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MagulaRepresentations of Disability in Musical Theatre
by Vanessa Magula

Though musical theatre has flourished as entertainment over the past hundred years, the fairly recent exploration of disability in popular musicals attempts to move beyond spectacle to social commentary. Musicals including Wicked, Michael Arden’s Spring Awakening, and Next to Normal have contributed to this trend on Broadway. Both Wicked and Arden’s Spring Awakening incorporate representations of disability into pre-existing stories; yet Wicked ultimately uses disability to tell a known story while Arden’s Spring Awakening uses a known story to empower disability. Arden’s revival of Spring Awakening integrates American Sign Language and Deaf actors into the original story of adolescence in 19th-century Germany; the lived-in representation of disability validates the Deaf community instead of perpetuating negative disability stereotypes for plot development and dramatic effect as exemplified in Wicked. Meanwhile, Next to Normal combines elements of fantasy similar to Wicked and themes of inclusivity similar to Arden’s Spring Awakening by exaggerating disability for theatrical impact without sacrificing empowerment.

The creators of Wicked exploit disability for the purpose of providing dramatic backstories of characters from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the musical opened on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre in 2003 and continues to run today ( “Wicked,” IBDB). Despite its popularity with audiences as the 11th longest-running Broadway show and accolades including Grammy, Tony, and Drama Desk awards, both the plot and performance of the musical present problematic portrayals of disability (Viagas). The writers take a villain from the movie, the Wicked Witch of the East, and portray her in her youth as a wheelchair user to provide motivation for her development into the expected evil character. This treatment of disability parallels the titular concept of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s “Narrative Prosthesis,” where stories “treat disability as a narrative device that reveals the pervasive dependency of artistic, cultural, and philosophical discourses upon the powerful alterity assigned to people with disabilities” (225). Introduced as Nessarose, this Wicked Witch is differentiated from her peers on the basis of her disability; attitudes of pity and paternalism pervade Nessarose’s interactions with her teacher, Madame Morrible, Boq, a Munchkin who turns into the Tin Man due to a miscast spell, and Glinda, his popular crush. Such differentiation serves to narrate Nessarose’s fulfillment of the “evil avenger” stereotype, demonstrating Wicked’s portrayal of disability in a simplistic, negative manner for optimal storytelling.

The themes of pity and paternalism described by scholars Michael T. Hayes and Rhonda S. Black appear in other characters’ initial impressions of Nessarose to establish her as a tragic figure. In “Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies, and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity,” Hayes and Black emphasize how visuals of disability evoke pity from the able-bodied, describing 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.” Similarly, Wicked shows supporting characters basing perceptions of Nessarose on the sight of her wheelchair rather than on actual interactions with her as a person. Upon Madame Morrible’s introduction to Nessarose, Morrible exclaims, “What a tragically beautiful face you have!” (Wicked). Since no prior discussion occurred between the characters, Morrible’s focus suggests that the tragedy she associates with Nessarose stems from impressions of disability associated with the symbol of the wheelchair. Morrible’s sadness regarding Nessarose’s beauty conveys a sense of pity toward Nessarose. When trying to ward off her Munchkin admirer, Glinda also exhibits a pitying view of disability by convincing Boq to ask Nessarose to the dance instead: “See that tragically beautiful girl . . . the one in the chair? It seems so unfair we should go on a spree and not she” (Wicked). Like Madame Morrible, Glinda bases her view of Nessarose on her appearance alone, pointing out her wheelchair to identify her; this demonstrates how signs of disability elicit feelings of pity from the able-bodied.

The establishment of Nessarose as a pitiable character validates the subsequent paternalistic actions of Boq, contributing to the degradation of the disabled and the glorification of the able-bodied. Hayes and Black suggest that paternalism accompanies pity in Hollywood movies, where “taking responsibility for decisions away from the individual and placing them with an external or third party is viewed as benevolent, even compassionate, for those who are viewed as being unable to make these decisions for themselves.” Glinda appeals to paternalism when she persuades Boq to ask Nessarose to the dance: “I know someone would be my hero if that someone were to go invite her!” (Wicked). By referring to him as her “hero,” Glinda suggests that asking a person with disabilities to a dance takes courage and nobility, and that Boq would be doing both his crush and Nessarose a favor by having pity for a girl who, due to her disability, will probably not have any other suitors. Glinda’s request and Boq’s acceptance both objectify Nessarose: Glinda uses Nessarose’s disability to avert an unwanted date while Boq takes advantage of disability to show off his own supposed benevolence and impress a crush. The portrayal of Nessarose as pitiable due to her disability ultimately champions Boq as worthy of the audience’s approval. His paternalism serves audience expectations of the likability of the Tin Man, and the musical therefore uses disability primarily as a tool for storytelling.

Nessarose’s transition from pitiable to villainous fulfills the “evil avenger” stereotype deconstructed by Alison Harnett in “Escaping the ‘Evil Avenger’ and the ‘Supercrip’: Images of Disability in Popular Television.” Harnett defines the “evil avenger” as one common representation of disability in movies: “the stereotype of disabled baddies seeking revenge for the bad deal they have been dealt in life . . . we can see writers using physical disability to embody, or personify evil” (21). Though the musical initially portrays Nessarose as a pitiable character, years of feeling helpless due to her disability harden her towards others. When she encounters her sister Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) for the first time in years, she reveals her pent up anger: “You fly around Oz trying to rescue animals you’ve never even met, and not once have you ever thought to use your powers to rescue me. All of my life I’ve depended on you . . . scrounging for scraps of pity to pick up and longing to kick up my heels” (Wicked). Nessarose’s claim that she is in need of “rescue” shows her view of disability as completely impairing, the “bad deal” she has received from life. Her evident resentment toward the feelings of helplessness and dependence that resulted from her experience with disability suggests that her strict rule over the Munchkins, interpreted by her subjects as evil, stems from her desire for vengeance. Nessarose exerts control whenever she has the chance since she has felt deprived of control over herself and her body. The darkness of her actions shares a similar motivation to the “evil avenger” stereotype used in the media: she punishes others to compensate for what has happened to her.

Through the use of the “evil avenger” stereotype, the musical depicts Nessarose as a villain to justify her expected death and promote the Tin Man as a sympathetic character. Nessarose’s strict rule over the Munchkins as a compensation for her own lack of control includes her essential enslavement of Boq, which transforms him from an optimistic youth into a cold, sad impression of his former self. The musical places his tragic decline at the hands of Nessarose, thereby heightening the drama of the show and depicting Boq as an innocent victim of her villainy. The creators of Wicked employ disability to portray Boq as a likable persona, serving audience expectations of the eventual Tin Man. In addition, disability essentially serves as justification for Nessarose’s death: her abusive treatment of Boq reduces her character’s likability. Therefore, her eventual death that the audience anticipates from The Wizard of Oz is represented not as a mourned event but as a deserved ending for Nessarose.

The musical Wicked uses the visual of disability to cleverly incorporate aspects of The Wizard of Oz into Nessarose’s storyline for dramatic effect, and in doing so perpetuates the medical model, which views a physical or mental disability as inherently defective. In a scene between reunited sisters, Elphaba uses her knowledge of spells to give Nessarose the power to stand: Nessarose’s shoes turn red from the spell, revealing the origin of the Wicked Witch of the East’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. In addition, the music changes from Elphaba’s rhythmic chanting to dramatic instrumental swells accompanying each of Nessarose’s steps from her wheelchair to a stable standing position; the combined visuals of the transformation of shoes from silver to red and the wavering yet upright stance of Nessarose portray her cure as a triumphant event, often garnering loud applause from audiences. By encouraging this audience response to the dramatic visual, the creators of Wicked promote the medical model that disability is a “problem in need of a solution” (Mitchell & Snyder 222). Therefore, the exaggerated visual of Nessarose’s cure and subsequent jubilant response diminishes the disabled body as inferior to the able body.

In contrast to Wicked, Michael Arden’s Spring Awakening uses American Sign Language as a visual representation of disability to empower members of the Deaf community. The production takes the libretto of Spring Awakening and seamlessly integrates elements of the Deaf experience into the show’s portrayal of oppressed teenagers’ struggles in the 1800s. The musical, based on a play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, first opened on Broadway in 2006 and closed in 2009 ( “Spring Awakening” IBDB). In partnership with Deaf West Theatre, Arden’s revival played at two different Los Angeles venues before moving to Broadway in 2015 for a limited engagement ( “Spring Awakening” IBDB). Melchior, a scholarly and independent boy played by a hearing actor, serves as the romantic interest for Wendla, a sheltered but curious girl played by a Deaf actress. After learning that one of her friends is beaten every night, Wendla begs Melchior to hit her with a branch so that she might understand what it feels like to be beaten or, in a larger sense, to be exposed to anything beyond the familiar. Wendla repeatedly insists that she can’t feel his beatings, resulting in Melchior throwing her to the ground and running away in shame until she finds him and apologizes for putting him in that position. Throughout the show, Melchior communicates by simultaneously signing and speaking; here, however, he responds to Wendla’s kindness by silently signing “forgive me,” with the line projected on the wall for the comprehension of audience members unfamiliar with sign language (Spring Awakening). This deliberate isolation of American Sign Language puts the hearing audience in the place of the Deaf audience, focusing on the visual to communicate Melchior’s inability to voice his sorrow for his actions. The use of sign language as the sole method of emotional expression in that moment dispels the “widespread notion that signing is a group of gestures that are only second-best methods of communicating” highlighted in “Hearing Difference across Theatres: Experimental, Disability, and Deaf Performance” (Kochhar-Lindgren 418). The distinction between spoken language and sign language intensifies the emotions of the moment and empowers the Deaf population by demonstrating the value of their method of communication.

Visual components of Arden’s Spring Awakening empower the Deaf community beyond the incorporation of sign language when changes in lighting take the place of conventional sound effects. In “Deaf Studies in the 21st Century: ‘Deaf-Gain’ and the Future of Human Diversity,” H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray suggest that “the history of theater reveals an enduring human desire for nonverbal, visual spectacle . . . the highly visual nature of Deaf theater may enhance the genre of visual theater” (252). The scene where Moritz, a Deaf student tortured by his academic failures and attempts to repress his sexuality, commits suicide exhibits the power of this “visual nature” through the technical design. There is no gunshot sound after he places the gun to his head: rather, the lights go down on Moritz and up on characters finding the site of his suicide, utilizing “gesture, the moving body, and sensory modalities that deemphasize hearing” (Kochhar-Lindgren 428). Had there been no lighting change and only a gunshot, the Deaf audience would have been excluded from the moment of Moritz’s death; had there been both the lighting cue and the gunshot, hearing audiences would have a different experience in that moment than Deaf audiences. Instead, the isolation of visual from sound diminishes the importance of the ability to hear and unifies the impact of Moritz’s suicide for all audience members. Therefore, the use of sign language and lighting effects reaches beyond increasing accessibility to achieve a universal sensory experience for one of the emotional climaxes of the show.

In addition to incorporating disability into the visual performance of Spring Awakening, the production embraces the social model to convey the importance of equality for the Deaf. While Wicked portrays disability as undesirable through its adoption of the medical model, in Arden’s Spring Awakening “disability is not situated within pathological individuals in need of medical care and cure . . . the social-construction model locates disability within a society built for nondisabled people” (Sandahl and Auslander 7-8). Wicked blames disability as the root of evil, but Spring Awakening never even hints at Deafness as an inherent defect in need of a cure; rather, the show focuses on highlighting the lack of communication not only between the Deaf and hearing, but also between teenagers and adults. In one scene, Wendla expresses her frustration with her mother, played by a hearing actress, who refuses to explain how babies were made. When it is revealed that Wendla is pregnant (which she did not know resulted from sex), she screams, “Why didn’t you tell me everything?” (Spring Awakening). This criticism of oppressive authority is made even more powerful since the Deaf actress had only communicated using American Sign Language until that verbalized moment. The brilliance of Michael Arden’s interpretation of this scene stems not only from the impact of Wendla breaking her silence, but also from Wendla’s implied motivation: the feeling that she can make her mother truly comprehend her confusion and anger only through spoken word. Wendla is limited in her understanding of the world not by her inability to hear but rather by her mother’s closed-minded refusal to discuss controversial topics, showing how disability is inflicted upon the individual by society and emphasizing the necessity of openness and inclusivity.

Arden compounds his representation of the social model of disability by appealing to the universality of the oppressed experience. In a classroom scene, the musical shows “the link between events on the stage and great forces active in history” (113), a goal of theatre encouraged by Victoria Lewis in “Theater without a Hero: The Making of P.H.*reaks: The Hidden History of People with Disabilities.” The scene in the original Broadway production merely portrays Moritz as a student that struggles with Latin; Arden adds another layer by depicting the teacher striking the hands of students that try to communicate with sign language and forcing Moritz, regardless of his Deafness, to recite Latin in front of the class. The director demonstrates the connection between this scene and historical treatment of the Deaf, at a time when “it was deemed crucial to eradicate or suppress the use of sign language and insist that the Deaf learn to speak” (Kochhar-Lindgren 427). By integrating Deaf history into the plot, the director emphasizes the role of society in inflicting disability upon communities that deviate from the normal: the refusal of the hearing population to learn American Sign Language limits the Deaf, not Deafness itself, and this limitation is unfortunately not restricted to the 1800s. Furthermore, the progression of Moritz’s storyline from this scene of intolerance to his eventual suicide criticizes the insistence upon conformity. Lewis states that another goal of disability theatre is to explore “the commonality, what’s the thing that connects us, because that’s where social action takes place” (113). The rejection of conformity appeals beyond the Deaf community to encourage the acceptance of diversity. Not only does this scene make a plea for an effort at increased communication with the Deaf, it calls for this acceptance by appealing to the shared experience of oppression.

In both plot and performance, Arden’s Spring Awakening highlights the role social conditions play in the presentation of disability as a shortcoming. The production itself embraces the diversity of the Deaf experience by integrating sign language and lighting cues for the comprehension of all, and in doing so negates the idea of Deafness being a deficiency. Arden’s incorporation of Deaf history and miscommunication into the plot of the show demonstrates the negativity that stems from the social oppression of the Deaf. Through the combined effects of plot and performance, the representation of disability in Spring Awakening serves as the antithesis of the representation of disability in Wicked—there is no deficiency in disability under Arden’s direction, only empowerment and inclusivity.

Witches and wizards in the land of Oz and angsty adolescents in 19th-century Germany differ largely in degrees of realism on stage; however, Next to Normal shows that it is possible for a story about mental illness to use disability for dramatic effect like Wicked without sacrificing the honesty of the experience of disability and the empowerment provided by Arden’s Spring Awakening. Next to Normal opened on Broadway in 2009 and closed in 2011 (BWW News Desk). In this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, the protagonist Diana is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experiences hallucinations of her dead son, Gabe (Hetrick). Scenes of her manic episodes and hallucinations share elements with the visual dramatics of the scene of Nessarose’s cure in Wicked. The creators of Next to Normal wrote the show so that the audience is introduced to Gabe as a part of the family until it is revealed that he is actually dead and that the visual of him on stage is the representation of Diana’s hallucination. Before his hallucinatory nature is revealed, Gabe’s character is a somewhat sarcastic yet likable teenage son who has teasing exchanges with his mother. In “‘Waitin’ for the Light to Shine’: Musicals and Disability,” Raymond Knapp suggests that after Diana undergoes ECT to remove him from her memory, “his positive energy goes with him, leaving behind a palpable sense of absence” (822). Not only does Gabe’s positive energy go with him after the ECT, but even as immediately as after the pivotal breakdown, he radically transforms into a taunting, evil presence who prowls threateningly around members of the family whenever he sings; his choreography and the juxtaposition between low, creepy and high, belty vocalizations contribute to his development into a caricature of evil during the heights of Diana’s manic episodes. His musical and visual transformations add dynamics and help achieve the exciting dramatics associated with musical theatre; however, the show does not sacrifice realism since his character could plausibly be an accurate representation of disability for people who experience hallucinations.

In contrast to her manic episodes, scenes of Diana’s depressive behavior and vulnerable moments parallel the simple staging of emotional interactions in Spring Awakening. Next to Normal’s physical manifestation of disability through Gabe demonstrates the conflict experienced through mental illness. Knapp suggests that “by making the dead Gabe a character in the drama, and thereby giving Diana’s hallucination a dramatic presence, both musical and physical, Next to Normal is able to provide a layered dramatization of how this process works” (Knapp 822). Gabe embodies Diana’s disability—a device particularly useful since Diana’s mental illness largely stems from the trauma she experienced as a result of his death as a baby. Throughout the show, Gabe has verbal conversations with Diana, persuading her to give up the drugs and telling her she is brave for liberating herself from treatment; by articulating these conversations as occurring between mother and son, the writers convey the conflict one undergoes while experiencing hallucinations and give the audience a sense of why the idea of a seemingly ill-advised action appeals to the patient. Putting the audience in the place of the protagonist empowers the mentally ill by giving their hallucinations life and validating their experiences, paralleling Arden’s recognition and affirmation of Deaf culture.

Despite their conflicting styles of fantasy and realism, Wicked and Michael Arden’s Spring Awakening both incorporate themes of disability into pre-existing stories; however, Wicked uses disability to justify the evil actions of the Wicked Witch of the East and create sympathy for the beloved Tin Man, representing disability as defective and undesirable. Arden’s interpretation of Spring Awakening empowers the Deaf community by using American Sign Language to communicate emotionally intense moments in the show, universalizing the sensory experience of the performance for all audiences, and emphasizing society as a disabling force rather than assuming the inferiority of physical impairments. Next to Normal’s portrait of bipolar disorder draws from both shows, integrating the fantastical style of Wicked and emotionally raw style of Spring Awakening while acknowledging the lived-in disability experience rather than degrading disability. All three musicals encourage the discussion of disability beyond academia and in the context of universal themes, providing a platform for examining the role of the individual in the perception of disability.

Works Cited
Bauman, H-Dirksen L., and Joseph J. Murray. “Deaf Studies in the 21st Century: ‘Deaf-Gain’ and the Future of Human Diversity.” The Disability Studies Reader. 4th ed. Ed. Lennard Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 246-262. Print.

BWW News Desk. “Next to Normal to Close on Broadway January 16.” Broadway World. 10 Nov. 2010. Web.

Harnett, Alison. “Escaping the ‘Evil Avenger’ and the ‘Supercrip’: Images of Disability in Popular Television.” The Irish Communications Review 8.1 (2000): 21-29. Web. May 2015.

Hayes, Michael T. and Rhonda S. Black. “Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity.” Disability Studies Quarterly 23.3 (2003). Web. May 2015.

Hetrick, Adam. “Next to Normal Wins 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.” Playbill. 12 Apr. 2010. Web.

Kochhar-Lindgren, Kanta. “Hearing Difference across Theatres: Experimental, Disability, and Deaf Performance.” Theatre Journal 58.3 (2006): 417-36. Web. May 2015.

Knapp, Raymond. “‘Waitin’ for the Light to Shine’: Musicals and Disability.” The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies. Eds. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil William Lerner, and Joseph Nathan Straus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 814-835. Print.

Lewis, Victoria Ann. “Theater without a Hero: The Making of P.H.*reaks: The Hidden History of People with Disabilities.” Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print.

Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder. “Narrative Prosthesis.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 222-235. Print.

Next to Normal. By Brian Yorkey. Dir. Michael Greif. Booth Theatre. 18 March 2010. Recording.

Sandahl, Carrie, and Philip Auslander. “Disability Studies in Commotion with Performance Studies.” Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Print.

“Spring Awakening.” Internet Broadway Database. Web. 23 September 2015.

Spring Awakening. By Steven Sater. Dir. Michael Arden. Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills. 7 June 2015. Performance.

Viagas, Robert. “Long Runs on Broadway.” Playbill. 22 Sept. 2015. Web.

“Wicked.” Internet Broadway Database. Web. 23 September 2015.

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. By Winnie Holzman. Dir. Joe Mantello.    Gershwin Theatre, New York. 11 January 2011. Recording.


Vanessa Magula is a fourth-year Psychology major and Disability Studies minor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She plans to pursue a career in mental health, and will apply to graduate school for occupational therapy in the fall. In her spare time, she enjoys performing in musicals, singing in the car, and reading. She wrote this paper for an introductory class to her minor (eager to combine her academic and extracurricular interests), and would like to thank Devin and Professor Wolf for their support and feedback.

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