlight is on the deaf actors for majority of the production, all of whom are accompanied by separate actors doing the singing and speaking off-stage. The entire cast works together to make Spring Awakening what it is, may it be teaching the hearing cast members ASL or working their way around with non-verbal cues between songs, and the effect is a musical that is enchanting in its own right, with or without the music.
It’s not often that ASL and deaf culture is acknowledged in its entirety as a limitless world in itself, and surely not in a community where music is such a defining factor. It’s rare enough that the entertainment world sincerely and earnestly depicts different cultures and languages co-existing in one storyline. Spring Awakening subverts the idea that musical theatre is strictly for the musically inclined, and reminds the world that music or not, there’s always a story to be found and acknowledged, no matter how personal or intimate.
As the characters wrestle with sexuality and growing up, the Deaf West Theatre’s production drives home the idea that sexuality, especially for those coming of age, is something universal, something that needs to be talked about and shared instead of swept under the rug. With the help of its mixed cast and the poignancy already present in the show, this revival unifies multiple communities while also widening viewers’ perspective.