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A Music Man for Deaf Audiences

Some might argue that a certain revival can do a play “injustice.” However, when it is a matter of an outdated script, how can “justice” play a part in a revival? How can a musical revival set in the past “make today worth remembering?”

Meredith Willson’s beloved musical The Music Man was recently revived on Broadway and has already inspired debates on its inherent whiteness, reductive sanitation, and romanticization of the American Midwest—all of which point to its antiquated visions of Americana. Many reviews have cited that the issue with the revival lies in the conflation of those two very different realities: American does not equate to Americana.

While certainly not a perfect script, there is much to appreciate about The Music Man: its satire, its heart, and its enduringly catchy tunes. Knowing that these elements of nostalgia for musical theatre have long been made inaccessible to every audience member, is it possible to make that nostalgia for “the way we never were” available for all audiences? Nevertheless, certain questions remain: Why should The Music Man be produced today? Does nostalgia for musical theatre have a place with contemporary audiences? And, more importantly, if it continues to be produced, how could a different revival avoid Broadway’s mistakes?

As mentioned, the 1962 script has some crucial problems—some of which are thankfully overwritten in recent revivals. Yet the work is critically about learning to be better. Sentiments of hope and acceptance abound, there is a lot to consider about the personal growth of its hero, Harold Hill. Still, the current Broadway revival has failed many audiences in a number of ways. However, rather than discuss the challenges and pitfalls of a commercial Music Man, I want to highlight a production of Willson’s play that embraces an emphasis on difference and its recognition through a different kind of nostalgia.

Two actors speaking on stage.

The Music Man. Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland produced The Music Man at just about the same time the Broadway production opened, yet Olney Theatre Center’s production felt far more resonant with the musical’s potential. Rather than celebrate what the musical once was, Olney Theatre asks what this musical can be. Rather than perpetuate the divides that already exist in the audience, this Music Man attempts to create unity in an already divided world.

The answer to what this musical can be lies in Olney’s bold and meticulous steps to workshop and produce a full-scale, Deaf-centered musical for the first time ever on their stage. The production was co-directed by Sandra Mae Frank and Michael Baron, who identify as part of the Deaf and hearing communities respectively. As someone who is not part of the Deaf community but of the neurodivergent community, I found the production exemplary in its inclusion of Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, young audiences, and neurodivergent audiences alike.

On 23 June 2022, Olney Theatre Center opened this dynamic and bilingual adaptation of The Music Man, which was family friendly and fully accessible to the audience. The musical was presented simultaneously in English and American Sign Language (ASL). This “revolutionary production” championed access and inclusion in ethics of casting and engagement. The production, according to Olney, “not only casts a Deaf actor, James Caverly, in the lead role of Harold Hill but is generated by a company and creative team that consists of half Deaf and half hearing artists.”

The Music Man was likely chosen for this season for the same reason it was for Broadway: the musical is most commonly associated with its “nostalgia” factor. While this element of nostalgia has proven to be the downfall of the Broadway production, nostalgia can be a vehicle for accessibility if placed in the right context—especially when the nostalgic musical is granted to a community that is otherwise excluded from accessing it.

When taking on an older text and updating its vocabulary, a certain question might get posed: Is this production a translation or an adaptation? A translation tells the story in a language different than the original, in the hopes that the play’s meaning resonates in another time or another context. An adaptation takes an existing narrative or form and updates its interpretation to be specific to the context in which it is produced. How does one adapt something so steadfastly set in a specific time and place in America? How does one translate a musical and stay true to the cadence of the original score?

For this production of Meredith Willson’s 1962 musical, The Music Man, I intend to explore both arguments that this is a translation and an adaptation. I expect that there is validity to either argument, and both methods can be effective tools to allow an older text to succeed on stage in the current day. But with two different lenses in mind to think through this unique and innovative version of The Music Man, I hope to explain just how a Music Man for Deaf audiences is not only more accessible but can resonate far more deeply than a traditional rendering of the very same musical, regardless of how high profile or familiar it may be to any intended audience.

Six actors dancing and singing on stage.

CASE 1: Translation

There is no doubt that translation changes resonance. For instance, comedy might need to change its delivery. Words might have to be replaced with other, similar words. Sentence structures may change and so on. With a musical as well, cadence and rhythm must also be taken into consideration, assuming that the score itself is not going to change. Thus, the use of both languages, and the onstage interpreters and subtitles in The Music Man became an integral part of the production. This tells the audience it is never “one or the other.” Accessibility is not the afterthought, nor is it a gimmick. Rather, it is natural, integral, and harmonious with all other languages in this theatre space and in this onstage depiction of River City.

Olney Theatre Center’s The Music Man facilitates a welcome challenge with the casting of James Caverly, a former production team member at Olney who pitched The Music Man as the theatre’s first ever Deaf-centered performance. Caverly, a Deaf performer, played the titular musician alongside a cast that can communicate the entire play in both spoken English and ASL. The performance featured moments entirely in ASL and moments entirely spoken or sung in English. However, the majority of the production was communicated through both languages simultaneously.

One of the most fascinating elements of the story in this translation was that each of Winthrop’s lines (a character who notoriously speaks with a lisp) was delivered in ASL alone. Subtitles were true to the libretto in affecting how the spoken dialogue was intended to sound in Winthrop’s voice. As a character who is relegated to the outside more often than not, it did not matter that actor Christopher Tester is Deaf himself. Tester’s Deafness was not elemental to the character of Winthrop, proving that in this version of River City, Deafness does not exist on the periphery but is fundamental within this multilingual landscape.

Another question with regards to updating this musical is: How does translation affect the musicality of the work? Performance aficionados have taken issue with the vocal tonality of Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman’s voices being somehow “not right” for the score or for the characters they play on Broadway. Foster specifically has received pushback over her lower voice part because of her character Marian’s pivotal high soprano. Yet, would it not be true that this criticism of those already in the inner circles can further perpetuate who will and will not have the opportunity to share their stories onstage?

While vocal ability is certainly something to consider in the casting of a musical production, Olney Theatre dares to ask: What is the sound of music to those who cannot sense it in the traditional sense? With proliferated discussion on the drawbacks and benefits of nontraditional casting, one of the biggest arguments against musical translation has relied on whether a text can be altered in any way to address the differences of those onstage. This proves a challenge for various actors who did not identify at birth with the characters they are playing. So true is it here.

In this production, Caverly as Hill signed each of his individual songs, while performer Vishal Vaidya expanded the mostly non-singing role of Marcellus and provided the vocal accompaniment to Harold Hill. Claims for universalism in The Music Man do not take into consideration the many factors of identity that extend beyond merely who will or more specifically who can play a certain role. Yet there was never a sense that Harold Hill was not Deaf. Rather, the audience understands Deafness is a part of the River City community and part of who Harold Hill is in this production. Likewise, I assumed the other hearing characters in the play had simply taken the time to learn ASL in their own onstage lives. Thus, there was never a sense that the Deafness is not there or does not matter. On the other hand, Deafness defines part of their characters—it is simply not the only thing that defines their characters.

By making the entire score and libretto accessible to Deaf and hearing audiences alike, Olney Theatre decided to break the unwritten rules that most American musicals tell an audience about what gets to be interpreted and who gets to do the interpreting. Moreover, this production also expands who gets to attend and enjoy a large-scale production of a Golden Age musical. It was the integrity of the interpretation, rather than the meticulousness of the translation, that made this show truly accessible to all.

Two actors in the foreground holding hands and singing to each other.

CASE 2: Adaptation

The case for adaptation asks: Why this play now? The penultimate song in the musical is the frequently covered “Till There Was You.” The song tells us, among other sentiments, “There were bells on a hill, but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all, ’till there was you.” At this point, Harold Hill is not accompanied by Vaidya’s vocals. Rather he signs his part of the duet entirely in ASL as Marian sings along in spoken English. This moment is one that perhaps most directly veers from the score, as before this moment, all songs had had at least some form of vocalization. In this moment, the audience recognizes that while differences had been somewhat ignored throughout the production, it is necessary to wed those differences. Two characters who speak different languages are able to form aural synchronization to find their own form of harmony. This is not merely a moment of translation, as it effectively changes the script to mean something specific in the context of this adaptation.

The final moment of Olney Theatre’s The Music Man best exemplifies the fact that each person holds the potential and the vitality to experience music differently. In Meredith Willson’s musical, Harold Hill finally reckons with the aftermath of his schemes. In the end, he prevails—but not out of the mastery of his conmanship. It is not the quality of the band’s music that wins over the town but rather the imprints he left on each individual member of the community. In a figurative sense, while the band’s music is technically cacophonous and off-key, the onstage parents and friends of the children in the band hear only their commitment, confidence, and joy. Therefore, if one can say that music is a universal language, then this cannot refer to the quality or the sentimentality of the music we hear; it must be about the emphatic and visceral experiences of making the music itself and the act of witnessing that in others.

Nevertheless, again: Why this play now? In addition to incorporating a cast of Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors alike, the casting also demonstrated a range of different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and abilities. Still, The Music Man speaks to an America that feels very far off from what it truly was then or is today.

Several actors posing upstage and downstage of each other.

In September of 2001, The Music Man played at the Neil Simon Theatre. After a two-day pause following the events of 9/11 in New York City, the actors returned to the stage on 13 September 2001 with an argument that extended across the country: this is the musical we need right now. Two decades later, Broadway set a plan to remount a star-studded adaptation of Meredith Willson’s beloved musical with a similar thought in mind. Yet, with criticism abound, is this really the musical America needs right now? With fervent criticism of the Broadway production, therein lies the question: Is this not the right musical ever? Or is this not the right revival for right now?

The problem most critics find with Willson’s musical is something along the lines of, “It just doesn’t work anymore.” What I derive from this sentiment is that not only are certain stories excluded from River City, but there is no empathy for those who were excluded. Nor is there any acknowledgement of that exclusion to begin with. The act of producing a Deaf-centered translation seems to argue that, in this vision of River City, no one will be excluded from getting to tell their story, nor will anyone be excluded from responding to it.

Finally, is this truly a faithful translation, or has this adaptation set itself outside of Willson’s picturesque Americana? The co-directors locate a vision of utopia in Willson’s musical town; a place where anyone and everyone can synchronize in harmony. While we know today that this vision is met with a deeply dissonant reality, the concept still holds the possibility to deliver utopia onstage. Frank and Baron seem to find that, much like the band plays off-key at the end of The Music Man, utopia need not exist like the perfect “barbershop quartet,” nor should it be overly nostalgic for a world that “once was.” Rather, it should form a vision of what the world could be, or “the way we never were.”

It’s possible that the nostalgic quality is palpable in the translation. But as an adaptation, the play is set in the past to imagine what could have been and, more importantly, a sentiment of community that could still potentially be. In this utopian community, the characters are able to embrace the differences and dissonances in each person’s unique voice and means of communicating the story they want to tell. Whether this utopia is possible or not, for a brief few hours, it is realized onstage. Thus, while the vision of yesterday that appears in this play need not be relived, the final moment of this play tells a new and inclusive audience that they can “make today worth remembering.”

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