Professor tuned in to disability in musical theater

James Leve

The portrayal of characters with disabilities in movies often earns critical acclaim: Think Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech.” Long before actors embraced these parts on the big screen, the stories unfolded live on the stage, and recently, have played a more prominent position in musical theatre.

James Leve,  professor of music, researches disabilities in musical theater, a growing subfield of disabilities in music.

When an actor is singing while portraying a character with intellectual disabilities, those challenges may be more pronounced compared to a spoken theater performance, Leve said. Intellectual disability can severely affect vocal range and the motor skills required in musical theater.

Disability narratives are very popular in musical theater because audiences love plots where characters overcome their disabilities.

Leve addresses actors and writers with disabilities as well as musicals portraying characters with disabilities. The professor also studies how theatergoers with disabilities experience musical theater since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

These topics are part of a book Leve is writing, titled Sounds, Sights and Silences: Disability in Musical Theater.

“The first part of the book will be musicals with characters with disabilities, people who stutter,” said Leve, who also addresses the role of intellectual disability, learning disabled and brain damaged characters and actors. “How are these disabilities being expressed musically and how do they affect music?”

These questions were incorporated in a session organized and chaired by Leve during the most recent Society for American Music conference. He discussed the role of musical theater in propagating disability stereotypes and the inherent difficulties in writing musicals about characters with disabilities.

This semester, Leve is working on a monograph of Charles Strouse, composer of the Broadway musical Charlie and Algernon, which portrayed an intellectually disabled man. Leve is conducting archival research at the New York Library for the Performing Arts and interviews with actors and writers of musical theater.

Leve’s textbook on musical theater was published last fall, and he is planning to incorporate his research on disabilities in musical theater into a writing class for juniors, which he said reflects the university’s commitment to diversity.