Brow Beat

What It’s Like to Sign a Song: An Interview With Two of the Stars of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening  

Daniel N. Durant as Moritz in Spring Awakening. Alex Boniello can be seen in silhouette.  

Photo by Joan Marcus

The hottest ticket on Broadway this fall for a show that doesn’t involve rapping patriots is a revival of Spring Awakening. The original, Tony-winning production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical about teenagers discovering their sexuality in a repressed 19th-century Germany closed just six years ago—after launching the careers of Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and John Gallagher, Jr.—but a new production by Deaf West feels wholly different. The songs are all there, but everything in the show is also made accessible to a deaf audience—all the dialogue is either signed or appears on superscript, and this somehow this only adds to the enjoyment.

One of the key elements of the production is that two of the main characters, Moritz and Wendla, are each played by two actors, one of whom signs and one of whom sings. I spoke with Daniel N. Durant and Alex Boniello who, together, play Moritz, about what it means to have two people playing the same role and how you keep rhythm while signing—not singing—a song. Lynnette Taylor translated from ASL. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: This production is about lots of things, primarily sexual awakening, but also what it’s like to be deaf—especially in the first classroom scene when Moritz is punished for trying to sign. Daniel, you’re nodding your head. Does the show reflect your feelings about what it’s like to be deaf?

Daniel N. Durant: Yes, this is a snapshot of what happened historically. But not just historically—as deaf people we’re still fighting for our rights. We’re still trying to tell people that American Sign Language is a legitimate language.

Alex Boniello: There’s a director’s note that illuminates that scene in particular: The play takes place around the same time as the Milan conference which decided the best way to educate the deaf. It was almost entirely hearing people—only a few deaf people were involved in it—and they decided that “oralism” was the best way. That’s the scene you see where kids are forced to speak back. In Mortiz’s case, and Daniel’s as it were, how hard is that, to recreate a sound that you’ve never even heard an approximation of? This is actually what happened.

Slate: I imagine it’s also tough to have two actors playing the same role—but the way you guys interact is kind of lovely.

Boniello: Daniel and I have just now gotten to a point where we’re both comfortable with what we’ve done and it’s feeling consistent. But every show we still check in about pacing etc.

Slate: At times it felt like Alex was Daniel’s fairy.

Boniello: The other day we went to see Fun Home and a kid came up to me and said “You’re in Spring Awakening! You were Moritz’s angel, right?” and I was like, “Oh I guess!”

Durant: That’s so interesting!

Boniello: I make my first appearance in the classroom scene and the first words Daniel and I perform together are “God, I dreamed there was an angel who could hear me through the walls,” and then I literally come out of the wall! I’m finding it really fun to see how people are taking this relationship. But it goes both ways: In our final monologue the signing and speaking don’t match up perfectly, which was a deliberate choice to make it feel like we were becoming disconnected.

Slate: That scene is really intense. What’s going on in your mind in that final scene?

Durant: Growing up I didn’t have this experience of darkness. I don’t mean my life was perfect in any way. I have a good life. But this character lives in this very dark world full of turmoil, and this scene brings out this whole different experience.

Slate: Do you guys have a favorite scene that’s signed in the show?

Boniello: Something is different with the “beating” scene—when Melchior hits Wendla—than it was in the original. Ours is a bit darker overall, that scene feels like it makes more sense in our production. When Melchior tells Wendella “I’ll teach you to say please,” he has a very specific tone. That got giggles from the audience in the original production. But we have Melchior just sign that to Wendella and it has a much different effect. But my favorite is probably the moment when Moritz interacts with his dad after he’s failed. The entire thing is signed, and I’m completely convinced that even if we didn’t have supertitles, everyone would know what’s going on in that scene.

Durant: My favorite song to perform is “Don’t Do Sadness.” It’s very powerful to be a signer, signing music. I’m good with ASL poetry, and I think it is musical, but when I’m trying to sign with the music, though I can feel the vibrations, I need to stay in character and sign on beat.

Slate: Have you ever done any musical theater?

Durant: This is it! I was never involved in music in any other way—well, one production where I danced. When I got the part I was like, How am I going to do this?

Slate: How much ASL do you know, Alex?

Boniello: I didn’t know anything when I started. Daniel and I play video games with each other, and one of my first signs was video game, it’s just two fists holding a controller. Now I can hold conversations.

Slate: Both of you got your start with Deaf West through the Internet and social media. Daniel, you used YouTube to create ASL stories online. Alex, you got the part via Twitter.

Durant: Social media has changed everything. It has helped the deaf population and the general population recognize sign language.

Boniello: A show like this with a cult following, these kids are doing amazing things and trying to learn signs to talk to deaf actors at stage door and say things to them. And Daniel can answer back.

I saw the original production four or five times when I was 16, like you do when you’re young and like shows. John Gallagher, Jr.’s performance was one of the main things people walked away from that show remembering. As time has passed it’s become nice to let go of that performance, which was so perfect. Daniel is a strong looking kid and he makes the character a lot more physical. As a result, a lot more rage starts to come across. We try to keep it light at the beginning because Mortiz is funny as hell. But by the end, I’m serving as the reminder in the back of his head for that final scene. There are a few moments when he looks at me directly. He’s blowing it with everyone else and he looks around the forest and who’s there but me.