Deaf West’s Spring Awakening Transcript
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Okay, now to our show. From TodayTix and Theater People, this is “Broadway Backstory,” the podcast that finds out how shows develop from an idea to a full Broadway production. I’m your host Patrick Hinds. Today we’re getting the backstory of the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening.” Through conversations with the show’s original creators, director, producer and stars, we’ll find out how this little show that could developed from a 10-day workshop to block box production on LA’s Skid Row to a famed regional theater house in Beverly Hills, and ultimately became a critically acclaimed and Tony nominated beloved Broadway revival.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
What you’re hearing here is a clip of the Broadway cast of Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” performing on “Nate Night with Seth Meyers.” There’s no cast album for this production, so in order to experience the show, you have to search the internet for video clips like this. But it occurs to me now, having just watch the clip, that this seems right; that the glory of this production is the way the deaf and hearing actors communicate with each other and the audience through the combination of sign language and song. It’s something you have to see to really get. I know now, after interviewing just about everyone involved with this production, that it’s technical, but it looks magical.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Let’s start at the beginning. “Spring Awakening” with music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater is based on the 1891 play by the same name written by Frank Wedekind. Plot wise there’s a lot going on in the show; but in a nutshell it’s about teenagers grappling with authority and sexuality and trying to understand their place in the world. For the Deaf West production, many of the many roles were played by deaf actors who communicated with sign language, but also had a counterpart who would simultaneously speak or sing what the deaf actor was signing.
We’ll start with the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a man named David Kurs who goes by DJ. He’ll give us some background on the theater company. DJ is deaf, so we communicated via email. I emailed him a list of questions. He wrote out his responses and emailed them back. With the understanding that we needed audio, DJ asked me to find somebody that had been involved with the production to voice his responses. So throughout the episode, DJ’s words will be voiced by actor Alex Wyse, who played Georg in the production.
Alex Wyse: Deaf West Theatre was founded in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet, an actor who had just left the National Theatre of the Deaf. He was surprised there wasn’t a local theater for the deaf community; and along with his NTD counterparts, who had just moved to LA, he founded Deaf West Theatre. We’ve been performing in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. Our mission statement is as follows: Founded in Los Angeles in 1991, Deaf West Theatre engages artists and audiences in unparalleled theater experiences inspired by deaf culture and the expressive power of sign language. Committed to innovation, collaboration, and training, Deaf West Theatre is the artistic bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.
Patrick: There’s on other piece to the work that Deaf West creates that isn’t spelled out in its mission statement. Actor Andy Mientus, who was intimately involved with this production, articulated it really well in our interview.
Andy: Deaf West’s mission is not to create theater for the deaf. It’s to create theater for deaf and hearing audiences together.
Patrick: Meaning that Deaf West creates shows where deaf actors are front and center, but the shows are mean to be enjoyed equally by deaf and hearing audiences. They have had a lot of success with this model. In addition to producing critically acclaimed productions for the greater Los Angeles area at their home space in North Hollywood, in 2003 their production of “Big River” transferred to Broadway where it was nominated for two Tony Awards. In 2009 they mounted a critically acclaimed production of “Pippin” at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum. One thing that both of those productions had in common was the actor Michael Arden in leading roles.
Actor Andy Mientus – who, I should mention, is also Michael Arden’s husband – had toured with “Spring Awakening” and, while on tour, had seen the Deaf West production of “Pippin.” So a few years later, when Deaf West began to think about mounting another big musical; and it happened to coincide with Andy and Michael look for a project to direct; Andy had an idea. Here’s Andy and then DJ Kurs. Just a note: I interviewed actors Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, and Alex Boniello together; so sometimes there is some overlap.
Andy: When I was doing “Spring Awakening,” I had always thought it would be the ideal show for Deaf West. I feel like the seed of that came from when I was doing it at the Ahmanson, they were doing “Pippin” at the Mark Taper. Our cast went and sat in on a rehearsal. I feel like that’s got to be where it came from. So we brainstormed on that idea for a day and a half and just figured out all the different ways that it could work and why it would be special. So we pitched it to DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West, at Intelligentsia Coffee on Sunset Boulevard …
Krysta: Where all good things happen.
Andy: … where all good things happen.
Alex Boniello: I had seen the show on Broadway and at the Ahmanson in LA. When Michael Arden brought the idea to me at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silverlake in 2013, I was skeptical. Didn’t the tour just close a couple of years ago? But when they brought up the opening scene where a mother attempts to explain the birds and the bees to her daughter, everything clicked. I thought to myself, that’s a classic experience that nearly every deaf person goes through. Ninety percent of deaf people are born into hearing families, and there’s a disconnect that begins at birth.
Andy: DJ committed to a 10-day workshop where we were going to work on three different scenes from it, just to see if the idea could stick.
Patrick: One of the first people to join the creative team for that workshop was Spencer Liff, and actor who’d come from Broadway to Los Angeles and found success as a choreographer on the hit Fox series, “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Spencer: Michael Arden and I had known each other for years in New York. We had been friends, and I knew how special he was and how special his mind was. He moved out to LA around the same time I did. There’s theater in LA, but it’s not a ton. You sort of have to make your own theater there, especially if you want to do something new. So he came to me. He had worked with Deaf West. I had not. He basically said, do you want to do something really scary and crazy; and of course I was like, yes.
Patrick: I have asked a lot of what I feel like are silly questions over the course of the interviews I did for this episode. I wasn’t even sure that I was supposed to use the word deaf, although I have been assured that that is the proper term. So I was nervous to ask about the process of auditioning deaf actors for that original workshop, but I was curious; and so I figured our listeners would be, too. I had to ask. Here’s Michael Arden, who was very kind; oh, and who was also speaking very softly, because we did this interview in a rehearsal studio during his lunch break from a new show he’s directing. Anyway, auditioning deaf actors:
Michael: Well, that’s a great question. Usually you invite the deaf actor in. I have an interpreter with me, or I sign for myself; but I prefer to have an interpreter, just in case I miss something. It’s just helpful to have an interpreter on hand. Then with the deaf actors, I had another deaf actor- reader. I would just watch them act. Acting is acting. It’s a really exciting process, because you’re not listening to someone sing or listening to their voice. You’re really seeing how they connect with another actor and how they physicalize, how they choose to interpret the dialog. Sign language isn’t an exact language. It’s not like there’s an exact translation from English. So a lot of times you can get insight into an actor from how they choose to translate the English into the sign language. So that, oftentimes, clues me into how they think.
Patrick: I was curious to hear about this from a deaf actor’s perspective, so I reached out Daniel Durant. Daniel was cast as Moritz, one of the teenagers at the center of “Spring Awakening” for that original workshop, and stayed with the show all the way through the Broadway run. I interviewed him via Skype and through an interpreter who spoke Daniel’s answers to my questions as Daniel signed them. Here’s what the audition process was like from his perspective.
Daniel: We all kind of sat around with the script. We had lines that we had to memorize, you know, and we would just try to sign those lines in a way that matched the music. I was a little overwhelmed, because it’s a musical, and I’m a strongly deaf person. Music has never been a huge part of my life. So I didn’t really have any idea how that would work. I was a little nervous at first.
Patrick: It sounds incredibly naïve to say this now, but it became clear to me just in that moment that, at least at that point, Daniel didn’t really know what music was; and here he was, auditioning for a musical. I had to ask him about that.
When people talk about music to you – what is music to you? Or, what was music to you before you started working on this production?
Daniel: Hm. It’s funny you ask that question, because now I can finally answer that. Before I couldn’t even give you an answer as to what music meant. Before “Spring Awakening,” I really didn’t have a sense of music. Now, I enjoy vibration and feeling bass in music. I like that, but in terms of what music sounds like and what hearing people get out of music and all the ways music connects with hearing people, that part I didn’t understand. Going through this experience with “Spring Awakening,” I have picked up more of an understanding of that.
Patrick: So then I had to know: How do you direct a musical with actors who not only can’t hear the music but also don’t really know what music is? Here’s Michael Arden again, and then choreographer Spencer Liff.
Michael: You have to think about what is music. It’s math. Okay, so, you don’t know what music is. Okay, here’s a piece of music. So we’d look at something, and just start explaining theory to them. There are this many beats – tap their chest. It stays the same speed. So if you take this many steps, you’ll get that far across the stage. If you take them faster, that’s a tempo – you start to explain music. It was slow. It was a slow process, but what’s nice is, when you slow down, it forces you reexamine things you sort of think you know. It was a lot of fun.
Spencer: We thought we were going to get six songs done in all these scenes. We ended up getting two songs done and barely getting through anything. It was the hardest experience I’d ever had in a rehearsal room and the most – I just had no idea how to work in the process, with the interpreters. It was so new, but there were these moments of beauty that were created in those first workshops that made everybody excited and made everyone want to keep pushing forward.
Patrick: The next significant step for the production came in the fall of 2014. After the success of the original workshop, Deaf West funded a full production to be mounted in downtown LA in a 99-seat theater in a facility called Inner City Arts. By this point, Andy Mientus, who had codirected the workshop, had been cast in the Broadway revival of “Les Mis” in the role of Marius. So Michael became the sole director. Here’s what Michael said when I asked him about the trajectory of the show at that point.
Michael: It was just to do a small production, a 99-seat production, in LA, and share this story through this lens. We never had our eyes on Broadway or anything like that. It was the furthest thing from my mind, which is probably why we did the work we did. It was really just about telling the story in the time and place we were in.
Patrick: As I mentioned, the show centers around a group of adolescent school kids in Germany in the 1890s. For Michael’s production, many of the school kids would be deaf. So as rehearsals began, Michael began to research what education for deaf students was like at the time that the show takes place. What he uncovered was startling, and we’ll get to that in just a second. But to fully understand what Michael learned, and how it shaped the show, you need to know about something called the Milan Conference that happened in 1880. So here’s Deaf West artistic director, DJ Kurs; and then Michael Arden.
Alex Wyse: I think, above all, humanity is afraid of the other, deviations from the norm; and that is why deaf people suffered during the place and time that “Spring Awakening” takes place in. It takes place during a dark time in deaf history: That is the aftermath of the Milan Conference from 1880, in which hearing educators of the deaf got together and decided that deaf students should be taught orally, and that sign language should be banned. It is the desire to normalize deaf people that proved destructive to the deaf individual then, and still does today.
Patrick: Here’s what Michael found.
Michael: I started to uncover all this information about the Milan Conference and how deaf students were taught and not taught. For those who don’t know, oralism was adopted as the only acceptable way of educating deaf kids at that time; which meant no sign language. So deaf kids were forced to speak and read lips; and for many deaf kids – we know this now, in spades – that’s just a completely intangible expectation. So, so many kids were deemed oral “failures,” and they were sent to asylums. Deaf individuals were sterilized at the time. Mostly women were sterilized, because they wanted to – deafness was seen as a sickness that needed to be cured or eradicated, as opposed to – we now know and see it as a culture, a strong and beautiful culture.
I wanted to, somehow, tell that story that no one really knows. It’s an incredible, dark chapter in deaf history and our world history and the history of education; and I’d like to say it was, from the get-go, what I had in mind. But it wasn’t really. It sort of came to the process while we were in rehearsals, and we made changes based on that. Initially, in the schoolroom, there was a deaf teacher. Then I said, no, this isn’t working; let’s try this. Okay. Well, what if you aren’t allowed to sign? What if this is all about signing in secret? This other story began to emerge that, I think, was really exciting, that we hadn’t seen before.
Patrick: I’m sure that Michael is right, that most hearing people don’t know this dark history. I certainly didn’t. But I wondered about the deaf community. Did they know? So I asked Daniel Durant, the actor you heard from earlier, who played Moritz in the show.
Daniel: Oh, yes. It’s part of our culture. This history is part of who we are. Every deaf individual knows this, of our struggle to be recognized and to have our language recognized. This is something we still struggle for today.
Patrick: Another thing to emerge in that production in the tiny theater in downtown LA was the significance and importance of the choreography, because of the fact that it needed to incorporate sign language. Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music for the show, pointed this out to me when I asked him about seeing that first incarnation of the Deaf West production.
Duncan: Just from a movement standpoint, you had – the sign language itself became another layer of choreography. That just added so much to it, because of course Bill T. Jones’ original choreography was amazing; but what Spencer did, plus the signing, it kind of made the show much more about movement than it ever had been before. That was kind of a revelation; a really lovely one, in fact.
Spencer: Sign language was my goal and concern, and everything stemmed from that.
Patrick: This, again, is Spencer Liff, the choreographer. I asked him about the challenges of choreographing for a largely deaf company and if he was intimidated by the mantle of Bill T. Jones’ iconic and Tony winning choreography for the original production.
Spencer: So I can honestly say that I never once really thought about what was done originally, because it just wasn’t in the realm of where my head needed to be. So I just sort of did what I wanted to do, what needed to be done for the show. I guess I had in the back of my head that, if anything aligned with what was originally done, and I came to that on my own terms, then that’s what was meant to be; but – I don’t know – I just wasn’t scared of it. I had way too much other stuff to think about to worry about what he did and what I did. But everything he did was very gesture based. Obviously that’s what we had to work with, as well; so I think that’s where the similarities came from.
Patrick: Daniel Durant spoke very passionately to me about the power of incorporating sign language into the choreography at that very early stage and the response it seemed to elicit from people.
Daniel: Though we can’t necessarily hear the music, we can tell a story through music. People were in awe of it. People would say they would want to see more ASL integrated into theater, because it’s a more three-dimensional language. It has emotional impact on people. The emotions stick with people for longer periods of time once they see the emotions in three dimensions. You get emotions from hearing songs, too; but it is only in that one dimension. So it’s a little bit reduced, I think, the story you can tell. I really like that we’re using this three-dimensional language to express things in a different way.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Patrick: The downtown LA production officially opened in early September, 2014, to rave reviews. The LA Times said, if rippling goosebumps are any indication of emotional involvement, this show delivers. It’s hard to enumerate all the ways in which Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” is so very, very good. With the reviews came the news that, within months, the show would be transferring to a much larger theater at the Wallace Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Because that production would be a remount, they were allotted only a two-week rehearsal period; and, as commonly happens, not all of the actors from the downtown production were available for it. Enter Alex Wyse, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez, and Alex Boniello. Here’s Andy Mientus, who would be taking over the role of Hanschen.
Andy: So Michael called me in this deep panic, saying, oh my God, who are we going to find somebody that can learn the part, let alone the part and the ASL. I was like, well, if you can’t find anybody else, and if it doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous that I’m still playing a teenager, then I’ll do it; because it was only going to be a three-week run, just really as a victory lap for that production from the 99-seat theater. So it was very low stakes.
Patrick: Krysta Rodriguez, who had been an understudy in the original Broadway production of “Spring Awakening,” was at that time battling breast cancer when she received a similar call.
Krysta: In that weird, nebulous time, it was like, if you can’t find anybody else – we need whoever we can find – that’s where Alex and I joined on as well, because it was the same. The people that were playing our parts had gotten other jobs, and everybody was obviously going to take an opportunity that was the next step, instead of a lateral move with this show.
Alex Boniello: There was absolutely …
Krysta: No indication …
Alex Boniello: … no plan for this to come to Broadway at all.
Krysta: Yes. The Beverly Hills run was literally the six weeks in between my last chemo treatment and my surgery. He was like, what’s your treatment schedule like; and I was like I don’t know, what are the dates; and he gave them to me. He was like, do you want to play Ilse; and I was like, uh, yes.
Patrick: Alex Boniello’s story of being cast as the voice of Moritz, the counterpart to the role that Daniel Durant had been playing since the workshop, is especially amazing.
Alex Boniello: I’ve told it a whole bunch of times in various interviews during the run of the show, but I’ve never done it with Andy here. So I kind of want …
Andy: Do you want me to hold your hand?
Alex Boniello: Please don’t touch me. I want to hear his perspective. I was sitting in my apartment. I had just finished doing “Brooklynite,” which was an off-Broadway show. I was literally getting dressed to go cater “The King and I” reception for their opening night at Lincoln Center. I was just sitting there getting into my little vest that I had to wear. He followed me on Twitter. When someone who has many followers follows you, you get notified. I was like, oh, I guess it’s not that weird. We know a lot of the same people, whatever. Then five seconds later he sent me a direct message; and he just said, hey, number one, Matt Doyle says we should be friends; number two, what are you doing in the next couple weeks. I was like, nothing; what’s up.
He was sending these quick and – Deaf West is doing “Spring Awakening,” need voice of Moritz; also plays guitar; are you available; it’s going to be in LA; could you get to LA in – I was like yes, I would love to do that. I Skyped with Michael, I think the next day, and just played guitar for him and sang for him. He was like, great, thank you so much. Okay, we’ll be in touch soon. Then the Skype call ends. Fourteen seconds later he texts me. He’s like, hey, so, we want you to do it. What’s going on? I’m like, you tell me what’s going on. So it was like – three days later I was on a plane.
Patrick: The new actors had a lot of catching up to do and not a lot of time. One of the biggest obstacles, of course, was learning how to communicate with their deaf cast mates. Here are Alex and Daniel.
Alex Boniello: The first day of rehearsal, there was this ASL workshop type thing. I was taking an Uber there with Andy. He was like, just so you know, this is going to be really interesting for you; because I’d never met a deaf person, ever, until this.
Patrick: Oh, wow.
Alex Boniello: So I was like, what do you mean; and he’s like, you’re going to see. Just walk in. It’s going to be fine. So I walked in the room. I’ll never forget it as long as I live, walking into a room that, theoretically, would be so loud and bustling with communication that I understand. It was a room full of these kids who were so excited to see each other again; and it was dead silent. They were all fully conversing with each other with hand movements that I didn’t understand a single one of. I walked in there, and I was like, oh my God, this is wild. But Daniel knew that was the case.
Daniel: The first time we met each other, I was told he would be my voice actor. I remember that he knew no ASL. So we exchanged phone numbers and got to know each other through texting.
Alex Boniello: The first thing that we did – he gave me a big hug. We sat down. He pulled out his cell phone, and he started typing things and showing things to me. A fascinating thing about Daniel, too, is, there are so many different levels of deafness. Daniel had never heard; ever, ever, ever. Sound does not exist in his world, period. So he thinks in concepts. He thinks in pictures in a way that we think in words and language. So when he was typing to me, English is his second language; so that’s pretty clear. That was fascinating for me to learn. Right away, I was like, oh, wow – it’s similar to, if someone’s first language is Spanish, and they’re typing English to you. You’ll notice things like that.
Daniel: We decided to finally sit together and go through the script, and I would sign it, and we would talk about what we thought the lines meant. That was a way for us to start building some chemistry around the character.
Alex Boniello: Watching him do the signs, trying to approximate what I thought his version of the character was feeling while also putting – it’s impossible for you not to put your own thing to it; but your job is to make sure his is the forefront. But yes, that’s kind of what it was. It was very, very slow; and we had two weeks to do it.
Patrick: I wondered what the social dynamic was like in the rehearsal room between the groups of hearing and deaf actors. This was how I posed the question to Anthony Mientus.
It sounds like the hearing actors maybe were working around the deaf – it was their playing field that you guys were coming onto. Was that how it felt?
Anthony: Absolutely, because it’s a rare opportunity for them to be the focus. So it was staged very deliberately to make sure that the signing was the focus, that the deaf actor was the focus; because that’s something that audiences don’t get an opportunity to see a whole lot. It’s something those actors don’t get to do, sadly, a whole lot. So of course they should be the focus of it. It’s what made it special and different from that original.
Patrick: Here’s what Daniel Durant had to say.
Daniel: Well, I think it was a half and half situation. We were learning about music and they rhythm of music, why sounds are made in certain ways to cause emotion. They were learning similar things about sign language. So you could see it becoming, instead of two groups, becoming one group where there was mutual learning between each group; both in sign language and in music. I give a lot of credit to Michael Arden because of the process.
I’ll never forget the first rehearsal back in Los Angeles. It really was a place where we bonded together, and we got to know each other personally in terms of our backgrounds. We became sort of a family there. He’s really adept at that, creating that sort of bond. I think Michael Arden really needs to be credited for being one of the top directors around.
Patrick: Here’s Michael Arden.
Michael: None of our hearing actors, with the exception of one who knew a little bit, knew any sign language before we started. It was like, here, meet this person who you’re going to be spending every moment with, and learning how to communicate with. It was so exciting to watch these all these young actors. For some it was their first play. Theater is, ultimately, communication. They were having to relearn that on a basic level. It really stripped everyone of any ego, so it just cleared out all this space for this amazing work and growth to take place.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Patrick: The work, of course, paid off. The show opened at the Wallace in May of 2015; again, to rave reviews. This time, Charles McNulty, in the LA Times, called the production stunning, enthralling, and a rousing success.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Ken: I’ve had a man crush on Michael Arden forever, and a talent crush.
Patrick: This is producer Ken Davenport. He would, ultimately, become the show’s lead producer for Broadway.
Ken: I’ve been a fan of Deaf West for years, and then I heard the were doing “Spring Awakening.” I knew some folks that were involved with the production, and I had done a little bit of – I’d given them some advice on things about developing the show from a business perspective. Then I went to see it on a lark. I had actually read the review from Charles McNulty, who is a very tough critic; and when he went crazy for it, I said, wow, there really must be something going on here. I just happened to be in Los Angeles for a wedding their final weekend. I said, meh, I’ll go check it out; and I went and was unbelievable moved. I remember thinking, I have to get this to Broadway.
Patrick: Was there anything in particular you remember from that performance that made your producer Spidey senses just go off?
Ken: Yes. It happened within the first 15 seconds. “Spring Awakening” has this beautiful, beautiful beginning; this haunting Duncan Sheik melody. Wendla comes forward and starts to sing “Mama Who Bore Me.” In the Deaf West production, she came forward; and then there was this great duality, for those of you who have seen it; the duality of the staging and the guitar. She came forward, and she started to sign it. My heart broke for her.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
All of a sudden this effort, this desire in the actress – of course, she was so wonderful – the desire to communicate her innermost thoughts and emotions just seemed so much more passionate when told through sign; this effort of, I so want to talk to someone; I so want someone to talk to me; and I’m just looking for a way for someone to listen and for someone to hear me. It was just so much more powerful through sign language. I remember thinking, oh my gosh, thousands and thousands and thousands more people have to see this.
Patrick: Here’s how Deaf West artistic director, DJ Kurs, remembers meeting Ken Davenport that day. The Cody he’s talking about is Cody Lassen, another of the show’s producers.
Alex Wyse: During intermission, Ken comes out and starts talking to Cody. I remember him seeming very interested, and my interpreter attempted to eavesdrop their conversation; but they were speaking in low tones. My instinct as a deaf person tells me to hang low in these situations; and I guess in this case, the work spoke for itself.
Ken: DJ Kurs came up to me after, and I was just so moved. I was like, this is amazing; this is incredible. I hadn’t really said, I’m going to move it to Broadway yet. DJ said, we hope you’ll help us figure out a life for it after. I remember just kind of saying – and what was amazing for me is, it was probably the first ever conversation I’ve had with a deaf person …
Patrick: I was going to ask you: How did you communicate with him?
Ken: We had an interpreter there. I have never had a conversation. I’ve certainly said hello or spoken to someone very quickly, a brief greeting; but I’d never had a discussion, especially something as serious as this. The interpreter came over, and of course, this is one of the reasons I wanted to do the show. Everyone’s first experience: Oh, you’re nervous. What do I say; who do I look at. These are things that we don’t know. What I hope and pray is that our production of “Spring Awakening” helped educate people on some of those issues. I remember having this conversation and looking at the interpreter. He said, I hope you’ll help us get – and I was like, yes. No, no, we’ve got to get this to New York. I just remember saying that. Once I say something, I’m just a guy that has to figure out how to do it.
Patrick: So when you’re sitting in a theater, and you decide, this has to go to Broadway, what do you do then?
Ken: The next step in this specific case was me calling a theater owner; because I analyzed – actually, the list is right over there. Those are all the theaters that are on Broadway and the shows that are coming in, and also what I think is coming in on top of them.
Patrick: Your guess, educated guess.
Ken: Yes; and you know, my nose to the gossip mills, if you will. That analogy made no sense, but you get it. So I had a feeling I knew what was coming in, and I thought there might be a slot available at the Brooks. So I called the Nederlanders and said, I think you may have a window, and I have the show for you. Thankfully the Nederlanders – I couldn’t get half the pitch out of my mouth, of, it’s the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening.” They were like, we’re very interested in the show. Give me five minutes to figure this out. We’ll talk to you some more. They did. They came back. Yes, we have a slot; we just need to hear some more about the show. Very quickly, they said, we would love to have you in our theater.
Patrick: Wow. How did you raise the money? I don’t even know – did you need to raise money, and how did you do it?
Ken: Well, yes. We had to raise four and a half million dollars in 86 days. So it was 86 days from the day that I saw it to the first preview. At this point I had given no thought to not only how I would raise it but also how much it would even cost. What I think should drive all art and all production of anything is, I must do this; I have to do this; and then you figure – okay, now we have to figure out how we’re going to make it all happen. I just trusted, also, that anything this powerful – people would raise their hands and say, I want to support this; I want to be a part of it. That’s what happened.
Patrick: I’m always the most excited to find out how actors found out they’d be going to Broadway. For this production, since the show had closed before the decision was officially made, most of the actors found out via email. For Krysta Rodriguez, who at that point was recovering was recovering from a double mastectomy she’d had as part of her cancer treatment, the moment was especially surreal. Here’s Krysta, and then Daniel Durant.
Krysta: We actually got the call to go to Broadway as I was recovering from the surgery. I was hopped up on drugs. I had to be like, is this real; did this actually happen, or did I fever dream this thing that we’re going to Broadway.
Daniel: It was a huge moment for me. I’ll never forget it. We had a gut feeling, but it was really a huge question. There was a big question in the air, and then DJ from Deaf West, the artistic director at Deaf West – we kept kind of waiting for him to let us know. One day I was in my basement watching Netflix, and I get this email from one of the producers, or someone, saying, we’re offering you this role of Moritz on Broadway. I was stunned. I looked at that email for several minutes, and then finally I called my mom, and I Skyped with her; and it was very emotional. I was telling her I was going on Broadway. My mom is a big theater nut. So she was just thrilled. We were all just stunned. It took a few days for it to set in that I was going to be moving to Broadway, moving on and doing this show.
Patrick: Coming to Broadway, of course, also meant relocating most of the deaf actors from California to New York. Here’s Ken Davenport.
Ken: I said, oh, they’ll move here. And then we were like, wait, that’s just not as easy for them. What, again, they proved, was, yes, we’ll move here; we’ll figure it out. What I loved was, it was not this – don’t treat us in a certain way. We can figure this out. They banded together, and a bunch of them – it was 18 to a room in some – it was crazy. But yes, we had to give everything an extra thought. But I think that all taught us a very valuable lesson.
Patrick: Something that I haven’t mentioned until just now is the fact that the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” was breaking ground in yet another way with actress Ali Stroker. Ali had been with the production since the LA run; but when the show moved to Broadway, Ali, who is paralyzed from the chest down, would be the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. The way the cast and creatives talk about Ali, especially with the challenges she faced, just logistically working in a handicapped-inaccessible Broadway Theater, is so emblematic of how close this team was. Here’s choreographer Spencer Liff, and then Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez.
Spencer: Ali is one of the best people you’ll ever meet. She’s constantly pushing boundaries, but she’s much more aware of her capabilities than I was at the beginning. We had a conversation on the very first day; and I said, hey, this is totally new for me; I’ve never choreographed for someone in a chair. She showed me a lot of videos of her dancing. She’s on an actual wheelchair dance team. I watched those, and I was like, holy crap – you can do a lot. Okay, there go my judgments of what you can and can’t do. Then I really focused on what she could bring to the table that someone who wasn’t in a chair couldn’t. I made her the cornerstone of a lot of my formations and was able to use her capabilities and showcase them; which is the place I came from with her.
She would look at the choreography I did and adapt it herself. Then we would, in our own private sessions, work to – okay, you’re going to turn this way at this time. How do you sign and move your chair? Where do we drop the hands? It was complicated, but she’s unbelievable. It’s funny – it was one of the first things I thought of when we knew we were going into the Brooks. I was like, well, where are we going to put Ali; she has to be on the main floor, and they have to get a ramp because there are stairs to get in just the door.
The cast would band together. When we first got into the theater, Andy picked up Ali and took her to every floor to make sure she could see the whole theater.
Patrick: Oh my God. I’m going to bawl.
Spencer: That cast held onto each other so tight and loved each other so much.
Patrick: I was very excited to get to ask Andy about this.
Did you really take her out of her chair and take her all over the theater when you guys first went into the Brooks Atkinson?
Krysta: We took her everywhere.
Andy: We’re always picking her up.
Krysta: Unfortunately, you have to. There is so little accessibility in so many places. We would have a joke about the rating of accessibility in each place we’d go. Accessibility zero. This is not – so, yes. She’s so good at maneuvering that. But yes, we would have birthdays in the basement. Someone would have to take Ali, carry her downstairs and set her there to sit and watch and hang out, because she can’t get down there. Also, the Brooks Atkinson – they renovated a dressing room on the ground level for her to be able to get into and made a bathroom for her to move around. It’s great now. That theater is fully accessible – well, not fully accessible; but more accessible than a lot of the other ones that have been around a hundred plus years that didn’t have the ADA regulations that they have now.
Patrick: Throughout the Broadway rehearsal process, Ali also held her own in Spencer’s notoriously difficult warmups. Here again is Spencer and then Krysta.
Spencer: I would lead this very long, aggressive workout every single morning, where they would have to plank, do pushups, and do cardio. She always was there doing her own version. I would bring an elastic band in, and we would do biceps together. It was very cool.
Krysta: Truly, at that point, I was held together with sweat and Scotch tape. My brain was gone. I had chemo brain like crazy. I was recovering from surgery when we came to do the production. So we would do Spencer’s warmups, and I would not do some things. I’d be like, you know what, I just had surgery; and I don’t need to. I’d look over, and Ali’s doing triceps pushups on her wheelchair. I’m like, okay, I guess we’re doing this now. I guess I don’t have an excuse. There are deaf people dancing, and Ali’s doing pushups; so I just have to do it.
Patrick: All of this is just to say that, as an ensemble, they cared about each other; loved each other, even. They were connected, and their show lived or died by that connection. Here’s Alex Boniello and then Krysta Rodriguez.
Alex Boniello: “Don’t Do Sadness” was a really big thing for that, because Daniel had to jump off of a staircase. I would give him this cue, and he would always be late. I’m like, why is this happening; and one of our ASL masters, Elizabeth Green, is the only hearing ASL master. She goes, well, it’s because you’re thinking about it like a hearing person. So why do you think – and I was like, because I’m tapping my chest when I want him to jump; but his brain needs to see it and then jump. So for someone who’s hearing the music, I would want to be like, “You just sail away, because you know …” tap. Because that’s when I want him to jump. I would have to go, “You just sail away because …” – tap – “… you know …” in the middle of my – it was like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time and realizing that that’s how it has to go.
Daniel and I would laugh. He’s like, it’s working now; and I’m like, yes it’s working now. He’s like, why; and then I would try to explain it to him. I don’t even have the vocabulary in your language to explain to you why this works, but trust me forever and ever, and we’re great. He’s like, okay.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Krysta: Yes, as far as focus: Man, I’ve never – you do other shows, and you have to pay attention. You can’t just be thinking or whatever. But the whole show relied on us giving the cues at the right times and relied on us – as soon as your hand would move, they would start signing. It had to be on the word. If you spaced out for a second – you can imagine what would happen if a person who can’t hear the music – if something went wrong, and they just keep going, because they don’t know that something’s different; or they don’t know that the music didn’t start, or that the track didn’t come on, or anything. So everyone – we were just on edge all the time, totally focused on each other, or else the show could have fallen apart so many times, so many times.
Patrick: Seconds. In …
Krysta: There were actually a couple times – we had this thing we called the ship during “Touch Me” where we all had to walk together. We would sort of tap on the shoulders. After a while they know the rhythm, but sometimes the tempos of songs are different. That’s what live theater is. So we’re tapping, and sometimes we’d call it the shipwreck, because it couldn’t get together. Spencer, actually, was like, you know, sometimes those are the most magical; because it reminds the audience that these people cannot hear, that we’re doing all of this without – and not just maybe hear. They cannot hear. They’re dancing on rhythm, on beat, with emotion and with dynamics; loud and soft and all of that stuff. Those times were actually kind of special, when you’re like, oh, this is actually feat, every night; a feat.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Patrick: The Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” opened for a limited engagement run on September 27th, 2015, to rave reviews. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times said that the show was born anew, was thrillingly inventive, and was directed with remarkable finesse by Michael Arden. The production ran for a previously determined 23 previews and 135 regular performances and went on to be nominated for three Tony Awards, including best lighting design of a musical for Ben Stanton, best direction of a musical for Michael Arden, and best revival of a musical.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
One of the great things about making this episode a year after the show closed is that the people who made the work now have some perspective on it, so I want to end by sharing some of the thoughts and takeaways the cast and creatives shared with me. DJ Kurs goes first.
Alex Wyse: Talking about it a year later, we can only view it from the rearview mirror. The achievement of our production feels even more exceptional in the age of Trump. It is magical when deaf and hearing artists cross cultural and linguistic boundaries to work together in the purpose of creating art, and even more so when hearing and deaf audience members sit together to enjoy the same show. I’m also very proud of the press that we got; everything from the first reviews to the celebration of Ali Stroker as the first performer in a wheelchair on Broadway. I’m also just very happy that our production has inspired so many other productions that involve deaf talent and am very proud of the outsize impact that our little theater company has created.
Patrick: Here’s Daniel on his feelings about the Broadway run and the legacy of the production.
Daniel: I think part of the legacy is just a little bit of magic that happened in that show. Music and English and American Sign Language and choreography: These were all layer upon layer upon layer. It was so textured and gave the audience something different; and historic moment for deaf people, for our culture, and for all of these people who were involved in the production. I just think it was so historic.
Patrick: Here’s Michael Arden.
Michael: I hope that our production gave both audiences and theater makers and producers an opportunity to see how exciting performers with different abilities can be. I think there are so many ways to tell stories, and having deaf actors and hard of hearing actors and actors in wheelchairs – these things just don’t happen. Yet sometimes we can somehow tell the story more clearly and in new ways. So I hope it served as an enlightening experience; to think, hey, why can’t I hire a deaf actor for this role; maybe I’ll get something more out of it because of that; an opportunity for audiences to come and enjoy theater in their own language and to not feel like they had to come to just the one signed performance where they get to look to the side of the stage but miss what’s happening on the stage.
I think that’s important, because I think we’re supposed to – as theater makers, it is our charge and our duty to – reflect the world around us and not just the parts of the world that look just like we do.
Patrick: We’ll leave you with a story from Spencer Liff about an experience he had at Pearl Studios, a place where a lot of theater auditions are held here in New York City.
Spencer: A few days ago there was a long line of girls standing outside an audition room, waiting to sing their 16 bars; and there was a girl in a chair in that line. I was so happy, immediately, thinking, the people in that room are going to be forced to think about nontraditional casting. They’re going to have to go, oh, could we put this character that’s not written as someone in a chair – and then I thought, somebody in that room saw “Spring Awakening,” and maybe they’ll say they saw Ali Stroker and that it can be done. This girl and I – this girl in the chair – we locked eyes. She lit up. She came over to me, and she knew who I was. Not only was she in a chair, but she was hard of hearing and wearing a hearing aid.
She was like, I saw “Spring Awakening,” and for obvious reasons, I was incredibly inspired by both of those factors. I’m able to come to these auditions now and put myself in positions that – it doesn’t specify an actress in a chair. I couldn’t get over that all day – what an impact Ali had made to this girl, and our show in general; how many of those stories there are of people that came to see our kids onstage inspiring them to go after their dreams and goals.
I came home and called Michael Arden and told him that story, and both of us – it reminded us that it was bigger than what we had done in the theater, even. I was so happy I had that moment.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
Patrick: Stay tuned after the credits for scenes from our next episode.
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
If you enjoyed today’s episode, we’d be super grateful if you’d take a minute to rate and review us on iTunes. You can also follow us on Twitter – we’re @bwaybacktory – and on Facebook, where we’re at Broadway Backstory. Huge thanks to the great people at TodayTix who make this podcast possible. So, just a little bit more about them, you guys. TodayTix pioneered mobile lotteries and was the first to offer digital Broadway lotteries. With the TodayTix app, you can enter daily lotteries to win discounted or free tickets to selected Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Share your entries on social media to double or triple your odds of winning. You can also sign up for alerts to get a remainder the next time a lottery is opened for entry. Download the free TodayTix app on IOS and Android for even more exclusive deals and promotions, including access to exclusive lottery tickets to the hottest shows in your city; and don’t forget, “Broadway Backstory” listeners can use the code “backstory” for $15 off your first purchase.
Huge, huge, huge thanks first and foremost to Alex Boniello, who helped arrange so many of the interviews I did for this episode. That kid has hair for days. You can follow him on Twitter @alexboniello. Also, a huge thanks to Mr. Alex Wyse, who stepped in at the last minute to provide the voice for DJ Kurs. That guy is hilarious on Twitter. You can follow him @alexwyse. Special thanks for the invaluable production help from Steve Tipton, my husband, whom I really, truly could not make this podcast without; also Mike Jenson, Matt Tamanini, Rickie Condos, Chloe O’Connor, and Chloe [Lindt].
[music clip from “Spring Awakening”]
[music clip from “Legally Blonde”]
Male Voice: … and we got into a conversation about this phenomenon that happens to young women called dumbing themselves down. I was like, wait, you’re kidding me – that really happens; and he said, oh, absolutely. He said, it’s one of the reasons that all-girls’ schools became popular at some point; because they thought if they removed the male element from the equation, these girls could excel. Having just seen “Legally Blonde,” the film, it got me thinking. Wow: Here’s a girl who’s smart enough, if you think about it, to get into Harvard Law: Why does she do it? To chase the jerky guy. I thought, now, that’s a story we’ve got to tell.
We immediately said, well, there’s only one person who we know that we think is ready to direct. This is Jerry Mitchell.
Jerry: “Legally Blonde” was a massive, massive undertaking and a great learning experience. I was ready to tell that story. I knew how to tell “Legally Blonde.”
Female Voice: I sent him an email, and I just said, hey Jerry, I heard about “Legally Blonde;” I am so happy for you; you totally deserve this; you’re going to kill this; and by the way, I know someone who would be really great for Elle Woods, wink, wink. He responded back immediately and said, what do you think that I came to see you in “Wicked;” I wanted to see if you could carry a show.
Jerry: And then we opened in New York, and we got a rave from Variety and some other great reviews. But the only review that matter in New York City is the New York Times.
Patrick: Do you have any thoughts on the reviews?
Female Voice: My general thinking on them was they were not particularly positive.
Male Voice: We were passed over for nomination for best musical, which – look, at the end of the day, I’ve won Tonys. I’ve not won Tonys. At the end of the day it’s got to be about the work. “Legally Blonde” is one of the things I’m proudest of, but I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt.
Patrick: Next time on “Broadway Backstory.”