The Representation of Disability in Musical Theatre

9 Dec

In taking a course titled the Meaning and Music at the University of Richmond, the class took a look at disability and its portrayal in opera. In this essay, I will attempt to analyze more in-depth the portrayal of disability in musical theatre. In doing so the focus areas of this essay will explore physical disability on Broadway, the characterization of disability in musicals/plays, and particularly how African American women playwright disability.

One might ask: What is the difference between an opera and a musical? This question is becoming more of a difficult one to answer considering that certain aspects from both forms of theatre have overlapped with each other to a certain extent. To provide a very basic generalization, operas are often sung entirely through in production without having long pauses of interruption, whereas musicals require a form of spoken dialogue that is interspersed with moments of singing.1Classical Music. “What Is the Difference between a Musical and an Opera?” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/what-is-the-difference-between-a-musical-and-an-opera/. More precise contrasts can be made to separate the two styles, but for the purposes of this essay, this distinction will do.

Before we begin, it is important to define disability as it can be expressed in many different ways. The Americans with Disabilities Act (or the ADA) defines disability as: “(A) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such impairment; (C) or being regarded as having such an impairment”.2LII / Legal Information Institute. “42 U.S. Code § 12102 – Definition of Disability.” Accessed December 10, 2020.  https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

There have been several interpretations to defining what narrative prosthesis is. Blake Howe suggests that it usually appears with a disabled character in the storyline, but it serves two purposes: “it gives the story a problem to solve; and it defines by counterexample the desirability of the subsequent resolution”.3blakemusicology. “Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction.” Music and Disability at the SMT and AMS (blog), November 20, 2013. https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/disability-studies-for-musicians-an-introduction/. There are traditionally three themes within this concept that guide the narrative. The first being the “cure or kill” paradigm—in which both outcomes seek to eliminate disability from the story. There exists “overcoming”—in which the disabled character develops either some form of superpower or skill to make their disability null and void. The third strategy to narrative prosthesis is accommodation, in which one’s disability is no longer regarded as a hindrance because the individual received an accommodation of some sort.4blakemusicology. “Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction.” Music and Disability at the SMT and AMS (blog), November 20, 2013. https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/disability-studies-for-musicians-an-introduction/.

If there is a musical to feature disability, it is likely that the musical takes on one of these themes in order to give the story a central issue, following a solution. For example, the creators of the Broadway musical Wicked, exploit disability with the intent to provide theatrical backstories to characters originating from Gregory Maguire’s iconic novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.5queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/. Nessarose Thropp is one of the main characters who is physically disabled as she uses a wheelchair for mobility.6queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/.

 

Nessarose Thropp in Wicked              

From “Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies, and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity,” writers Hayes and Black explain how visuals of disability arouse pity from able-bodied characters, interpreting disability as “a set of signs and symbols that are articulated through the discourse of pity into the context of the film’s characters, plot and setting… the disability or results of the disability are the focal points, not the person.”7queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/. With that said, that is nearly identical to what is illustrated in Wicked. The able-bodied characters show immediate pity towards Nessarose from judging her physical appearance as a “handicapped” individual. However, Nessarose harbors resentment from feeling disadvantaged and helplessness and channels her resentment into anger as she embodies an evil persona. She exercises harsh rule over her subjects (which are munchkins), and the writers of the play bolster Nessarose as an evil villain in order to give reason to her foreseeable death, which in turn contrasts the theme of evil versus good in supporting characters.8queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/. Interestingly enough, the musical reaches a pivotal point as Elphaba is able to conjure up a spell to give Nessarose the ability to walk. This scene is regarded as a triumphant, glorious event, representing a cure to Nessarose’s disability and often accumulating an uproar of applause from the audience.9queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/.

Despite this being an impactful moment to the storyline and also for the audience members, by the same token it’s an unfortunate scene, because it affirms the idea of treating disability as a problem to solve. In which I argue that shouldn’t be the case because this removal of disability confirms the notion that the disabled body is inferior to the able-bodied and creates further divide between differences.

Broadway’s Spring Awakening Cast

Now we look at Spring Awakening, a rock musical inspired by one of Frank Wedekind’s plays, which is set in 19th century Germany. The plot follows a few teenagers as they explore sexuality and other aspects of life in coming of age.10Time. “Here’s How Deaf Actors Are Breaking Boundaries on Broadway.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://time.com/4062110/spring-awakening-broadway-deaf-west/. What’s particularly interesting about this revival is that it was produced by Deaf West Theatre, a non-profit arts organization that attempts to incorporate both American Sign Language (ASL) and Spoken English in order to provide more inclusivity and representation for deaf actors in musical theatre.11Time. “Here’s How Deaf Actors Are Breaking Boundaries on Broadway.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://time.com/4062110/spring-awakening-broadway-deaf-west/. Actors with this disability were accompanied by speaking actors on stage to provide voice to the character. Unlike many other musicals that feature disability, this revival’s intentions were not necessarily focusing on disability as a part of the storyline, nor attempting to provide a solution to its “problem”. 

One of the stars whose second-from-left in this picture made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway. This accomplishment was made in 2015.12Apr 19, Emily Kranking, 2019 Hollywood Inclusion, and Press Releases 6 comments. “Physical Disabilities Take the Rare Spotlight on Broadway.” Respect Ability, April 19, 2019. https://www.respectability.org/2019/04/physical-disabilities-broadway/. Which is shocking because there have been plenty of roles before now that could have easily featured a disabled body actor in a wheelchair, not to mention roles that actually call for individuals with this particular disability such as A Little Night Music’s Madame Armfeldt or President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Annie. One of the reasons why we could possibly justify the underrepresentation of actors in musical theatre is because it wasn’t until 1990, in which the ADA was passed into law requiring theaters to accommodate their buildings with physical aids such as ramps and elevators.13queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/. Not to mention the additional challenges that disabled individuals face in their performances. In an interview with Vulture, Ali Stroker, the disabled actor in Spring Awakening said, “Usually, the first day of rehearsal, whether we’re working on choreography or not, I always introduce myself to the choreographer. It’s important, if you move differently, to have a good relationship.14Apr 19, Emily Kranking, 2019 Hollywood Inclusion, and Press Releases 6 comments. “Physical Disabilities Take the Rare Spotlight on Broadway.” Respect Ability, April 19, 2019. https://www.respectability.org/2019/04/physical-disabilities-broadway/.

A scene from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus

 

Next, we look to see how disability is portrayed differently than what we commonly see in musicals. African American women playwright disability (coupled with race and gender) in order to “give voice to the lived experience of being a disabled person of color, to call attention to common experiences, and to enhance an understanding of identities as socially constructed”.15Fox, Ann M. “A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women.” Legacy 30, no. 1 (2013): 151–71. https://doi.org/10.5250/legacy.30.1.0151. In addition to these objectives, many playwrights feature disability to “recount history, pain, sexual violence, … and the intersecting and stigmatized experiences of color and the disabled”.16Fox, Ann M. “A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women.” Legacy 30, no. 1 (2013): 151–71. https://doi.org/10.5250/legacy.30.1.0151. For example, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, portrays the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a South African woman whose body was put on display for objectification in 19th century Europe. Despite being disputed, it is believed that in 1810, Baartman allegedly ‘signed’ a contract with an Englishman to work as a domestic servant for entertainment purposes. Baartman’s large rear and distinct coloring, which was considered to be an impairment, made her a sight to see for British audiences throughout Europe.17“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman | South African History Online.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman. Rather than Parks attempting to be historically accurate, she was more so concerned with using Baartman’s career to highlight colonization, racial objectification, and the historical sexualization of black female bodies in Venus.18Catanese, Brandi Wilkins. The Problem of the Color(Blind): Racial Transgression and the Politics of Black Performance. Theater–Theory/Text/Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Now to segway into how music is written differently for characters with a disability than music sung by other characters, we look to the musical, Passion, which is set in 19th century Italy. Stephen Sondheim, the playwright for the musical, said in an interview that Passion “is about how the force of somebody’s feelings for you can crack you open, and how it is the life-force in a deadened world.”19Henry, Shawn. “Sounding Disability in Musical Theatre: Sonic Markers of Mental Impairment for Female Characters on the Contemporary Broadway Stage,” March 16, 2018. https://DalSpace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/73782. The musical focuses on themes of love, sex, manipulation, and illness. One of the main characters, Fosca, who frequently displays fits of hysteria (that is seen both onstage and offstage) suggests she is suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact, her illness is described as “an overly sensitive nervous system that is debilitating”.20Henry, Shawn. “Sounding Disability in Musical Theatre: Sonic Markers of Mental Impairment for Female Characters on the Contemporary Broadway Stage,” March 16, 2018. https://DalSpace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/73782. Fosca’s first song, “Fosca’s Entrance Part 1,” showcases a variety of differing musical sections which often compliments her constant mood swings and imbalanced emotional state. To give more of an understanding to how Fosca’s music is characterized, here is a brief clip from the original Broadway musical in which we become introduced to Fosca. Fosca sings almost an octave and a half lower than Clara (another female character in the play), setting her in a much lower register that “sets the tone to establish both her exhaustion and illness”.21Henry, Shawn. “Sounding Disability in Musical Theatre: Sonic Markers of Mental Impairment for Female Characters on the Contemporary Broadway Stage,” March 16, 2018. https://DalSpace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/73782. Throughout the musical, there is distinctness in Fosca’s voice; there are irregular rests and jumps from note to note.

A line from “Fosca’s Entrance Part 1”

Above, lies a line from “Fosca’s Entrance Part 1”. As you can see, there are large intervals of rest at the ends of the two phrases “I came to thank you for the books” and “I would have sooner, but I’ve been so ill” to evoke pity from Giorgio, the character she’s talking to. 

Nearly one in four Americans have a disability.22HowlRound Theatre Commons. “Disability, Identity, and Representation.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://howlround.com/disability-identity-and-representation. There needs to be more representation of disabled characters in musicals that also portray these characters in a positive light; without the attempt to provide a solution to their problem. The Fries test, proposed by Kenny Fries, is a test to see if minimum standards are met in accurately representing disability in literature. This test can be applied to theatre and the questions to be asked are: 1) Is there more than one disabled character? 2) Do the disabled characters have purposes other than being there for the benefit or edification of the non-disabled characters? 3) Is disability not removed from the narrative through death or a cure?23HowlRound Theatre Commons. “Disability, Identity, and Representation.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://howlround.com/disability-identity-and-representation. If this test was to be considered by playwrights, this could potentially promote positive change in theatre and allow for inclusivity. 

For Discussion

  1. Can you think of any musicals or operas that use disability as a narrative device?
  2. What are some ways in which we can promote inclusivity for disabled actors and characters to be represented on Broadway or on other musical platforms? 

Bibliography 

Apr 19, Emily Kranking, 2019 Hollywood Inclusion, and Press Releases 6 comments. “Physical Disabilities Take the Rare Spotlight on Broadway.” Respect Ability, April 19, 2019. https://www.respectability.org/2019/04/physical-disabilities-broadway/.

blakemusicology. “Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction.” Music and Disability at the SMT and AMS (blog), November 20, 2013. https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/disability-studies-for-musicians-an-introduction/.

Catanese, Brandi Wilkins. The Problem of the Color(Blind): Racial Transgression and the Politics of Black Performance. Theater–Theory/Text/Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Classical Music. “What Is the Difference between a Musical and an Opera?” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/what-is-the-difference-between-a-musical-and-an-opera/.

Fox, Ann M. “A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women.” Legacy 30, no. 1 (2013): 151–71. https://doi.org/10.5250/legacy.30.1.0151.

HowlRound Theatre Commons. “Disability, Identity, and Representation.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://howlround.com/disability-identity-and-representation.
Henry, Shawn. “Sounding Disability in Musical Theatre: Sonic Markers of Mental Impairment for Female Characters on the Contemporary Broadway Stage,” March 16, 2018. https://DalSpace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/73782.
queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/.
“Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman | South African History Online.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman.
Time. “Here’s How Deaf Actors Are Breaking Boundaries on Broadway.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://time.com/4062110/spring-awakening-broadway-deaf-west/.

References   [ + ]

1. Classical Music. “What Is the Difference between a Musical and an Opera?” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/what-is-the-difference-between-a-musical-and-an-opera/.
2. LII / Legal Information Institute. “42 U.S. Code § 12102 – Definition of Disability.” Accessed December 10, 2020.  https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.
3, 4. blakemusicology. “Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction.” Music and Disability at the SMT and AMS (blog), November 20, 2013. https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/disability-studies-for-musicians-an-introduction/.
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13. queen city writers. “Queen City Writers,” April 15, 2016. https://qc-writers.com/2016/04/15/1000/.
10, 11. Time. “Here’s How Deaf Actors Are Breaking Boundaries on Broadway.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://time.com/4062110/spring-awakening-broadway-deaf-west/.
12, 14. Apr 19, Emily Kranking, 2019 Hollywood Inclusion, and Press Releases 6 comments. “Physical Disabilities Take the Rare Spotlight on Broadway.” Respect Ability, April 19, 2019. https://www.respectability.org/2019/04/physical-disabilities-broadway/.
15, 16. Fox, Ann M. “A Different Integration: Race and Disability in Early-Twentieth-Century African American Drama by Women.” Legacy 30, no. 1 (2013): 151–71. https://doi.org/10.5250/legacy.30.1.0151.
17. “Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman | South African History Online.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/sara-saartjie-baartman.
18. Catanese, Brandi Wilkins. The Problem of the Color(Blind): Racial Transgression and the Politics of Black Performance. Theater–Theory/Text/Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
19, 20, 21. Henry, Shawn. “Sounding Disability in Musical Theatre: Sonic Markers of Mental Impairment for Female Characters on the Contemporary Broadway Stage,” March 16, 2018. https://DalSpace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/73782.
22, 23. HowlRound Theatre Commons. “Disability, Identity, and Representation.” Accessed December 10, 2020. https://howlround.com/disability-identity-and-representation.

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