It's a tough number for any actor -- let alone one who is deaf.
Not so long ago, the idea of staging a musical with performers who can't hear music might have seemed crazy. But then Deaf West Theatre offered up its version of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The production leaped from a 75-seat house in North Hollywood to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002, to Broadway in 2003. A new art form -- one that combines singing, speaking and American Sign Language -- was introduced.
Now, Deaf West is back at the Taper with another revival, a sly and sensual "Pippin" that will open next Sunday.
A few bonuses, including a new song by composer Stephen Schwartz, have been added. The main attraction, however, will be discovering all the ways in which director Jeff Calhoun and his cast unite the deaf and hearing worlds with their highly visual and, yes, musical style of storytelling.
Just as intriguing may be the story of how this "Pippin" was created. Every word has been reimagined and the smallest gesture considered. Actors have learned to work so closely together, one often provides a character's face while the other provides his voice.
"Given what it takes to do this," says Calhoun, "it's a miracle we ever pull it off."
At dinner a couple of years ago, Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet and his wife, actress Linda Bove, gave Calhoun a sheet of paper covered with Broadway musicals. "They asked if any of them interested me," Calhoun recalls. "One jumped out."
It was "Pippin," the medieval-pop parable in which the son of Charlemagne samples sex, war and domestic bliss while searching for the meaning of life. "I love the score," says Calhoun. "I also saw that the script would work within the confines of ASL."
Calhoun made some calls to float the idea of a Deaf West production. Schwartz, who had seen "Big River," gave his blessing. Calhoun then called Michael Ritchie and Charles Dillingham of the Center Theatre Group. They promised him a spot in the coming season.
Almost as quickly, Calhoun devised a concept that would make Pippin's story unique to Deaf West: "The message of the play is that he is trying to find his true voice. We can give him that chance in a way the original couldn't because we can personify the metaphor."
To do this, Deaf West is reinventing its traditional pairing of a deaf actor who signs with a hearing actor who sings and speaks. "We are using two Pippins," Calhoun says. "The one who can hear starts as an interpreter, but as the journey goes on he becomes a part of the story and ultimately teaches Pippin his great lesson."
In another departure, this production will include more dancing than past Deaf West shows. That should be no surprise, since Bob Fosse's decadent choreography was a hallmark of the original.. Given the nature of his company, Calhoun says, "we are going to let the ASL do a lot of that dancing for us."
As an example, he cites the opening number, "Magic to Do."
"Everyone knows that Fosse used the hands and the gloves. Well, what do you think of when you think ASL? Hands. Once I made that connection I knew we would be OK."
Picking the players
Auditions began in September. The early rounds weren't much different from any casting session, assessing who best fit each role.
Later, performers were judged on the fluency of their signing (if they were deaf) or their signing potential (if they weren't).