Brain Food: Studying Musical Theater And Characters With Disabilities
Literary and cinematic history is full of characters who have some type of disability...from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to Rain Man, to Marlee Matlin's Oscar-winning performance in Children of a Lesser God. But there aren't nearly as many of these characters in musical theater. That's according to Jim Leve, a musicology professor at Northern Arizona University. He's researching the repertoire of musical productions that feature characters - and actors - with all kinds of disabilities.
"I'm approaching this from two angles," Leve says. "I'm looking at musicals that have disabled characters, especially protagonists, but I'm also looking at disabilities in American society that carry over into the industry of musical theater. I'm looking at access."
Leve believes the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 created a major shift in public awareness, inclusion and visibility of people with physical and cognitive obstacles. Part of his research is studying how audiences react to seeing characters with disabilities in live musical theater.
Leve says, "I hope to to explore how the culture of musical theater projects ableist desires and expectations onto disabled characters and thereby, at least historically, have really propagated the kind of stereotypes that I think a lot of people are now recognizing and trying to eradicate."
There are currently several Broadway musical productions that feature both deaf and hearing actors, including an adaptation of West Side Story called Deaf Side Story and the rock musical Spring Awakening.
Brain Food is produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.