by Hailey Reilly
The Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, which left Broadway in 2009, is back in groundbreaking fashion. The Deaf West Theater presents a Broadway revival in which cast roles are split between hearing and deaf actors, and dialogue and singing is both spoken and signed in American Sign Language. This limited-engagement show, running until Jan. 24, marks the first time the deaf community has been represented on Broadway to this degree.
Set in 19th-century Germany, Spring Awakening deals with communication gaps between parents and kids and the turmoil of sexual discovery. The original show didn’t include deaf actors or sign language, yet the revival blends together sign language, singing and music seamlessly, creating a rich sensory experience for the audience. Each deaf actor has a counterpart hearing actor who acts as their voice. Some hearing actors are also members of the band.
For example, Sandra Mae Frank, who is deaf and uses ASL to deliver her lines, plays the lead female, Wendla Bergmann. Katie Boeck provides Wendla’s spoken dialogue while shadowing Frank and strumming a guitar. In contrast, hearing actor Austin McKenzie plays the principal male role, both signing and speaking his lines. Parts of songs and dialogue are exclusively signed, and translations are projected for those who don’t understand ASL.
The audience isn’t seeing the speaking and signing actors separately when watching Spring Awakening; they’re watching two people come together effortlessly to create one character.
The show is inclusive, from casting Ali Stroker—Broadway’s first actress in a wheelchair—to displaying written signs for those who couldn’t hear the pre-show voice-over. The atmosphere of Spring Awakening is intimate; as you walk into the theater, the actors are already on stage, adjusting their clothes, tuning instruments and chatting in sign language. This establishes a connection with the audience especially necessary for the raw emotional content in the show to resonate.
The Deaf West Theater’s revival of Spring Awakening is a triumph, from achieving the same caliber show as the original, to offering an outlet for deaf actors to express themselves. Perhaps the greatest moment came at the final curtain, when the actors took their final bow. As the audience rose for a standing ovation, almost everyone used the sign language symbol for applause, holding their hands in the air and twisting them. With that, no more words—or signs—were needed.