James Caverly was working as a carpenter in Olney Theatre Center’s scene shop some seven years ago when he laid the foundation for an unconventional undertaking: a production of “The Music Man” featuring a blend of deaf and hearing actors.
“It’s like when Frankenstein’s monster came up to Dr. Frankenstein and said, ‘I need a wife,’ ” Caverly says during a recent video chat. “That was me with Jason Loewith saying, ‘Hey, I need a production.’ ” (With the exception of Loewith, all interviews for this story were conducted with the assistance of an ASL interpreter.)
The sales pitch worked: Loewith greenlighted a workshop to explore Caverly’s concept, then set the musical for the summer of 2021 before the coronavirus pandemic intervened. During the delay, Caverly’s profile spiked: He booked a recurring role on Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Hulu comedy “Only Murders in the Building,” earning widespread acclaim for a nearly silent episode focused on his morally complicated character.
Equipped with newfound cachet, Caverly has returned to Olney — this time, leaving his carpentry tools behind. Featuring deaf, hearing and hard of hearing actors, with Caverly starring as slippery con man Harold Hill, a bilingual production of “The Music Man” marches onto the theater’s main stage this week.
“What [Caverly] possesses is a presence and a charm and a charisma and a drive and a passion that is, in some way, Harold Hill,” Loewith says. “I mean, think about how he got this production to happen: He totally Harold Hilled me. But he’s a con man that I like.”
In fitting Hill fashion, Caverly won over his mark despite some initial skepticism. Although Loewith says his concerns were mostly focused on the logistics of staging what’s traditionally a sprawling show, he also recalled pressing Caverly on the idea’s artistic merits.
“I didn’t want to just do it as, ‘Here’s us being inclusive,’ ” Loewith says. “I wanted to be like, ‘What is a musical that needs this kind of storytelling?’ ”
That’s when Caverly filled in Loewith on the history of Martha’s Vineyard: In the 19th century, a genetic anomaly led to such a prominent deaf population — about 1 in 25 residents — that the island’s native sign language became ubiquitous, and deaf people were fully integrated into the community.
So what if River City, the backwater Iowa town where “The Music Man” unfolds, was like Martha’s Vineyard? Caverly, like many of his deaf peers, also learned to play an instrument in his youth — in his case, the guitar. Thus, the idea of the traveling salesman Hill swindling the locals into investing in a boys’ marching band, with the intent of skipping town before teaching them a note, held up as well.
“The beautiful thing about this story is that Harold Hill never really teaches the kids music,” Caverly says, “so he doesn’t really have to hear music and he doesn’t have to play these musical instruments.”
Caverly remembers being brought to tears when he first saw ASL incorporated into the show during the 2019 workshop. Back then, however, he had no intention of playing Hill. Sandra Mae Frank — a star of Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” production and Caverly’s former Gallaudet classmate — was tapped to play piano teacher Marian Paroo, with Hill envisioned as a hearing character and Caverly cast as his accomplice Marcellus Washburn.
“I didn’t have a care in the world about how I would be involved,” Caverly says. “I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I’ll build the sets. I’ll work front of house and tear off some ticket stubs.’ I really, really wanted this production to happen.”
But that plan changed when Alexandria Wailes, the deaf artist originally set to oversee the production with hearing director Michael Baron, was cast in “For Colored Girls …” on Broadway. Frank subsequently stepped out of the cast and into the co-director’s chair, with Marian (played by Adelina Mitchell) reimagined as hearing and Caverly shifted into the role of Hill.
As co-director, Frank worked with Baron to further center the deaf perspective. While the “Spring Awakening” production she starred in had every deaf performer doubled by a hearing actor — speaking and singing their parts — extensive stretches of “The Music Man” are performed entirely in ASL, with English supertitles emblazoned above the stage.
“You’ve seen ‘shadow’ actors, and people have called that an equitable experience,” says Frank, a series regular on the NBC drama “New Amsterdam.” “But I challenge that narrative. I think that it’s completely different. I want audience members to leave with the idea that they were just invited into a world of deaf and hearing individuals and they are authentically experiencing what that would look like, where deaf and hearing people are living together and coexisting in an equal and balanced way.”
Helping make that happen is Michelle Banks, the director of artistic sign language tasked with reinterpreting Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical in ASL. She says there are myriad nuances to not only translating the text but also evoking the Midwestern accents and period-appropriate dialect. And teaching actors to perform some of the show’s rapid-fire ASL lyrics — such as those on the opening patter song “Rock Island” — comes with its own complexities.
“During the rehearsals, we’re making sure that the timing is in sync with how the hearing actors are speaking and how the deaf actors are signing — thinking about beats, counts, watching for visual cues,” Banks says. “It does take a lot of practice and harmony within the deaf and hearing artists, and it’s a challenge in and of itself. But I’ll have to say, it’s fun.”
As several people involved in the production point out, there’s still a place for more faithful revivals of Golden Age musicals — such as the lavish, Hugh Jackman-starring “Music Man” now on Broadway. But Caverly notes that “when you add deaf people into the mix, it breathes new life into a classic musical.”
“We are bringing in a totally different perspective,” Caverly adds. “In and around Gallaudet University is a huge deaf artists population that hasn’t been tapped into as a resource yet. Here I am to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been here all along, and it’s time for you to pay attention to us, include us in the conversation and include us in the development of future shows.’ ”
If you go
The Music Man
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through July 24.