When I was eighteen years old my dad took me to New York City to see a handful of Broadway shows. At the top of my list was Rent, a show I knew only from the buzz it still generated four years after opening. Of all the things that have happened to me in 34 years, Rent totally fucked with my life. I connected to it on a visceral level I didn’t know existed; it inspired, comforted and gave me courage to pursue dreams that no one else thought I should chase.
After high school graduation, instead of going back to New York as I’d hoped, I went to a tiny private school in Northern Minnesota with an even tinier theatre program. There, I fast became friends with a girl named Emily who stood by my terrified side at the accompanist’s piano for Fiddler on the Roof auditions and we warbled out a strikingly bad rendition of “My Favorite Things.” Our disastrous audition solidified our friendship and because of this new found connection with Em I found the courage to keep auditioning, to name theatre as my major and to keep plugging away at dreams that felt wildly out of reach.
Two years into our college career, Em and I would take a trip to Minneapolis to see a touring version of Rent. We would stand at the back of the theatre, only being able to afford standing room only tickets and screamed and cried and sang along. We understood Rent. We connected to Rent. Rent connected us to feelings we couldn’t name, understand or express.
The summer before our freshman year at college, Em worked at summer camp in Northern Minnesota. There, she met a young Deaf camper by the name of Daniel. Daniel was 8, and according to Em, had the most amazingly beautiful ASL. In one conversation, Daniel told her that she was a good signer and right then and there, because of this connection with an eight year old boy with big dreams of his own, Em decided to become an sign-language interpreter. And that boy? That boy became an actor.
That boy is Daniel Durant.
Daniel is currently starring as Moritz in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. He’s an astounding actor and Em is right, his ASL is so strikingly beautiful and passionate it’s hard to take your eyes off him even when his voiced counterpart is speaking/singing. After seeing the show, I texted Em in Minnesota to tell her that she needed to find a way to see it, not knowing her connection to Daniel. After hearing her story, I was again floored by the connective power of theatre.
From summer camp to a small-town college campus to the big lights of Broadway; theatre is, has and always will be about connection. Connection between audience and artist, between story and truth, between what we don’t know and what we need to know.
The Broadway revival of Spring Awakening by Deaf West is a theatrical exercise in connectivity. I came into this production a Spring Awakening virgin, but knew well the cult-like status it achieved in 2006. What I didn’t know was how the production would succeed in amalgamating ASL into a musical theatre context. What I found was that this show, a show about teenagers coming of age in a time of repression and rules, couldn’t be better suited for a production featuring both Deaf and hearing actors, spoken and signed word.
Spring Awakening is a show about the failure to communicate and the dangerous consequence on connectivity. It matters not whether the communication breakdown is between adults and teenagers, teachers and students, the Deaf community and hearing —what matters is, it’s being communicated—in two languages—in this show. Talked about, signed about, sung about—this show literally screams at you to pay attention. We, in 2015 with smartphones and diminishing attention spans and seemingly endless options to stay in contact, fail at communication more now than ever, and we need this show now more than ever.
This production is definitely a director’s show (and a stunning one at that) featuring an ensemble so tight, and so talented that you can barely believe how many “Broadway Debuts!” are listed in Playbill. And if ever there was a show that demanded a tight, communicative, connected cast, it’s this one. The danger of miscommunication and disconnection in this production goes far beyond the script, as the actors and musicians are responsible for physically cuing the Deaf actors; and it’s clear that the implications of a missed cue or miscommunication is far greater than the casual slip of a line. With complicated choreography utilizing the steel ladders and vertical play-spaces within the set, it’s obvious that the opportunity for danger can come at any moment with the slip of a line, a mis-timed gesture or inattention on the part of an actor. This ties so heartbreakingly well into the script it’s haunting. The staging, choreography, and synchronicity of ASL woven into the dialogue, music and choreography is executed so perfectly that days later, I’m still thinking about it.
While I loved the whole show, the most powerful moments came in the scene between Moritz and his father. Moritz admits he’s failed his final examination at school and his father is overcome with shame and concern for his own reputation. Projected on the wall behind the action is a transcription of the dialogue signed by the two Deaf actors. I found I didn’t need the transcription, in fact, I almost didn’t want it, so effectively did these two brilliant actors convey everything I needed to know about what was transpiring. Save for the moments of vocalization that aptly expressed the frustration, pain and breakdown of communication, the scene is silent. Heartbreaking, beautiful, glaringly and appropriately silent.
I realized, sitting in the audience listening to the young audience members go wild at the end of rock-like anthems like “Totally Fucked,” and “The Bitch of Living” that 1) I’m a lot older than I’d like to admit and 2) This is their Rent. I know the original Broadway production gained a cult-like following quickly, and though I didn’t see that production, I can see exactly why this show is so popular with young adults and anyone who feels misunderstood, alone or that they live life on the outskirts of societal expectations. It’s how I felt watching Rent years ago.
At the end of the play, Mortiz is asked what he’s looking for. If only I knew, he replies.
What Rent did for me and what I imagine Spring Awakening does for a new generation of young theatergoers is verbalize through sign language and speech, the feelings we’re often ashamed to admit we have, the disconnect we feel to adults and a society we see as oppressive, and most importantly give us the connection we don’t even know we need.