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Aug 28

Broadway Breaking Disability Stereotypes

Singing, Acting, and Dancing are the keys to playing almost all characters on Broadway. However, every once in awhile in a play or musical there is a character that is exempt from the dancing requirement because they are in a wheelchair or are physically impaired.

As someone who is physically impaired, I’m often drawn to these shows to see how the characters are portrayed. There is a stereotype around disabled people that we are always “glass half full” thinkers and rays of sunshine and innocent. That is not entirely true. Therefore, I strive to look for actors that portray the roles as more than just the person who is the optimist because they’ve had a bad and hard life.

Luckily, Broadway, and the actors themselves, steer away from that stereotype, and do a fantastic job while they’re at it.

Andrew Keenan Bolger’s portrayal of Crutchie: Last summer, when Newsies was all the rage (who am I kidding? It still is!), the Newsies company and Disney released videos of the actors talking about their characters. When talking about Crutchie, Andrew Keenan-Bolger said the magic words that made my head perk up: “I think a lot of people are expecting the handicap newsie to be…just innocent and angelic and that’s not how it actually is. He’s actually tough as nails.”

And he had me. That quote made me see the entire musical in a different way. Of course, the newsboy strike was important, and Newsies is a beloved movie and musical, but Andrew’s portrayal of Crutchie added a level that went unnoticed unless you truly understood the character. Crutchie is as tough as nails, uses his disability to sell papers, and best of all, his disability goes completely relatively unnotives by his friends– yet his disability is still something that has defined him and he never denies that.

It is wonderful to have a portrayal showing a strong person who, despite their disability, helped with a strike and wasn’t seen differently by his friends, as so many disabled people are. When I asked Andrew’s sister, Maggie, about it, she had this to say: “I think our parents are the main reason why my siblings and I tend to be stereotype-busters…that kind of perspective opens your eyes to a lot of the injustices in the world and a lot of the ways minority communities are unfairly treated. We were also ALWAYS encouraged to go against the grain and speak up for what we believed in.”

The Keenan-Bolger family are known for their activism in the LGBT community, but Maggie’s quote shows that Andrew’s portrayal of Crutchie was not just following the movie, but following activism he grew up with. Personally, I think that makes his portrayal even more special.

Norm Lewis’s portrayal of Porgy in Porgy and Bess: While Andrew Keenan-Bolger showed a strong portrayal of a disabled character, Norm Lewis’s portrayal shined in the re-envisioned Porgy and Bess, on Broadway last year, because the struggles he faced were more evident.

In an interview with Playbill, Norm states that, once he read the book Porgy and Bess, he realized that previous portrayals of the character had made him more “happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but, in the book he was actually kind of mean.” He goes onto explain the back story of the character not liking children because they ridiculed him, which he says he brought to the character in subtext. He says, “Even when I make my entrance: I come from begging and worked so hard all day to try to come to this crap game,” further explaining how he brought elements from the book into the Broadway production.

The show also allowed the audience to see struggles in a new way, such as Porgy walking with a cane and twisted legs, which had never been done before in a production of Porgy and Bess. This furthered the audience’s ability to see how hard it was to do every day activities, such as going up and down the stairs.

What I feel is touching about this production, despite having never seen it, is the collaboration between the actor and the production as a whole. While most of the challenges shown come from the characterization that Norm Lewis puts into his performance, rather than an evident way to break stereotypes, he is still portraying a new way to see handicapped characters. The struggles are incredibly evident, allowing the audience to learn what “crippled” people have to go through everyday.

Unlike Newsies, this production allowed the audience to see that living with a disability could be a controlling factor, and offers a different, yet still incredibly true, stereotype. Where Newsies portrays a boy who is capable of handling his disability, Porgy and Bess showed a man who was suffering while dealing with it.

Both of the productions, have unintentionally allowed the audience to see different ways that people cope with their physical disability. Yes, some are rays of sunshine, “glass half full” type people. But some are capable and use it to be strong and even to their advantage, like Crutchie, and some cannot handle it until they have someone to help them, like Porgy. Both are some of the truest portrayals of the types of people with disabilities that people are likely meet on the street.

Photo via Broadway.com

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