Taking Risks on a 'Deaf Musical'

Jay Alan Zimmerman has tinnitus.
Jay Alan Zimmerman has tinnitus. (By Barbara Norman)
Friday, July 21, 2006

What can you say about a musician who goes deaf, loses his home in the 9/11 attacks (enveloped in the cloud of dust, he feels the explosions in his feet), considers suicide and then rehashes it all in a one-man multimedia show that requires him to sing, play piano and sign as well as speak?

Roll over, Beethoven.

"It's definitely a risk to sing live," admits Jay Alan Zimmerman, 39, the eponymous star of "Jay Alan Zimmerman's Incredible Deaf Musical." (The interview was conducted by e-mail.) "My singing success will depend somewhat on my hearing that day, as it fluctuates, and with the ringing in my head, I never know what I'll be dealing with. If I have a bad ear day, I'll keep the singing to a minimum. This is reality theater, folks!"

The question at the heart of "JAZIDM" is not whether a deaf musician can continue in his profession -- it has been done, obviously -- but why would he if he can't even enjoy his own work? Initially, the onstage Jay compensates for his hearing loss by ratcheting up the volume on the mixing board. As it continues to deteriorate, he tries his hand at film and stand-up and architecture, but no other outlet slakes his passion for music. "It's part of my soul," he says. Eventually, his inner debate turns even darker: "Not just why do it, but why continue living at all? Who cares? And the answer comes as a surprise."

For Zimmerman, being deaf does not mean living in silence. In fact, he says, "it is very noisy. I hear a cacophony of sounds in my head" -- he suffers from tinnitus, which can fling at its victim a furious range of buzzing, ringing, whistling and chirping sounds -- "in addition to real sounds below middle C, like air conditioner hums. So it never leaves me alone."

"It," meaning Zimmerman's deafness, is represented by the video screen, which continually goads him. During the song "Press Play," as he sees his own works on video, he sings:

"Her lips say, 'love' -- I swear I heard / Swear she's caressing my face with the word / And when she's singing now, I'm singing too / Watching her, I remember what to do."

Although Zimmerman hadn't originally intended to sing, he was persuaded to dare his own stunts, so to speak (he's a pop-ish high baritone and relies on the lower notes in his music to "cue" his mental pitch). He uses prerecorded tracks with background singers on all but one song, which he performs solo at the piano. There will not be a sign language interpreter, but he will do some signing during the show.

-- Eve Zibart

JAY ALAN ZIMMERMAN'S INCREDIBLE DEAF MUSICAL Friday at 7:30, Saturday at noon, Sunday at 5:30, Wednesday at 10 and Thursday at 5. At the Canadian Embassy. $15.

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