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'Spring Awakening' Is the Best Broadway Musical You’ve Never Heard

The Deaf West theater company's re-envisioning of the controversial Broadway play reminds us that the only thing separating the deaf from the hearing is a language.
October 1, 2015, 9:00pm

Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Deaf West Theater

It starts in silence. Maybe it's a shift in lighting, or in the way the actors carry themselves—though they've been on stage, curtain open this whole time—but the audience senses something and is rapt almost instantly. Center stage, Wendla (played by deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank), examines her 19th-century pajama-clad self in a glassless mirror frame. On the other side of the frame, her hearing counterpart, actress Katie Boeck, stands in modern clothing. The two make eye contact, then exchange objects—a guitar to Boeck, who will serve as Wendla's voice, and a dress, signifying Frank's role as the embodiment of Wendla to be watched. The moment sets a standard of equality and open communication that becomes the focus of the night.

Spring Awakening, originally a play by Frank Wedekind published in 1891, examines the sexually and intellectually repressive culture of 19th-century Germany, and the fantasies and tragedies, it bred. Because of its explicit nature and exploration of extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, domestic violence, and suicide, it was frequently banned over the course of the next two centuries. It finally arrived on Broadway in 2006 in the form of a Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical adaptation that won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, and Score.

Though the voice actors are integral parts of the show, the Deaf actors are undoubtedly the stars, an interesting inversion from the ASL interpreter clad in black and relegated to the orchestra pit or a small box in the corner of your television set.

In September 2014, Deaf West, an LA-based theater company featuring Deaf actors who perform in American Sign Language (ASL), began a re-imagined production of the show, which opened as the Broadway revival earlier this week. An essential part of the process was the play's translation, for which "ASL Masters" were brought in. The experts' goal was to create a linguistic profile for the show in keeping with its historical context, while also taking into account tone, rhythm, and the poetry, humor, and idiomatic expressions that vary greatly between ASL and English.

True to the revolutionary nature of the show, this production of Spring Awakening executes a feat that's only possible using sign language: The entire show is performed in two languages simultaneously. Because ASL and English function in two different modalities—visual and auditory—each language can be represented in full without interfering with the audience's understanding of the other, something that couldn't happen with two spoken languages said atop each other.

Ensemble photo from 'Spring Awakening,' including actress Ali Stroker, who is the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Deaf West Theater

The cast is split evenly between deaf and hearing characters. Frank, who has been performing as Wendla with Deaf West for over a year, said the experience of being onstage with someone voicing her character is "both unique and rare," because they're actively "developing a relationship on the stage. Onstage [Boeck] acts as my subconscious," Frank explained. "The audience can literally see me checking in with her on what to do—just like we do in real life."


As Frank suggested, the fact of this bilingualism onstage not only makes the show accessible to two sets of audiences, but enriches the narrative. Michael Arden makes the tie explicit in his director's note—11 years before Wedekind's play was published, the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, or the Milan Conference, sent deaf education into a dark age by effectively banning the use of sign language. Teachers addressed deaf children using spoken languages, and children, whose hands were often bound in school, were forced to communicate through speech. Those who couldn't learn to speak clearly were termed "oral failures." The character Moritz, whose designation as a "failure" in school begins his downward spiral, is played by deaf actor Daniel Durant, highlighting this parallel. At the schoolhouse, a hearing instructor yells at Moritz and the rest of the class in English, rendering the deaf students lost; later, during the song "All That's Known," he takes the Deaf students aside to work on speech exercises rather than actually telling them what they missed.

Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Deaf West Theater

With the revocation of a right to language, deaf people's self-expression was categorically prohibited. But this control of bodies went beyond the classroom and into the realm of the social and sexual. Deaf people were a target of the Eugenics movement spearheaded by, among others, Alexander Graham Bell. Marriage between deaf couples was all but outlawed, and many deaf people were subject to sterilization—another link between deaf history and the sexual oppression illustrated in the play.

Both this communication breakdown between deaf and hearing worlds and the sexual repression of the day is synthesized succinctly in the show's opening scene, in which Wendla asks her mother where babies come from. Her mother, hearing, speaks to Wendla in English, supplementing herself with some halfhearted signs in English word order (ASL has its own grammar separate from English), leaving the audience to question whether, even if they wanted to, these two people have the capacity to truly communicate.


Deaf West's artistic director David J.Kurs recalled this moment between Wendla and her mother as one that stuck out to him originally in the decision to do a Deaf West version of Spring Awakening. "[It] struck close to home," he said. "It's a scene that happens far too often in our community. Parents don't always strive to communicate with their deaf children."

Though the voice actors are integral parts of the show, the deaf actors are undoubtedly the stars, an interesting inversion from the ASL interpreter clad in black and relegated to the orchestra pit or a small box in the corner of your television set; except when they are interacting with their deaf counterparts, the voices of Wendla and Boeck never face the audience.

"The general principle in Deaf West shows is that the deaf actor is nearly always at the center of the staging, and the hearing counterpart is nearly always at or away from the periphery of the scene," said Kurs. "So perhaps turning away from the audience is a way to direct the audience's eyes toward the deaf actor."

The character of Melchior, though, presents an interesting exception—played by hearing actor Austin McKenzie, Melchior communicates in both English and ASL, but is simultaneously fluent in both. A few of the other schoolchildren perform in ASL and English simultaneously, but only in short stints. McKenzie, who first learned ASL as a camp counselor for people with physical and cognitive special needs, felt thankful to already be able to simultaneously communicate in ASL and English. "But the truth is, I knew nothing about anything," he admitted. "During a show my thoughts are constantly bending back and forth between ASL grammar and English word order. For instance, when I say the line, 'It made an atheist out of me' in English, the ASL translation would be 'BOOK INFLUENCE ME NOT BELIEVE IN GOD ME.' The English clause is positive; the ASL negative. There is also no [one] sign for atheist. Not to mention that both sentences only have a single word in common."


Despite the difficult task assigned him, McKenzie carries off a heartfelt performance that again reinforces themes of an intellectual "awakening" for the characters and the audience. "I can best sum it up by saying that it feels as if I am doing two completely separate shows in my mind, in different worlds, at the same time," McKenzie said. Melchior's function as our rebel hero—who constantly rejects the conventional wisdom of his elders—is underscored by his position between two cultures and languages. "I believe Melchior must know both languages because he desperately needs to spread goodness and awareness to the sub-par world around him," McKenzie explained. "What better awareness to be spread than someone who intentionally chooses to look past communication barriers that others will not? It's a hero's journey."

Like Melchior, Deaf West's Spring Awakening is on a mission of enlightenment: "I hope that our hearing audiences understand that only a language separates us from them," said Kurs. "You and I, as members of the deaf community, are all too familiar with the ways deaf children do not always get the exposure to language that they so richly deserve. I hope we have fostered an understanding that we need to do more to narrow the divide between both worlds."

As both a lover of theater who grew up in mainstream hearing school speaking English, and a deaf person who uses ASL, I often feel the embodiment of this chasm between two languages and cultures. Spring Awakening performs the miracle of making both English and ASL the norm, and allowing audience members to consume all of both languages at once. The very first word everyone on stage says in choreographed unison is "heaven"—and, at least for me, that's what this show feels like.

Sara Nović is the author of Girl at War. Follow her on Twitter.

Spring Awakening is now playing at Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York.