Deaf actor stars in Olney Theatre Center’s deaf/hearing hybrid take on ‘The Music Man’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Music Man' at Olney Theatre (Part 1)

“CODA” paved the way for deaf actors on screen by winning the Best Picture Oscar. Now, the deaf community hits the stage in “The Music Man” at Olney Theatre Center.

“This production is a twist on the classic musical,” lead actor James Caverly told WTOP via an interpreter. “Our cast is made up of both deaf and hearing actors on stage at the same time. You will see dialogue in American Sign Language, as well as spoken dialogue and singing.”

The story follows Harold Hill, “a conman,” in Caverly’s words, who visits River City posing as a band leader who sells instruments and uniforms to the townsfolk. There’s just one catch: He’s not an actual musician. “Harold Hill doesn’t know how to play a single instrument, so his con is to take their money and head out of town,” Caverly said. The town falls for his scheme, except librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo.

The classic songbook features plenty of beloved tunes, and in this production they’re both sung and signed.

“The all-time famous song is ’76 Trombones,’ the showstopper,” Caverly said. He also cited “Lida Rose,” which is “signed by a wonderful quartet,” and “Till There Was You,” sung by Adelina Mitchell. “When we put ‘Trouble’ on its feet for the first time … I saw everyone’s reaction.”

Caverly says he saw the movie of “The Music Man” with Robert Preston when he was about 10, but initially didn’t think much of it. But this show was Caverly’s idea.

In 2016, he was working as a carpenter at Olney Theatre Center, and went to see the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, with a deaf and hearing cast. “That was an awakening for me,” Caverly said.

He returned to Olney and pitched the idea to Artistic Director Jason Loewith.

“I told him, ‘We have to do a musical together. … We have to do ‘The Music Man,'” Caverly said. “I thought if any adult came up to a deaf child and said, ‘I will teach you how to play a musical instrument,’ that deaf child would be excited. So that is what Harold Hill is taking advantage of: He is selling that dream.”

In 2019, they hosted a one-week workshop for deaf and hearing actors, and that’s when co-directors Sandra Mae Frank and Michael Baron sprung an idea on him.

“When I first pitched this idea … I imagined Harold Hill being played by a hearing person,” Caverly said. “They thought that the story would make more sense if Harold Hill was deaf. … I thought, ‘Wait a minute; why didn’t I think of that in the first place?'”

Caverly has also starred in Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.” He loves seeing Hollywood open its doors to deaf representation in movies and television.

“I thought it was fantastic that ‘CODA’ won Best Picture,” Caverly said. He also cited the feature films “Audible” and “Sound of Metal,” as well as the documentary “Crip Camp.”

“So in recent years, there has been a lot more representation of deaf people in the media,” Caverly said. “It’s great to see that, this rising visibility.”

He also notices that regional theaters are increasing representation as well.

“The DMV is a wonky situation because we have an enormous deaf population: Gallaudet University, Model Secondary School for the Deaf, Maryland School for the Deaf are all in this region,” Caverly said. “They haven’t tapped into their full potential yet. … We’ve got to change the culture of keeping the deaf community separate, but rather invite them in.”

You can do your part by buying a ticket to “The Music Man.”

“Audiences in this area will be blown away,” Caverly said. “You will see authentic representation of a community that operates with deaf people and hearing people together — as it should be.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Music Man' at Olney Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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