Deaf West's Spring Awakening's Message: Open Your Eyes and Listen!

Amanda Mueller

 “It is a story about people dying to be heard. To be understood.” –Michael Arden

When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in 2006, it felt as if what defined a Broadway musical had been flipped on its head.  The Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik Tony Award-winning production introduced a world of possibilities for representation on Broadway with its courage to talk about teenage sexuality, abuse, suicide, and a list of taboo subjects that Broadway has often neglected.  The story redefined the limits Broadway could reach and inspired new artists to soar even higher.

Jump to a decade later at the Brooks Atkinson Theater where Broadway’s limits were once again tested.  Director Michael Arden’s brilliantly reimagined Spring Awakening not only a beautifully intricate and inspiring story, but a story told simultaneously in two languages.  With Deaf West Theatre, Michael Arden and his collaborators created a Spring Awakening told in both English and American Sign Language.  In doing so, Spring Awakening, a ground-breaking production for the Broadway community, became a ground-breaking production for diversity.

Diversity, while definitely progressing in the theatre world, is still a struggle for actors and creators who are not being represented.  What is so miraculous and inspiring about Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is their ability to look past any sort of difference to include the best storytellers.  Deaf actors, wheelchair-using actors, and racially diverse actors alike joined together to yell into Broadway’s face, “See? This isn’t so hard!”

Deaf West’s Spring Awakening created a spectacle where deaf people can go and fully experience a beautiful art form that has not always been so kind to their wants.  It also introduced the world to a number of deaf actors who made their Broadway debut in Spring Awakening.  The impact of inclusive theatre is abundant and encouraging and the story of Spring Awakening allowed the door to inclusion to be pushed open a little wider.

Sadly, the show was pre-determined to close in January and thus, Broadway’s lights dimmed on January 24th when the production took its final bow. With only running for a few months, thousands of fans were not able to make the trip to New York to see it. So now what?

Bill Frank, father of Spring Awakening actor Sandra Mae Frank, created a petition that will hopefully allow this production to reach the audience that may not have had the chance to see the show on Broadway or in its first two runs in California.  In his petition, he address Patrick Hoffman, Director of Film Archive at the New York Public Library, and asks for his dispersion of the official video recording of Spring Awakening be sent to deaf schools and deaf libraries across the United States. Official recordings of Broadway productions are majority for the New York Public Library only and that is why Frank’s request is stirring up so much buzz.

The release of Spring Awakening to deaf schools and libraries, though unconventional, is a bold step towards inclusion for the deaf community.  It is no secret New York productions are expensive, let alone the travel, so it makes sense to allow a show this important to the deaf community accessible to those who never had the chance to experience it. 

Who knows? Maybe someone in the Mid-West will see this production and become the next Michael Arden, ready to change the world of theatre one production at a time.

In the meantime, Broadway, the bar has now been set.  How are you going to top it?

Frank’s petition can be found here.