An Open Letter To The Tony Awards, Deaf Talent Is Here

Written by Bill, Edited by Gabrielle

With the conclusion of the Grammys and the Oscars, it is time to gear up for the Tony Awards. I do not envy the job ahead for the Tony voters. The 2015-2016 season is my first season to have the honor of experiencing Broadway myself. From my own personal experience as well as the multitude of articles i have read and the many people I have talked to, this season was a very special one indeed.

Broadway is home to the most outstanding theatrical performances in America, if not arguably the world. It comes as no surprise to me when I hear of a person talking about how amazing a Broadway show they saw was. In fact, I would be more surprised to hear that a performance they experienced was less then stellar. Let’s be honest, on Broadway you have the best people at every aspect of theatre: the top performers, directors, choreographers, stage managers, make-up and hair stylists. If you are among the best in any aspect of theatre then Broadway is where you want to make your mark. The best become better by being among the best in their craft.

How is it possible then to decide which of the many outstanding shows are deserving of arguably the most esteemed of all performance awards, the Tony Award? The level of talent available to every show is at the point where the most minuscule of differences from one show to the next will be the deciding factor between a nomination, not being mentioned or even in the win. A person could argue for the merits of nearly any show on Broadway I shall focus on the merits of one show in particular.

The production of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening presents many merits that are not limited to personal preferences that make it a strong contender for a multitude of nominations and, more importantly, many Tony awards. This show has already won many awards at every level that is has been presented. The 2015 Ovation awards saw Deaf West’s Spring Awakening take home more awards then any other production for the entire year. It was also the first show ever to win the Ovation award for both intimate theatre as well as a large theatre production, which had never happened before in the history of the Ovation awards.

BroadwayWorld regional awards for Los Angeles are awards that are voted on by the general public and in every category that a Spring Awakening cast member was nominated, they won it convincingly. They dominated awards for their West Coast run and the show only improved when the show moved east to the Great White Way.

There was some apprehension early on from many on Broadway. Was it too early for a revival? After all, it was less then a decade since the original production of Spring Awakening had closed, a Broadway hit that garnered 8 Tony Awards themselves. Once the previews of the new production began and the reviews started rolling in, that question quickly became mute. The show was a hit and many started referring to it as not a revival, but a reinvention. The reviews that did compare the original to Deaf West’s reimagined one unanimously determined that the revival was superior, while taking nothing away from the original. It is truly unfair to compare the two shows on even footing because, though they were both the same story and same music, the integration of American Sign Language to augment the central them of lack of communication between the parents and kids in the show strengthened the storyline so much that it took Spring Awakening to a new level. Throughout its limited run, the incredible reviews and stories never seemed to end. The production was termed the most emotional show on Broadway in over a decade and also called the most important show on Broadway. By the end, the show found itself listed on 16 different top ten shows of 2015 lists. The cast was also invited to perform at The White House and received a commendation from the Mayor of New York City for their spectacular inclusivity.

Speaking of the cast, this critically acclaimed group of performers were not a seasoned group of Broadway veterans that you would expect to be getting this kind of recognition. When 2015’s Spring Awakening stepped foot in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, twenty eight pairs of feet were making their Broadway debuts. As amazing as this cast was, there were a few cast members that were recognized individually. The Clive Barnes awards, an award given to young professionals in theatre or dance, saw three cast members of Spring Awakening to be nominated: Katie Boeck, Sandra Mae Frank and Austin McKenzie. Additionally, an article in the Huffington Post that named the top ten individual performances of 2015 saw Sandra Mae Frank and Daniel Durant, two more Awakening cast members, recognized for their work on the show.

This production also saw many firsts on Broadway. Spring Awakening brought the first wheel chair-bound performer to a Broadway stage, Ali Stroker. Austin Mckenzie was the first Broadway performer to simultaneously sign and sing his role. The Spring Awakening ticket lottery was first to be performed in sign language.

i would like to talk about director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff. Arden, along with cast member Andy Mientus‘ genius foresight to reimagine Spring Awakening with ASL (American Sign Language) was beyond legendary in how the show translated from concept to the stage. Spencer Liff must be the greatest choreographer to ever step on a Broadway stage. I am certain there are many superbly talented choreographers out there, but what Mr. Liff did with Spring Awakening was unbelievable. Liff created a seamless integration of two cultures as one. He created choreography that did not merely flow beautifully but also relayed the full story to those that could not hear the words or songs. He also perfectly integrated Ali Stroker into the choreography.

The tech work across the board was flawless and I dare say superior to anything I have ever seen on Broadway. A lot of the tech work that was used could not even be seen on stage. Two of the three lead actors, Sandra Mae Frank and Daniel Durant are profoundly deaf so the relied on cues that the tech team had to develop like off stage lighting or shoulder shrugs and a multitude of other gestures on and off stage to let them know when to start their actions.

I do not know the full list of criteria used by the Tony voters but I am certain the decisions must be difficult ones. All Broadway shows under Tony consideration are amazing and spectacular but this one excels. Just by the very nature of the barriers broken and barriers overcome, to not grant this monumental production credit for doing what no other has ever done would be wrong. Spring Awakening presents a multitude of merits that make it beyond worthy for not only Tony nominations but also for Tony wins.

All Broadway shows manage to entertain for a couple of hours, but Spring Awakening actually managed to change lives. Patrons that experienced the show left not only entertained but also inspired to learn sign language. They took that inspirational show and integrated that beautiful culture into their own life and in doing so truly took the that beautiful integration of cultures off the stage and into their own lives.

Remember what Stevie Wonder said at the Grammys this year: “We need to make every single thing accessible to every person with a disability.” This year the cast of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening did just that. Hopefully the production gets the recognition it so rightly deserves.

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