By Thomas Floyd, The Washington Post
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.
At the time, the Gallaudet University alumnus was finding roles for deaf actors hard to come by. Having recently seen Deaf West’s 2015 production of “Spring Awakening” — performed on Broadway in American Sign Language and spoken English — Caverly thought the time was right for a D.C. theater to follow suit. So when Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith encouraged staff to approach him with ideas for shows, Caverly spoke up.
“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.”
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