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Musical With Deaf Performers a Hit on Broadway

Aired August 22, 2003 - 20:51   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A hot new revival is getting lots of buzz on Broadway. The show is "Big River," an adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." What makes the show unique is that it is first time ever that a Broadway musical has featured deaf performers.
And I'm joined now by the show's lead actor, Tyrone Giordano, who's deaf, actor Daniel Jenkins, who provides his character's voice, and the show's director, Jeff Calhoun. Gentlemen, nice to have you all. Thanks for joining me.

Tyrone, let's start with you. To star in a Broadway musical is every actor's dream, so congratulations to you.

TYRONE GIORDANO, ACTOR (through translator): Thank you.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome. At the same time, I have to imagine that, as a deaf actor -- did you ever think, This is not an opportunity that I will ever have?

GIORDANO (through translator): You mean to be on Broadway?

O'BRIEN: And to be the star.

GIORDANO (through translator): Yes. It's actually been about 20 years since the play "Children of a Lesser God" was on Broadway, which was around 1981. And this is a fabulous opportunity for me to be here on Broadway. I never expected it. We started out at Deaf West, which was a small theater in Los Angeles, only a 66-seat theater. And then we transferred to the Mark Taper Forum, and it was an amazing success. And now here we are on Broadway, and it's really been fantastic. A dream that I never dreamed actually has come true.

O'BRIEN: Describe how you do this complicated action, because every actor is signing. At the same time, every one, every character out there has a voice, even from the actors who are not speaking because someone else is their voice. Is that an accurate way to describe it?



JEFF CALHOUN, DIRECTOR, "BIG RIVER": That was perfect! You said it better than I can. It's hard to explain. But fortunately, it's the kind of a show that when you're at work at the water cooler, people are saying it's really hard to describe, but you have to go see it to believe it. And it's what you said. Because it's a musical and half the cast is deaf, we've built in visual cues -- depending on the song, every four counts, every six counts, every eight counts. And hopefully, we've hid that from the audience, like a magic trick. We don't want you to see the internal cuing we're doing. But there is as much choreography backstage and unbeknownst to the audience as there is your standard dancing to music.

O'BRIEN: How difficult is it, Daniel? You're a hearing actor. You play the character of Mark Twain, while you're the voice of Tyrone's character. How tough is it, first of all, just to learn sign language and then to act in sign language?

DANIEL JENKINS, ACTOR: Well, the sign language part of it was the most fun for me. It's an opportunity like no other. It's like -- I tell my friends it's like I'm visiting Spain and I get to absorb this new language. And for the role, we were given a coach a few days before rehearsals, a few of us who had not been involved in the production before. And then we had a week together -- Ty, myself and Michael, who plays Jim -- try trying to get in sync. And we had the whole cast there. And it was a longer process than normal rehearsal process because of the physical coordination.

And the special challenge for me is the emotional coordination, being not just physically together, timing-wise, with Ty, which we could do, but fitting the stakes, how high the stakes are for each of us, where we are emotionally. It's a lovely challenge that brings me closer to this character and this man.

O'BRIEN: In the original show, you were nominated for a Tony Award, almost 20 years ago. Is this time around so much harder?

JENKINS: It's so much different. It's just apples and oranges. I carry with me from that experience in '85 this kind of warm glow, this love for the piece. But all of that just kind of had to be set aside, and I really had to focus on the special challenges of this production. And it's been a joy to do that.

O'BRIEN: Tyrone, your mother's deaf. Your brother is hearing. I just have to imagine, you know, now that you're the toast of Broadway, basically, that they're incredibly proud of you. Have they come to see the show, five, six times, ten times?

GIORDANO (through translator): Hopefully, more.


GIORDANO (through translator): Yes. My mom is so proud. It's wonderful to see her being so proud of her own son and me being on Broadway.

O'BRIEN: Broadway critics, theater critics, are notoriously harsh and mean, Jeff, I mean, right?

CALHOUN: Oh, we don't have to talk about that!

(LAUGHTER) O'BRIEN: But they've been raving about the show. And one quote said that the chorus line of actors signing was -- quote, "It sent an excited shiver through the house." They loved the show. What do you think resonates with people on Broadway about the show, just that it's different, or is there sort of a subtext that people like?

CALHOUN: What people are reacting to, specifically the critics, is the material, Mark Twain's masterpiece, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which I think Hemingway said was the source of all great American literature, and it was very ground-breaking at its time. So I thought it was good to pick that material to do the ground-breaking play that we're doing, the marriage of the deaf and the hearing culture.

O'BRIEN: Ty, how old are you?

GIORDANO (through translator): I'm 27 years old.

O'BRIEN: You're 27, and you're the star of a Broadway show. How do you top this? I mean, what do you do next?

GIORDANO (through translator): I'm just hoping to find more work in the future. It's possible that we'll have a national tour of "Big River." That's in the works for next year. And I'm hoping to be a part of that and see if age doesn't defeat me.


O'BRIEN: Well, congratulations to all three of you. The show's gotten wonderful reviews, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. It's nice to have you.


O'BRIEN: Thanks again. Appreciate it. And Stephanie Fane (ph), who's been the sign language interpreter for us, as well, thanks so much to you.


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