Friday, December 17, 2021

‘The Music Man’ once had a disabled character. Then he was erased.

From The New York Times:

Pictured: Michael Phelan as Winthrop Paroo and Rebecca Luker as Marian Paroo in a 2000 revival of “The Music Man” at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan.


By Amanda Morris(Amanda Morris is a 2021-2022 disability reporting fellow for the National desk. @amandamomorris)

Many know Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway musical, “The Music Man,” as a light comedy centered on a cheeky scam artist who pretends to be a musician and sells the idea of starting a boys’ band to a small town in Iowa. The show is being revived on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and will begin performances this month.

But several newly recognized drafts of the musical, written between 1954 and 1957, show that originally, the story focused more on the town’s persecution of a boy in a wheelchair — carrying a much more serious message than the final draft. At the time, children with disabilities were routinely institutionalized in horrid conditions and denied an education.

In the version that debuted in 1957, the only character that doesn’t fall for the scheme is Marian Paroo, a well-read single woman who has a shy younger brother with a lisp, named Winthrop. But the con man, Harold Hill, manages to charm Marian and wins her over in part by being kind to Winthrop and including him in the band.

In the earlier drafts, Marian’s younger brother was a character named Jim Paroo, a boy in a wheelchair who, in some versions of the show, has limited use of his arms and could not speak. Wherever Jim goes, townspeople want to lock him up, and in some versions, this drives him to hide and live in the school basement instead of at home.

Then, Harold comes along and challenges the community’s assumptions about Jim by bringing him into the band and finding an instrument he’s capable of playing with his limited range of motion. An early title for the show, “The Silver Triangle,” highlights Jim’s instrument of choice and contribution to the band.

“I think that Jim was very much at the heart of the show,” said Dominic Broomfield-McHugh, a musicology professor at the University of Sheffield in England who discovered many of the earlier drafts in 2013 at the Great American Songbook Foundation in Indiana. These discoveries were published in May in Broomfield-McHugh’s new book, “The Big Parade: Meredith Willson’s Musicals from ‘The Music Man’ to ‘1491.’” The book explores the musical’s journey from “The Silver Triangle” to “The Music Man” we know today — and has a chapter devoted to the various early drafts of the show.

“When you read the first draft, it feels quite thin until you get to the scenes with Jim or about Jim, and suddenly it becomes very dramatic and serious,” he said. “I still feel astonished when I look at it.”

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Most of the songs and scenes in earlier drafts are also significantly different, according to Broomfield-McHugh. In one deleted song, Jim, who is nonverbal in this version of the show, starts to sing onstage alone.

“What Willson was trying to do was to sort of say, even though he can’t physically speak, he has all these thoughts and ideas going around in his head,” Broomfield-McHugh said.

Though Willson’s writing of disability was sometimes gimmicky in ways that could now be seen as offensive — in one scene, music inspires Jim to stand up for the first time — Broomfield-McHugh believes that the playwright was trying to spark a conversation about how people with disabilities were treated at the time.

He found evidence that the playwright had visited organizations for disabled children but couldn’t find any other personal reasons that Willson may have had for writing about this issue.

Just 10 months before the show opened, Willson dropped the character of Jim, replacing him with Winthrop at the urging of producers who felt there was no place for serious representations of disability onstage.

“But I sense such a frustration in him that he really, really tried for years to make it work like this,” Broomfield-McHugh said.

One memo urged Willson to change the character, stating that “physical disability in a child is impossible to view in any terms but pity and sentiment, the problem is to find some other form of disability besides physical.” The memo is undated and unsigned, but Broomfield-McHugh believes it was written in early 1957 by an employee of a producer. He found it in Wisconsin Historical Society archives, tucked in the back of a script that belonged to the producer Kermit Bloomgarden, who took over production of the show in 1957. 

Another letter to Willson, written in 1955 by the playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, says, “The easy solution is to dump Jim Paroo,” but that doing so “might conceivably reduce a major work to the dimension of mere entertainment.”

Today, audiences can more regularly see disabled actors onstage thanks to efforts by small theater companies like The Apothetae, which produces works centered on the disabled experience; and Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an Off Broadway organization that regularly casts actors with disabilities.

But on Broadway, which can elevate shows into mainstream commercial hits, authentic representations of disability are still few and far between, said Talleri A. McRae, a founder of National Disability Theater.

There have been some successes. Ali Stroker made history in 2019 as the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award for her role as a flirty fiancée, Ado Annie, in ‘Oklahoma!’; Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, played Laura in a 2017 production of “The Glass Menagerie.” There was also the casting of a disabled actor in the role of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” in 2019; a 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening” by Deaf West Theater, which featured deaf and hearing actors side by side; as well as Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 Off Broadway play“Cost of Living,” about people with disabilities.

Even with this progress, many disabled characters are not written in well-rounded ways, and actors without disabilities are often cast in these roles, McRae said.

To her knowledge, the character of Nessarose in “Wicked” — who uses a wheelchair — has never been played by a disabled actress on Broadway, and the same was true for the character of Crutchie, who uses a crutch in the show “Newsies.”

“Look how far we haven’t come,” said Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy and the founder and artistic director of the Apothetae. “Or how far we have yet to go.”

Part of the problem is inaccessibility for acting training programs, said Mozgala, who is also the director of inclusion for the Queens Theater’s program Theater for All, which helps support and train disabled playwrights and actors. In his own acting program at the Boston University School for the Arts, he was the only person who identified as disabled and said many actors with disabilities have been told to sit out of certain classes, such as movement classes, because professors felt uncomfortable teaching students with disabilities.

Another barrier is the perception of audiences. Nicholas Viselli, the artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, said audiences still feel uncomfortable watching disabled actors or characters onstage. For the plays he stages, he said he often receives donations from people who say they think the work is important but don’t want to come see it.

“When you advertise disability, it becomes a turnoff,” Viselli said. “People are like, ‘I’ll feel bad for them. It will perhaps diminish my experience.’”

In the end, the version of “The Music Man” without Jim was a hit; it won five Tony Awards, including best musical, ran for 1,375 performances and was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie in 1962.

“The Music Man” has since been criticized for making light of its con artist’s problematic, predatory behavior, such as a scene in which he follows Marian home and tries multiple times to seduce her.

The legacy of “The Music Man” may have been different if Willson’s original vision had made it onto the Broadway stage in a way that authentically represented people with disabilities. Many of the stigmas and barriers it tried to confront still persist, according to Penny Pun, the managing director of the National Disability Theater.

“A lot of these works are being put down before they even see the light of day,” Pun said. “So how do we know if they have mainstream appeal? They never get a chance.”


A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 16, 2021, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: In Early Scripts, ‘The Music Man’ Included a Disabled Character. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Please stop comparing disability mimicry to blackface by Dominick Evans

Note: This is a reprint of Evans, D. (2017). "Please stop comparing disability mimicry to blackface," on the Dominick Evans website, which experienced a breach and was shut down. Reprinted with permission, 2021.

By Dominick Evans, (He/They), Hollywood Inclusion & Representation Consultant, Filmmaker, Writer, Streamer, Influencer, and FilmDis Founder. Evans is pictured.

Those of us who are white in the disability community need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. There are black and brown disabled people in our communities. They often go ignored, are not listened to, and they are speaking out about the things that our greater community does that are harmful to them. One of those things is culturally appropriating terms that have been taken from concepts relating to racism and the oppression of Black and brown bodies. I know it gets tiring to hear this new term or that new term, but when it comes to those who are multiply marginalized in our community, we need to actually listen to what they are saying.

I spend all day, most days studying film, television, and other media. We've had this discussion before, and I think it's an important one we need to have again. We as disabled people and our allies need to stop calling the unfair casting of non-disabled people as "disabled" and the exclusion of disabled actors from media such as film and television as "cripface." The term has specifically been taken from blackface, and I see the comparison between the two over and over again. We spoke about it during our #FilmDis discussion back in 2015, which was led by disabled POC. They have told us to stop doing this over and over again, and I don't know if the message is not getting through to everyone, but I believe we should listen.

I know that we have struggled to find a word or phrase, although, generally, using "cripping up" has been better accepted, and I've also started using disabled mimicry, which I think fits simply because mimicry is often embedded in (often unintentional) mockery. Whether non-disabled actors intend to mock us is not relevant to using the term, because whether there is malice or not that is what happens. It is a mockery of disability, through the weird vocal intonation or accents we hear when portraying CP or Deaf characters, the twitching, writhing bodies portraying strokes or spasticity, the rigidity of body posture, curling and flopping of wrists, or whatever physically stereotypical things these actors take on to portray what they think it means to be disabled. Yes, disabled bodies do some of these things, but they do so naturally and organically. It's not something easily done if your body does not curl or twist or writhe or flap on its own, and often becomes to focal point of disabled portrayals by non-disabled performers.

Nobody is saying this is not bad or horrible. In fact, it is very harmful. It harms the disability community, which is why I scoff at the defense of actors doing it. I recently saw an article asking if we should take away the Oscars from actors like Tom Hanks and Daniel Day-Lewis for their performances that are nothing short of disabled mimicry. Even Day-Lewis, who I know some disabled people support, associates disability with nothing more than physically curling up his body and contorting it, while using his voice to grunt and growl. All of these factors have turned disability into nothing more than physical characteristics, and that is the personification of disabled mimicry. Take away their Oscars for doing real harm to actual disabled people? What a novel idea! While it is nice to think of that in retrospect, we need to look forward about what can be done to prevent this in the future.

I digress.

Going further, I see the comparison between disabled mimicry and blackface not just in how we talk about disabled people being excluded, but also in comparing the oppression. Blackface comes from a long tradition of outright mocking Black people. Disabled mimicry is mocking, but rarely have I seen it done specifically as a form of mocking. Instead, it is done by people who think they know what disability is about or they think it is a great way to get to the Oscars, and they probably aren't that far off. Often, the actors think they are do-gooders taking on a "challenge" while writers and directors seek praise for "inclusion."

Blackface has long been done insidiously, not just to remind Black people of their place in society, but also to remind us white folks of our supposed "superiority over Black people. Looking back at cinema, the legacy of Birth of a Nation (1915) has painted Black people as foolish, intellectually inferior, a joke, a silly child. We see the infantilization of disabled people in film and other media, as well, but it comes from an entirely different place. Rather, it is done to make us look dependent, burdensome, or is even used as a plot device. Both forms of oppression are bad and cause harm to the communities they represent, but they have such different histories the comparison becomes problematic.

Consider the fact that there are disabled Black people who not only have to deal with disabled mimicry, but also blackface. Comparing the two can make these individuals feel invisible. This is what I've been told by numerous Black disabled activists, more than once when talking about disability, race, and the media. Add in the fact that over 80% of roles are male, 70% are white, and over 99% are cisgender and heterosexual when it comes to disabled roles, and Black and brown disabled women and trans folks are already feeling very excluded from the media. We need to start including Black disabled people, especially women and trans folks, not only in the discussion about media, but in the creation of it. That is hard to do when we consider we may be isolating Black disabled folks by comparing their/our oppression as disabled people, with their oppression as Black people.

Disabled mimicry comes from a place where disabled people have no voices because it is often assumed we cannot speak for ourselves. It comes from a place of ignorance about disability. It comes from people who may think they are doing something good for our community, but who are actually harming it because they have no concept of what our community is or what we believe or represent. Can it be malicious? Absolutely! Do I think most people are doing so maliciously? I don't believe so, and I have consumed a large amount of media that includes disabled characters and storylines. Where the problem comes in is that these creators don't want to listen. They are not exactly aiming to mock us. They would have to understand disability to know how. I don't think most of them even understand enough about disability to knowingly do that, but it does mock us and it does harm us.

Blackface was always meant to mock and dehumanize Black people, and therein lies the difference. At the heart of this discussion it comes down to intent. Whitewashing may have become more insidious like disabled mimicry, but the comparison is not helping anyone. At the heart of this is the fact that Black disabled people have asked us to stop the comparison, and we need to listen to what they have to say.

You do not have to believe me, but please listen to the Black disabled voices in our community:

Anita Cameron, legendary disability rights activist with ADAPT and Not Dead Yet says, "Cripface is appropriative and erases the history of Black folks and how we were insulted, ridiculed and put down by the White film establishment. When cripface is compared to Blackface, it is insulting, inappropriate and flat out wrong. Just don't do it. And yes, I'm Black and disabled. If I see that comparison taking place I will call it out! Blackface was meant to be cruel to Black folks."

As a community, we as disabled people have plenty of valid reasons for why disabled mimicry is not okay. Instead of pointing out how other groups are oppressed and excluded, I believe it would be much better if we chose to develop our own talking points about why disabled mimicry or "cripping up," whatever we choose to call it, is harmful, and when we do, let's include the multiply marginalized voices in our community, in the process.

Edited to include quotes.


You can find Dominick Evans here: 

Website - FilmDis

Discord - CripCusader Community

Twitter - @DominickEvans

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) partners with FilmDis for TV study


Picture on left is of "Hollyoaks" star Tylan Grant, who is the first autistic actor to play an autistic character on British television. Pictured on the right is Sammi Haney, who plays Dion's best friend on the Netflix show "Raising Dion." Sammi, who is a wheelchair user, was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta Type III. The text beneath the pictures says, "The FilmDis study shows that only 11% of disabled characters on TV are played by disabled actors" (FilmDis, 2019).



Email:                                         December 3, 2021



GADIM partners with FilmDis; revamps website

FilmDis study shows that almost 90% of disabled characters on TV are played by nondisabled actors


December 3, 2021 - The Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) is pleased to announce its new partnership with FilmDis, a media monitoring organization created by screenwriting and directing duo, Dominick Evans & Ashtyn Law. GADIM, which was founded in 2016 by journalist Patricia Almeida in Brazil, lawyer Cátia Malaquias of Australia, and professor Beth Haller of the USA, was created to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in mass media. GADIM also announces its website redesign.

GADIM sponsored the second FilmDis study, which examined disability representation on scripted entertainment television in 2019/2020. The study found 1,198 disabled characters across 30 TV networks & streaming services, but it was rarely authentic representation.  Only 128 characters, about 11 percent, were played by disabled actors, which is defined as the actor having at least one of the disabilities they portrayed.

Other significant findings were that almost 43 percent of the disabled characters were cisgender white males. For more information about the study, visit GADIM’s Media Analysis Study web page,

Evans and Law explain that “there is much more to disabled lives than what we see (on TV), and with Hollywood in desperate need of fresh stories and voices, disabled creators and their ideas for television are ripe for the picking. Hollywood just needs to let the stories bloom.”

GADIM’s revised website has several significant new features such as pages for media Best Practices in advertising, news, and entertainment media and a page about how mass media can make their content more accessible.

“The partnership with FilmDis and the revamped website allows GADIM to better reach its goal of helping mass media globally to improve their portrayals of disability,” said co-director Beth Haller. “GADIM believes that people with disabilities must be involved in all aspects of mass media content to convey their authentic stories.”

GADIM’s mission is informed by Article 8 (Awareness-raising) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). A summary of Article 8 states: “As a change of perceptions is essential to improve the situation of persons with disabilities, ratifying countries are to combat stereotypes and prejudices and promote awareness of the capabilities of persons with disabilities.”

GADIM activities include being judges for the MIPCOM Diversify TV Excellence Awards for the international television industry, providing feedback on disability representation for Lionsgate Films, and co-hosting a conference on Disability, Media, and Human Rights in 2018 in Perth, Australia.

GADIM will become a registered non-profit in 2022.

December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and on this day, GADIM joins the international #WeThe15 campaign in an effort to promote accessibility and inclusion globally for the 15% of the world’s population who live with a disability (1.2 billion people).

For more information about the FilmDis study, contact Dominick Evans at