I’ll absolutely hand it to them - the producers of new musical How to Dance in Ohio tried to stage everything for autistic people like my girlfriend, Stasia, and I. The production sent out an email complete with links to a sensory advisory guide and advice on word usage, and they had “cool down zones” if we felt overwhelmed and needed to leave the theater. I genuinely appreciated this concept after enduring Manhattan for seven hours, dodging dozens of day-drunk, dangerously thin Saint Nicks dressed up for Santa Con, and coping with the screeches of a thousand unstable car horns.
Ohio is about plucky young autistics attending their own exclusive spring formal. It wants every theatergoer to love it, to feel inspired, and all credit to them for featuring actual autistic actors. By intermission, however, the little girl in the next row just felt overwhelmed. Her guardian suggested going to the cool-down zone, and she replied, “Where?! Where the SPEAKERS ARE?!” [Editors Note: designated cool-down spaces are available away from speakers in sensory-friendly locations]. The musical has the best of intentions, but similarly, instead of inspiring me, I felt alienated, exhausted, and, as with many recent inclusive pop culture texts, like I wasn’t getting a story but sold a bill of goods.
Growing up, Stasia and I didn’t act much like the autistic characters depicted in Ohio. We weren’t “dinosaur autistics,” we joked after the show, but “Tim Burton autistics:” we liked gloomy art and spiky Expressionist shadows, and we asked introspective questions about social norms. I didn’t enjoy many Disney movies because their primary audience remained people who felt comfortable. Like they belonged. A good chunk of my childhood meanwhile involved meltdowns, poor adult tempers, and heading to the principal’s office over every other misunderstanding. Disney was for them, not for me.
There aren’t a lot of figurative or literal shadows in this play: no “Lonely Room” or the hard pivot of The Fantasticks. In fact, as much as Broadway spectacle was on full display, the color scheme came closest to a hi-def, digital Michael Schur sitcom like Parks & Recreation. Like many comedies, the book also relies on autistic people remaining sweet, well-meaning cherubs who deliver accidental punchlines and can’t handle any social anxiety or stress. The show’s introduction tells us that “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person,” but few of these characters rarely stand out beyond stereotypical traits like child-like clothes and loving dragons. The other autistics I’ve known were often self-loathing, darkly funny, dressed in black, and their SI’s (special interests) ranged wildly. Many of them didn’t get this kind of early intervention and coped as best they could, while struggling to get by. They just don’t get to have a musical.
One of my own SI’s is sitcoms, and in Community’s savage Glee parody, Jeff Winger warns Abed, “Attempts to make the holiday brighter just give it a certain darkness.” I kept thinking throughout of the real problems the musical only touched on or even joked about: Mel being a Black autistic person and put through hostile interactions at her job, female autistics missing red flags in dating. We glance at the darkness, then everything’s so neatly resolved - or brushed over.
Oh, I could assume this is simply Not My Thing, like Steven Universe or the entirety of reality TV, especially as a Sondheim Man (other musicals are fine, they’re just…not Sondheim). But this kind of uber-hopeful, inclusive pop culture, featuring Julliard cuties and sickeningly bright colors, is hiding, not illuminating. The dishonesty of the enterprise came into view when Stasia and I watched the original eponymous documentary that the show is adapted from. Alexandra Shiva’s film is low-key, intimate – the camera prefers to be a fly on the wall, observing the real-life subjects at work or in therapy sessions. The musical either drastically changed the real events, characters, or added soggy drama to the already rapidly congealing sap.
As I watched the film, I choked up. Dr. Amigo’s autistic patients sit together, receive positive reinforcement, and form an awkward but organic community. I gravitated to other neurodivergent folk growing up, but this treatment was an experience I missed out on in young adulthood. Tears and snot flowed, along with so much feeling, for them, for Stasia, and for myself: the catharsis the musical wanted from me, but never truly earned.
How to Dance in Ohio is running now on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.