I have already gushed about the phenomenal Deaf West production of Spring Awakening a lot. I was fortunate enough to see it in both of its LA iterations, first in a tiny 99-seat theater and then in one about three times larger, and I was even more fortunate to see the Broadway transfer of the production, which ended its limited run last weekend, in December. Since I have already discussed the many reasons I love this production in detail, rather than writing another traditional review I’d like to take a look at why it’s so important this version of the musical made it to Broadway.
The original production of Spring Awakening is in many ways responsible for my love of theater. The show has meant a great deal to me and quite literally changed my life in that it directly introduced me to people who remain some of my closest friends today. I still remember being a senior in high school and listening to the cast recording over and over and watching every cast appearance I could find on Youtube until I convinced my parents to take me to New York to see it. Despite nearly a decade of attachment to the original, after seeing the Deaf West version three times I can say unequivocally that I believe it is superior to the original. Director Michael Arden and the rest of the outstanding cast and creative team have zeroed in on the deepest messages of the show on the most emotional level. They have made me understand a work I have examined inside and out for years in a brand new way.
I do not believe that Spring Awakening, as written, is a perfect show. It is definitely flawed, but I think this production compensates for those flaws better than ever. In seeing all three iterations of the show, I have noticed the areas in which changes continued to be made—in particular, the staging of the show’s finale has been different every time I have seen it, and I noticed some minor choreography changes in New York that were likely a result of adjusting the show for a larger house. The Broadway production also introduced new actors in the adult roles—Marlee Matlin, the only deaf Oscar winner to date, Camryn Manheim, Patrick Page, and Russell Harvard. The transfer marked the Broadway debut for a whopping 25 of its cast members, many of whom are deaf or hard-of-hearing. It was recently announced the production will go on tour in 2017—while it has not been determined if any of the Broadway cast will return for those engagements, I am sure the show will continue to be tweaked as it is introduced to more and more audience members and theater lovers across the country.
The representation of disability in the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening did not stop at those with hearing disabilities—Ali Stroker, who played Anna in all three iterations of the production, became the first actress in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway. It warms my heart to know that in addition to the many audience members who excitedly visited this production because they were fans of the original, it also introduced a whole new generation of theatergoers to the show in such a groundbreaking way. Additionally, it introduced the theater community to a group of extremely talented young actors whom I know will go on to do many great things.
Once again, I found myself gut-punched by many of the powerful moments in this production. The simply gorgeous staging of “Touch Me,” which has always been one of my favorite songs in the show, brought me to tears, dissuading any fears I had that the magic and intimacy of this production might be lost in a larger Broadway house. My seat was in the very last row of the mezzanine at the 1,069 seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre. I did hear some nearby audience members who were clearly taking in the production for the first time discussing at intermission that it was hard for them to tell which actors were singing and which were only signing (roles played by a deaf actor are double-cast with a hearing actor who acts as their “voice,” but all actors in the production also sign). In many ways, is this not the entire point of the production? The lines are supposed to be blurred—two actors working together to convey both the outer and inner emotions of a character. Deaf West’s mission is inclusive theater that everyone can participate in and enjoy. For some audience members, it was likely their first major exposure to sign language, and even more likely their first experience with a musical that is performed simultaneously in both sign language and traditional English. Spring Awakening is not the first Deaf West production to make it to Broadway—their Big River did in 2003 (starring Arden)—and I have a feeling it will certainly not be the last.
Thank you, Deaf West Theatre, Michael Arden, and the phenomenal cast and crew for some of my favorite theater experiences of the past couple years.