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With a Grammy category dedicated solely to musical theatre, it’s safe to say that Broadway is largely defined by how good the music is. So when I heard that Broadway actor-turned-stage-director Michael Arden is taking Spring Awakening, a musical near and dear to my heart, and reinventing it with American Sign Language, my first thought was: how?

Spring Awakening is, in the barest of definitions, a coming-of-age story. It’s a rock musical that I, in my first time listening to it, thought to be more messed up and more tragic than it could have been. The musical is set in late 19th-century Germany, and follows a group of teenagers as they discover their own sexualities while faced with adults determined to prevent them from exploring their own lives and bodies. When the play which this musical was based on was first released, it was censored for its unashamed and blunt portrayal of issues such asrape, abortion, the queer identity, child abuse and suicide. Looking back at it now and seeing it in a new light, Spring Awakening is neither messed up nor tragic for the heck of it. It’s not even didactic in the way people seem to assume it is. It’s a musical that’s nothing if not honest and personal, and under Michael Arden’s careful hand, it comes alive again with a newfound intimacy and an intense poignancy.

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The musical opened last 2006, with Glee’s Lea Michele and now Broadway vet Jonathan Groff starring as the show’s main pair, and proceeded to sweep that season’s Tony Awards. Last July 2015, Arden spearheaded the first Broadway revival of Spring Awakening by moving it from its home at the Deaf West Theatre and into New York’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. With him came a cast of both non-hearing and hearing actors and a show presented simultaneously in spoken English, sung songs and choreographed ASL. The result is another take at Spring Awakening, yes, but with double the passion the 2006 production had and with the content even more hard-hitting than before.

Deaf characters are introduced into the story this time around, and for a musical where communication is a key theme, it opens up the show for a different kind of in-depth exploration. It cuts open the musical everyone had gotten to know and love, and bares its bones not just to the audience but especially to the musical theatre community. ASL is a constant part of the choreography for Spring Awakening, and each actor uses ASL, whether or not they’re singing, speaking or signing. The spotlight is on the deaf actors for majority of the production, all of whom are accompanied by separate actors doing the singing and speaking off-stage. The entire cast works together to make Spring Awakening what it is, may it be teaching the hearing cast members ASL or working their way around with non-verbal cues between songs, and the effect is a musical that is enchanting in its own right, with or without the music.

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It’s not often that ASL and deaf culture is acknowledged in its entirety as a limitless world in itself, and surely not in a community where music is such a defining factor. It’s rare enough that the entertainment world sincerely and earnestly depicts different cultures and languages co-existing in one storyline. Spring Awakening subverts the idea that musical theatre is strictly for the musically inclined, and reminds the world that music or not, there’s always a story to be found and acknowledged, no matter how personal or intimate.

As the characters wrestle with sexuality and growing up, the Deaf West Theatre’s production drives home the idea that sexuality, especially for those coming of age, is something universal, something that needs to be talked about and shared instead of swept under the rug. With the help of its mixed cast and the poignancy already present in the show, this revival unifies multiple communities while also widening viewers’ perspective.

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“It’s the story of America then,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda about his newest Broadway brainchild, Hamilton in an interview with The Atlantic, “Told by America now.”

Broadway does not have much of a history of diversity, but this time, there’s change in the air. With five-time Tony Award winner Fun Home being the first musical to feature a lesbian central character, NBC’s The Wiz Live! dominating the viewership with its all black cast, and with Miranda’s incredibly diverse Hamilton leading the cavalcade, it’s definitely taking steps to change that, stat.

Hamilton is a story centred around American history. It is the tale of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s very distinguished and very white founding fathers — who happens to be, in this stage adaptation, played by a Puerto Rican. The musical chronicles his rise and fall from power, a modern tragedy Aristotle would have approved of, with significant historical figures making up the rest of the cast. The narration begins with a rap by Aaron Burr (played by African-American Leslie Odom, Jr.) and ends with an epilogue sung by Alexander’s wife, Eliza (played by Chinese-American Phillipa Soo). Between the beginning and the end is a story that does not disappoint and a soundtrack that never bores, all while trying its best to simultaneously stay true to history and load up on even the most obscure of references.

Still not clear on what the hype is about, exactly? I can take several guesses. One, it’s a Broadway show, yes, and while I do love myself an impressive show tune a la Book of Mormon’s “I Believe,” most of the songs in Hamilton sit right at home in the hip-hop genre. Boasting raps that are as eloquent as they are catchy, and as fast as they are poignant, the show distinguishes itself from the well-known belting of Phantom of the Opera’s Christine and the distinctive melodies of Les Miserables. Two, save for a single character, the whole cast is in fact also comprised of people of colour. In addition to Odom and Soo, former American President Thomas Jefferson is played by Daveed Diggs, who’s also praised for one of the fastest rap solos in Broadway history in his other Hamilton role as the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette. Alongside Diggs is Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Okierete Onaodowan is America’s fourth President, James Madison. Three, the musical is very careful in its references to historical facts, but at various points also pays homage to current events, even if that calls for several significant cameo roles or subtly satirical lyrics. Why is everyone so interested in Hamilton? Historically semi-accurate raps, America’s first ever presidents played by people of colour, or current events called out in the form of raps — take your pick.

In light of the recent release of Oscar nominations and the backlash that followed against the lack of diversity (yet again), Hamilton serves as an example of just how misled all the excuses and justifications Hollywood has attempted to scavenge in response are. Hollywood is particularly fond of the “no one will watch it” excuse, the notion that somehow a diverse cast won’t attract as broad an audience as a white cast would. Though musicals are in many ways different from the film industry, Hamilton nonetheless begs to differ. It reached record-breaking sales before its Broadway premiere, and tickets remain sold out until the very end of 2016. The diverse representation has been widely acclaimed, and save for the inevitable outspokenness of those that are personally offended by seeing George Washington played by a biracial man, the cast has received nothing but praise for their spectacular performances of equally spectacular songs. If a show like Hamilton, despite being so strictly about well-known white historical figures, can afford a little wiggle room and repurpose a story with an angle that majority of filmmakers are hesitant to touch, Oscar-worthy or not, then why can’t others do the same?

While I do love myself an impressive show tune a la Book of Mormon’s “I Believe,” most of the songs in Hamilton sit right at home in the hip-hop genre.

Broadway still has a long way to go, but what shows like Hamilton, Fun Home and The Wiz Live! prove in receiving reception better than what anyone expected is that the business excuse is starting to get a little old. It’s about time Hollywood stopped operating under the notion that whiteness is a human default and therefore a storyline must, and instead realize that there is as much potential in the three-way link between cultural excellence, diverse representation, and whatever profitability the cinematic industry seeks.

Better find a new excuse soon, Hollywood.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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