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Musical Theater and the Deaf:

By Alana Aninipot

Musical Theater and the Deaf

            Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in musicals, at first glance, may not seem like a likely pair. However, it is in fact a thriving, entertaining and beautifully done masterpiece. The first Broadway theatrical production including Deaf people and American Sign Language was in 1959. It was a play called "The Miracle Worker" based off the true story of Helen Keller. After the show closed, David Hays, the show's set/lighting designer, and Edna S. Levine, a psychologist, expert in deafness and also the creator of the show, went looking for funding for a professional Deaf Theater Company. In 1965, their first federal grant had been received and The National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) was formally established in 1967. (Sandhal, 2014)

            Twenty four years after the formal creation of NTD, another professional Deaf Theater company is founded in Los Angeles by Ed Waterstreet named Deaf West Theatre. Waterstreet, who is Deaf, had previously been an actor in the NTD. In 1991, he decided to create his own company that makes ASL the main priority in the theatrical productions. He felt that NTD had more concern about English being dominant and sign was more secondary and "beautiful". (Giordano, 2004)

            In productions, they incorporate deafness and Deaf actors with certain characters to emphasize their overall struggles. For example, when the company put on the show Big River based on Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", the director Jeff Calhoun expressed this, "Here's a black man and a Deaf boy on a raft ...I can link Huck's plight with Jim's. There's a heightened sense of what it means to be an outcast." (Mermelstein, 2002)

            Fast forward to 2016 and Deaf West Theatre is doing extremely well. They have put on several "Deaf musicals" and have become recently extremely popular with their revival of Spring Awakening. They now use a method some call "shadowing" by having two actors play one role, one Deaf person as the main character and the other a hearing person as the voice. This method can easily show feelings of internal conflict amongst other things for these characters. (Rosky,2015)

            Spring Awakening tells the story of teenagers going through puberty in the late 19th century and how they learn and deal with constraints that their society has put on them.  The show also, "is very much about the difficulty that parents and children have with communication. So there's a beautiful metaphor to it being done with this particular set of actors. The musicianship and the vocal performances of the Broadway cast being assembled are second to none, and that combined with the amazing physicality of the signing actors really raises the emotional bar," as said by Duncan Sheik, the creator of the musical. The revival had a limited run on Broadway and was able to perform at the 2016 Tony Awards, a first for Deaf West Theatre. (Rosky, 2015)

The performance was an extremely big deal, as it gave exposure to not only the production itself, but also to American Sign Language and the Deaf. By having this performance broadcasted on a widely watched program such as The Tonys, it shows the mainstream media Deaf people can do everything hearing people can do, even be in musical theater. It also can spark interest and introduced the normalization of ASL and the Deaf community in mainstream media. Opening doors and making things like musical theater accessible to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing by the incorporation of ASL in choreography is truly remarkable. Embracing this unlikely pair of the Deaf and musical theater is a step in the right direction.   

Cited pages:

Sandahl, Carrie. (2014, Oct. 14). National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 23 August, 2016: <>

Giordano, Tyrone. (2004). Deaf West Theatre. Ability Magazine Online. Ability Magazine. Retrieved 23, August 2016: <>

Mermelstein, David (2002, Nov. 10) Theater; In This Musical, Some Sing, All Sign. NY Times Online. New York Times. Retrieved 23, August 2016: <>

Rosky, Nicole (2015, Aug. 22) Signs of the Times- A History of SPRING AWAKENING's Deaf West Theatre on Broadway and Beyond! Broadway World Online. Retrieved 23, August 2016:


Also see:  Deaf Talent: Why are Hearing actors still being cast as Deaf?


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