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Cripping Broadway: Neoliberal Performances of Disability in the American Musical Open Access

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'Cripping Broadway' is a body-oriented history of performance practices in five chapters. Chapter one, “Cripping Broadway,” historicizes the emergence of the triple-threat performer and surveys conventional uses of disability in the American musical. The triple-threat is a useful heuristic for investigating our paradoxical disavowal and investment in the disabled body because it involves extraordinary able-bodiedness as its baseline performative requirement, and thus, ironically, might be identified as the last place any disabled actor might reasonably embody. In chapter two, “Disability Simulation and the Able Imaginary,” I use productions of Side Show (1997, 2015) as a case study to propose that disability performance scholars use “disability simulation”—a term theorized in disability studies by scholars such as Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko—and consider its value as a theatrical practice through which able-bodied actors limit their physical capacities. My third chapter, “Everyone’s Got AIDS,” traces a pathway from Falsettos (1992) to Book of Mormon (2011) by contrasting the AIDS-as-tragedy narrative commonplace in productions during the 1980s and 90s against the AIDS-as-comedy trope in musicals, and in Rent-lampooning satire. Mormon’s inability to resolve chronic illness through kill-or-cure narratives, as in Falsettos and Rent, forces the musical to frame HIV/AIDS as a pasquinade instead of as a personal tragedy. Chapter four, “Integrating Disability,” uses the dialectic between libretto and score in The Light in the Piazza (2005) to understand how musicals characterize cognitive disability in the integrated book musical. I argue Clara’s traumatic brain injury compels an antinormative, avant-garde transformation of the score’s “lyrical time” into a character-specific crip time to which neurotypical characters must keep tempo. In my final chapter, “Hypercapacity and the Freak,” I turn to the blockbuster musicals Wicked (2003) and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2011). Here I question how and where boundary lines for constructions of the “normal” body form thus, this final chapter shows how Elphaba and Spider-man’s genetically “superior” bodies are indicative of the prosthetic relationship between commercial theatre’s embodiment of disabled characters and the “triple-threat” acting bodies employed to inhabit such nonnormative materialities. As this study makes clear, the history of Broadway is a well-documented story of nondisabled performers highlighting their actorly virtuosity by performing disability; I identify how disability has always been at the heart of commercial theatrical performance and ask how a performer’s relationship to disability impacts a musical’s cultural work. I propose the term “hypercapacity” to describe the expectations upon triple-threat actors in the Broadway industry, and also the ways bodies are strategically marked in musical theatre to be maximally productive. This project demonstrates the critical need for a material embodiment of disability onstage that moves beyond the advent of the overcapacitated triple-threat actors performing disability, who signify overproductivity as the value of neoliberal economic and social orders. Within this domain of inquiry we also must query the propensity of theatrical designs that prostheticize the theatrical world on behalf of nondisabled actors rather than innovate on greater flexibility to achieve a wider goal of making disability integral rather than merely “integrated”; if a central purpose of theater is to entertain the conditions of human life, it needs to apprehend and organize around disability as a worthy aesthetic value, embodied experience, and desirable difference without qualification.

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