Disability Visibility in Musical Theatre

My interest in musical theatre began with the charm and dazzle of musical numbers but has become an appreciation and respect for storytelling. While listening to the Broadway radio station recently, the host, Christine Pedi, mentioned that having an interest in musical theatre is having an interest in the human condition, poetry and creative storytelling. Musical theatre uses poetry as way of creatively telling a story with hopes to reach audiences. One of the things I like about contemporary musical theatre is how some stories are able to navigate complex emotions that resonate with audiences. Musical theatre explores a variety of stories where audiences can recognize pieces of themselves in a show. One of these moments for me came when I saw Side Show.

I didn’t know too much about Side Show before seeing it and didn’t think it would hit me as hard as it did.  As a person with a physical disability, I am used to seeing disability portrayed as the story of someone who is “different” and an “outcast” but overcomes adversity. These are great stories and sometimes are used as tools or a source of inspiration in the main story. However, Side Show began to dive into the emotional complexity of living with a disability with an honesty that I had not witnessed before onstage, especially in a musical. I thought it seemed a bit odd and a bit uncomfortable that I was relating to a musical about conjoined twins working at a sideshow, but the emotions ran true. This creative storytelling was able to give life to them.

These women, Daisy and Violet, were experiencing feelings I’ve felt and relationships that I may have in my future. There’s the feeling of wanting to be like everyone else, then there is the love from someone who feels sorry for you, the love from someone who is afraid to embrace the circumstances, and of course unconditional love.  These sensitive themes are not often explored in musical theatre, but I think they are more universal than they seem. The song “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” echoes one of the universal themes of the show. I think that everyone can relate to that feeling of wanting people to accept them the way they are. I believe Side Show successfully portrays this theme and navigates the complexities that come with that.

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There is a particular moment when the sisters are bombarded by questions from reporters asking about their lives and futures. At one point, reporters ask, “How would that work? With your condition.” The portrayal of focus being given to a physical disability more than to the person resonates with the reality faced by many people with disabilities, myself included. I often receive questions or attention regarding my disability and though I don’t mind sharing, I don’t want it to be the only thing I share. It was great to see these women in main roles tackling issues beyond their disability. They were main characters with wants and needs just like anyone else, despite the presence of a physical disability.

Other shows explore these themes and deal with disease or disorders and have also made an impact on me. When I first saw Rent, I was amazed that there was a musical addressing disease and its role in a person’s life. The music was unlike other musicals I had heard; thus began my obsession with contemporary musical theatre. The different genres of music that Jonathan Larson carefully explored matched each character, giving life to their stories. With an overall artful blend to reflect the time, it set contemporary musical theatre apart from the conventional musicals I had seen before. Next to Normal, which I have yet to see on stage, explores bipolar disorder and depression with a rock music score.  I have become obsessed with the music and its ability to illustrate the effects of bipolar disorder and depression on a family. This show also explores the treatment of mental illness and grief with a profound honesty. Finally, the most recent Tony Award winning play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has illustrated the mind and story of a young boy with a form of autism who is trying to solve a mystery. I am happy to see shows tackling these stories and to also see audiences and the Broadway community responding to them positively.

I hope that in the future I will see more shows like these and shows that explore the story of a person with a disability. I believe that it is important to see a person’s story and their life with a disability because it would provide the audience with a new perspective on a life that is largely underrepresented. Seeing shows like these can pave the way for future or current writers to tell their own stories. Also, if there are writers that want to tackle these subjects, I hope they do so with a collaboration of those in that community to create an even more inclusive atmosphere.

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