Deaf cast challenges musical theater norms in production of ‘The Music Man’

The classic American musical "The Music Man” has been a big hit this year with its revival on Broadway and on many regional and local stages across the country. John Yang went to the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland to see a novel take on the standard, and how art can be a model for a more inclusive society, where deaf and hearing communities live side by side.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The classic American musical "The Music Man" has been a big hit this year with its revival on Broadway and on many regional and local stages across the country.

    John Yang went to see a novel take on the standard and how art can be a model for a more inclusive society.

    A note that American Sign Language interpreting was done simultaneous to the interview. That live process may affect the complete accuracy of the English interpretation.

    The story is part of our arts and health coverage on Canvas.

  • John Yang:

    The spirited musical numbers, the sly scam, the Midwestern Americana, all the familiar touches of "The Music Man" are on display in this production at the only theater center in Maryland.

    But take a closer look. This isn't your grandfather's River City. It's envisioned as a place where the deaf and hearing communities live side by side, and not being able to hear isn't the barrier. Half the cast is deaf or hard of hearing.

    There were see-through COVID masks, so the non-hearing actors could read lips and facial expressions. American Sign Language interpreters were positioned across the stage. The set was created by a deaf designer with a minimum of stairs, so deaf actors don't have to take their eyes off their signing castmates.

    And a special lighting system let the nonhearing cast members know when there was a problem.

  • Jason Loewith, Artistic Director, Olney:

    There is going to be a surtitle screen…

  • John Yang:

    Screen.

  • Jason Loewith:

    … which will be particularly helpful for those in the balcony.

  • John Yang:

    Jason Loewith is in his 10th year as artistic director at Olney, one of the country's leading regional theaters. His philosophy? Let the art lead.

  • Actor:

    We heard there's a pool table in town.

  • Jason Loewith:

    The words are almost nonsense, but listening and watching the words be translated into ASL was revelatory. I thought, this is a brilliant new way to experience the musical.

    And then, of course, our desire to create a community that is more inclusive by doing theater that is more inclusive, it felt like the sky was the limit.

  • John Yang:

    He wasn't quite so enthusiastic about six years ago, when first approached by James Caverly.

  • James Caverly, Actor (through interpreter):

    So it was akin to Frankenstein's monster approaching the scientist and saying, make me a new wife, right? Same concept, I think, in my pitch.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • James Caverly (through interpreter):

    But I would say that the pitch itself was different.

  • John Yang:

    Deaf from birth, Caverly was working as a carpenter in the theater scenery shop. After seeing Deaf West Theatre's production of "Spring Awakening" on Broadway, he went to Loewith with an idea.

  • James Caverly (through interpreter):

    Let's do "The Music Man." Let's do this!

    And I don't think that he was totally convinced on the idea at the moment. It took a few, maybe three odd-years of really pursuing it to convince him. Hey, hey, "The Music Man." Hey don't forget "The Music Man."

  • John Yang:

    "The Music Man" is an American musical theater classic. It tells the story of Harold Hill, a charming traveling salesman, in early 20th century Iowa who dupes countless people into buying instruments for a nonexistent children's band.

    Marian Paroo, the town piano teacher and librarian, sees through him immediately, but then begins to see another side of him. By the time the final song is sung, they have each been transformed by love.

  • James Caverly (through interpreter):

    What I really wanted was, let's shatter that perception that disabled people can only play roles that are designed or written for disabled people.

    The world that is River City and "The Music Man" is a perfect choice for that.

  • John Yang:

    After testing the idea in a 2019 workshop with a hearing actor as Harold Hill, another twist: What if he was deaf?

  • James Caverly (through interpreter):

    So if you compare Harold Hill as a hearing man, he's selling musical instruments. That's believable. He doesn't have to work additionally or extra hard to convince people that he could lead a musical band.

    Now, a deaf Harold Hill is a different story. He's a guy who really has to turn it up, really become a charmer to be able to convince a community of people that, hey, you should buy these musical instruments because, guess what, I can lead a musical band, right? Hah-hah.

    So I think it amplifies the character in a way, and you have to really, really increase that art of deception.

  • John Yang:

    It makes Harold Hill not only the ultimate con man, in a way, but also what you were saying before, the ultimate salesman of dreams.

  • James Caverly (through interpreter):

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

  • John Yang:

    Caverly, fresh from his breakout role in Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building," was cast in the lead role.

    Artistic director Loewith estimates this production cost about 40 percent more than a traditional staging. Among the added expenses? The doesn't sign language interpreters, a director of artistic sign language, or DASL, and two directors, one hearing, one deaf.

    The deaf director is Sandra Mae Frank, a star of the 2016 Broadway revival of "Spring Awakening." She wanted this staging to be different.

  • Sandra Mae Frank, Co-Director (through interpreter):

    I wanted to include American Sign Language, but I didn't want it to be anything that I'd seen done before. We have had deaf and hearing mixed productions in the past, but they're usually shadow hearing individuals voicing for deaf individuals, speaking their lines in English.

    And actors would then sometimes SimCom, which is speaking and signing at the same time, speaking English and signing at the same time. And that's very commonly what you see in the world of theater. And, with this, I wanted to do something different.

  • John Yang:

    So while all musical numbers are sung aloud, some scenes have dialogue only in sign language, with supertitles to aid hearing audience members.

    For Frank and director of artistic sign language Michelle Banks, who had the same job for this year's Broadway revival of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," it's that combination of signed and spoken words to tell a story that's both groundbreaking and promising.

    Michelle Banks, Director of ASL (through interpreter): This is not just a one-off. This is not just for the arts. This can be a part of who we are as a humanity, a society, that this is how we can interact and engage with each other to look at one another fully, completely, as our intersectional identities present, how we each navigate the world.

    Yes, this is beyond theater. You have to attend to the show. You may not know what's coming next. You're going to constantly have to be attuned, and your eyes, it's going to be a lot to absorb, right? Your eyes are a muscle, and they may feel stretched, but that's what the experience should be.

  • John Yang:

    Do you hope directors, producers and casting directors will take something away from this too?

  • Sandra Mae Frank (through interpreter):

    Absolutely. My hope is that, through this, this is not the last.

  • John Yang:

    As this diverse cast of actors unites their voices and hands in harmony.

    The show is to run through July 24.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Olney, Maryland.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a treat. And let's hope we see a lot more just like it.

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