Autism is front and center in the pioneering new musical 'How to Dance in Ohio' on Broadway


NEW YORK — Actor Haven Burton wasn’t worried about what professional critics thought of her new musical “How to Dance in Ohio.” Who she really wanted to hear from was her 11-year-old son, Hudson.

The show follows seven autistic characters as they prepare for a spring dance. After co-starring in a performance this fall, Burton asked her son what he thought. His opinion mattered not just because Mom is in it but also because he has autism.

“He said, ‘I loved it. It was amazing. I just I can’t believe that there are people who think like me,’” Burton recalled. “I thought, ‘This is why I am doing this. This is why this is so important.’”

“How to Dance in Ohio” opens on Broadway on Sunday both celebrating and starring those on the autism spectrum as well as opening a window about autism’s highs and lows for the neurotypical.

“When we talk about this piece internally, we really view it as a piece of activism,” said Burton, whose Broadway credits include “Kinky Boots” and “Legally Blonde.” “There is entertainment and certainly commercial value, but at its very core, our values are to educate.”

Based on the Peabody Award-winning documentary of the same name, the musical is set at a counseling center in Columbus as a group of autistic young adults develop social skills and make connections. Seven openly autistic actors — aged between 19 and 36 — are playing the autistic characters, a first for Broadway.

“It just feels like a really special moment in time in the industry — important to bring awareness, to have this kind of representation on stage that is authentic,” says Barton, who along with her husband are co-producers.

Autism has been explored before on Broadway — “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was a 2015 best play Tony winner with a lead character on the autism spectrum — and autism-friendly performances of many shows have been offered for over a decade, but this is the first time all the lead actors of a show are on the spectrum.

“The core seven of us are sort of the face of autism on Broadway right now, which is massive,” said Ashley Wool, making her Broadway debut playing the daughter of Burton’s character. “We represent a good amount of the experience, but it’s still only the tip of the iceberg of the stories that can be told within and by and alongside the autistic and neurodiverse community.”

Previous attempts at portraying autism, she said, have focused on the condition: “Anybody can read about autism in a textbook and understand it as kind of a diagnostic list of symptoms and traits and tendencies. But our show introduces the audience to more autistic culture.”

The musical doesn’t shy away from the challenges people with autism encounter or the worries their parents face, as illustrated in one of Burton’s songs, “Getting Ready for the Dance,” with the lines: “So many things the other kids do/Ours get nevers, nos and can’ts.”

“We’re always trying to be very cautious of that line between grief and celebration, because you can hold both as a parent,” Burton says. “I think that you grieve the moment you become a parent regardless of who your child is, because parenting is like wearing your heart outside of your body for the rest of your life.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 1 in 36 children in the United States today. But Burton says “How to Dance in Ohio” is a musical for everyone.

“It’s not just a show about autism. It’s a show about connection. It’s a show about growth. It’s about overcoming challenges and finding things in common,” she said. “But for people that do have a touch point to autism, I think there is a real profound recognition of what’s happening on stage.”

The show has also tried to accommodate autistic theatergoers, offering cool-down spaces, fidget spinners and headphones that offer a separate, sensory-friendly mix of the show specially designed for autistic patrons.

Wool, who was diagnosed as autistic in college but hid it for a decade for fear she wouldn’t work if the news was public, has been cheered by the strides the autism community has made in the past few years.

“The conversation around autism has shifted so much even within my lifetime,” she said. “I’m an example of what an autistic person can accomplish when they are listened to and supported and accommodated and surrounded by resources and nonjudgmental people who love them for who they are.”

As for Burton, she is dedicating her performance to Hudson. In the Playbill, she says he ”leads with a courageous heart in a world that was not designed for him. I hope you take our story with you and leave our theater curious, kind and willing to challenge the world around you.”

Every night, she says, she shares a message to her fellow actors before they go on: “Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Don’t forget to tell the truth.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits





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