To celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March, actor and director Garrett Zuercher attended a Zoom party. The plan was to watch the original stage production of Sweeney Todd with a group of Deaf and hearing friends, but as soon as the stream began, Zuercher realized it wasn’t designed for him.
The video’s captions were bare-bones, rarely indicating which character sang what line; Sondheim’s give-and-take lyrics placed the onscreen text in a losing race, heaving in the wake of the music. For Zuercher, who is Deaf, the show was suddenly opaque—the captions only made it obvious how much he didn’t understand.
“The Deaf participants […] ended up asking our hearing friends for clarification and found ourselves saying, over and over: “Oh, that’s what THAT means?” Zuercher wrote in an email. “Oh, I always thought the other character said that!”
Zuercher’s frustration soon turned to clarity: the only way to make musical theater truly accessible, he said, is to provide visual language access. In an American Sign Language-interpreted show, Deaf actors sign without relying on the stiff constraints of captions, which can omit not just words but nuance.
Three weeks after the watch party, Zuercher—along with stage manager Miriam Rochford and actor-interpreter Kimberly Hale—called for a redo, this time presenting Sweeney Todd with an all-Deaf cast. Angela Lansbury still belted onscreen, but actors signed beside her, their expansive movements encroaching on the borders of Zoom squares. For a few hours, the two languages echoed each other, and the theater collective now known as “Deaf Broadway” took root in the reverb.
In the six months since, Deaf Broadway has performed seven musicals and posted five, most directed by Zuercher; their latest, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is currently streaming on YouTube. Each production uses Zoom recordings to interpret existing shows, often playing captioned video side-by-side as actors sign. While Deaf Broadway treads a familiar canon (taking on musicals like Into the Woods and Legally Blonde), the result is something close to unprecedented: theater “for the Deaf, by the Deaf,” Zuercher wrote.
“It’s incredibly rare to see a fully Deaf cast, especially in a musical,” Joey Caverly, a Deaf Broadway performer and Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL), said in an interpreted conversation. “A completely, entirely Deaf cast of professional actors […] in the same room so to speak, working on a show, it doesn’t happen.”
Zuercher agreed: onstage opportunities for Deaf actors are scarce, even as visibility increases. Plays like Nina Raine’s Tribes, Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive With You, and the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God the same year included Deaf characters and themes, but they’re the exceptions that prove the underlying rule.
Meanwhile, according to Deaf Broadway performer Harold Foxx, Deaf theater professionals typically answer to hearing higher-ups—creative “independence” isn’t always financially feasible. And even when companies feature Deaf performers, many said the community can feel transient, clustered in one city for the length of a show.
In some ways, the pandemic rendered all rules irrelevant. When your stage is cyberspace, there’s no need for a middleman; instead, the collective acts as connective tissue. Their Rocky Horror is a partnership with ASL Rocky NYC, a New York-based group that produces the show twice annually. Deaf Broadway’s version features actors from not only New York, but California, Texas, even Toronto, the result of an open casting call. This cohesion wasn’t possible before COVID-19, though Rochford said the seeds of it always existed.
“The Deaf theater community is already small and strong and people know each other, but it’s like the hearing theater community: you have friends, but you don’t see them often,” Rochford said. “It’s exactly the same in the Deaf theater community, but the opportunities to work together are even more rare.”
Now, Deaf Broadway can access a variety of performers—allowing them to “dream cast” roles, in Rochford’s words—and performers can access each other. It’s symbiosis, threaded through a screen.
Since Deaf Broadway’s reach is widespread, that access applies doubly to Deaf audience members. Zuercher’s experience with Sweeney Todd was an unexpected impetus, but far from unique; Deaf individuals often consume media by halves, receiving “crumbs at the kids’ table,” he wrote. During the pandemic, accessibility is an especially steep uphill battle: the world has flattened to fit the Internet, and though recorded shows like Disney+’s Hamilton fill a theatrical void, they don’t come with visual language access.
Deaf Broadway demonstrates what musical theater can look like, even while confined to two dimensions. After their production of Into the Woods, a mother of three children—two hearing and one Deaf—reached out to the collective, Rochford said. Her Deaf child had seen the recording and fallen in love: the 2014 film adaptation was her siblings’ favorite, and she could finally understand why.
While Deaf Broadway’s work is primarily for the Deaf community, performer and DASL Heba Toulan believes everyone benefits. Because interpreting shows in ASL is a creative process—lyrics don’t translate word-for-word—familiar musicals metamorphose, their meaning deepening by default.
“I’ve seen productions where everyone looks exactly the same, cookie cutter. And then the language is the same,” Toulan said in an interpreted conversation. “And it doesn’t bring the production to life.” Prior to the pandemic, she performed in multiple Shakespeare plays and would get the same feedback from hearing audiences, mantra-like: “I’ve never understood Shakespeare until I watched you sign it.”
This understanding is ongoing: though Deaf Broadway’s origin story links to COVID-19, Zuercher hopes their mission will continue when theaters reopen rusty doors. The productions prove what Deaf theater professionals can do, even with sometimes-shoddy Wi-Fi—they should be given more opportunities, but Zuercher believes those opportunities should start at the top. “It’s time for us to be invited to the table, not just as actors, but as producers, directors, writers, designers, and so on,” Zuercher wrote. “We have many stories to tell.”
For now, Deaf Broadway will continue to interpret well-loved classics—they’ve begun to confirm permissions with Musical Theatre International, broadening their potential repertoire. It’s a slow process, but no matter the speed, Deaf Broadway’s productions are a rare constant.
According to Hale, Broadway musicals typically offer only one or two interpreted shows, which don’t include a full cast of interpreters. Deaf audiences are left watching inconvenience masquerading as access—an unconvincing performance, all pathos. With every upload, Deaf Broadway provides an alternative.
“For Deaf theater or Deaf representation, we don’t need to wait for people to give us the opportunity,” Deaf Broadway performer Pamela Wright said in an interpreted conversation. “Deaf Broadway did not wait. They went ahead.”
That momentum is imbued in every Zoom recording. The first act of “Into the Woods” ends with the ensemble number “Ever After”—it’s meant to be an exhale before the upcoming chaos, Sondheim’s brief interlude. In Deaf Broadway’s version, actors signed different translations, each performing their version of the song.
While Deaf musical theater often demands unison—Deaf West’s 2015 Broadway production of Spring Awakening used choreographed ASL—Deaf Broadway allowed for disparate movement, actors “coming together and drifting apart,” Zuercher said. A hearing director might not have understood the effect, which resembled a burst dam of motion. But for Zuercher, each word echoed in a different key.
“For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I understood the concept of harmony.”