Deaf West’s Spring Awakening: From 99-Seat to Broadway

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[dropcap]Crazy[/dropcap]. Insane. Ridiculous.” That’s how Cody Lassen, producer of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, describes the past year — a journey which has included a production transfer from a 99-seat black-box in downtown Los Angeles to the regional platform of the Wallis and now to Broadway, where it will open September 27.

The word “whirlwind” is tossed around a lot when speaking to members of the creative team, including producer Lassen, choreographer Spencer Liff and director Michael Arden. It’s easy to understand the sense of combined awe and whiplash when Lassen explains that the time between their first preview (at a 99-seat theater in L.A.) to the day the production will open on Broadway will total a mere 366 days. That’s an unprecedented turnaround for a 99-seat production to make the jump to the Great White Way.

As Liff puts it, “from rehearsing in a Downtown warehouse that smelled like cat pee to being on Broadway is pretty crazy.”

For Arden and Liff, this journey began two years ago with a two-week workshop at Deaf West that was meant to mount five or six songs from the musical. Due to the challenges of translating the rock musical into American Sign Language, only two songs were mounted. Despite that, “it went very well,” Liff says. “People came and saw the two songs that we did and were in tears, and I think we knew we had something special then.”

Still, despite these early glimmers of success, no one anticipated the show would take a fast track to Broadway. “I thought that we might be able to tour the show a bit,” says Liff. “When we were at the Wallis and [being] received the way we were, I thought New York might be a possibility. But I definitely thought that it would be in like a year or two, and very much an off-Broadway setting.”

Photo by Kevin Parry
Photo by Kevin Parry

Arden was even more surprised at this rapid turn of events: “I never really thought it was a Broadway show. The original production happened so recently and just the economics of doing a show with this many people… so I’m really heartened by the fact that the producers are willing to take this risk on such a difficult thing so soon.”

For Arden, the Broadway transfer holds special meaning — a chance to come full circle. He made his Broadway debut in 2003 as Tom Sawyer in Deaf West’s last Broadway production, a revival of Big River.

“For a company that unexpectedly gave me so much in my life, both personally and professionally, to be able to be a catalyst for bringing [them] back to a world stage is extremely gratifying,” he says.

For most of the young cast, this production will mark their Broadway debuts (save Smash alums Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez). Several cast members moved to Los Angeles specifically to join the production and, for some, it would be their very first production.

Despite holding additional auditions in New York, the majority of the original cast is staying with the production. “Our show is like a beautiful puzzle, like a Jenga tower,” says Liff, “and when you start pulling blocks out of it and replacing here and there, I personally felt the whole thing could come crashing down. We’re a very well-oiled machine, and I wanted to stay a family.”

The New York production has, however, added one new and familiar face to its roster — Academy Award-winner and deaf actress Marlee Matlin will make her Broadway debut as one of the adult women. “I think she will get the attention of a lot of deaf audience members,” Liff says, “and we want them all to come see this. It’s the reason we’re doing the show — to give a wonderful musical theatre experience to a deaf audience.”

Artistic Director of Deaf West, DJ Kurs, hopes Matlin’s presence will inspire other young actors. In an email he notes, “Marlee Matlin is probably the most prominent deaf person in the world and we’re very honored to have her in our production. While Marlee is one of a kind, I hope this production will result in ten more deaf actors who have the impact that Marlee had on this world.”

Photo by Kevin Parry
Photo by Kevin Parry

In addition to the success story of the production itself, it also marks a triumph for Los Angeles theater. “The L.A. theater community doesn’t get the credit it deserves outside of L.A. So I’m looking at this as a win for our entire community out here,” says Lassen.

“Our community is rarely thrust onto a national stage,” adds Kurs. “And we are doing this in the best way possible. We are not just good sign language theater — we are good theater, period.”

At a time of substantial transition for the Los Angeles intimate theater community, Lassen cites the value the 99-Seat Plan has afforded the production. “We never would have been able to afford to do this if we couldn’t have started under the 99-Seat Plan, just to see if it even worked,” says Lassen. The rehearsal process, he adds, took three months of painstaking work. Lassen, Arden, Liff, and Kurs all concur that the show could not have become a reality without the launching point of a 99-seat production, due to original financial constraints.

Arden sums up the value of the 99-Seat Plan in one sentence: “It gives experimental work the chance to happen that might not be producible otherwise.”

Spring Awakening begins previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York on September 8, where it will give East Coast and Broadway audiences a glimpse into the caliber of L.A.’s theater scene.

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Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker

Maureen is a writer, actor, and director. She currently writes about arts & entertainment for Neon Tommy, as well as a monthly column about groundbreaking women in Hollywood for Ms. In the Biz. She holds a B.A. in History and Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California, as well as a Master’s in British History from the University of Oxford. Because she doesn’t have enough degrees, she is also currently working towards a M.A. in Arts Journalism at USC. Theatrically, she can mostly be found at the Antaeus Theater, where she is a proud affiliate.