How to Dance on Broadway!

How a documentary about the social lives of young adults with autism by Alexandra Shiva ’95 became a Broadway musical.

The clammy palms, the butterflies, the search for the perfect outfit. These are familiar experiences for just about any young person preparing for a formal dance—together with the pressing questions that go with it: How do I ask someone to go with me? How do I overcome my awkwardness? How do I get this right?

A portrait photo of Alexandra Shiva ’95 in front of the Belasco Theater in Manhattan.
Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva ’95 at recent matinee of How to Dance in Ohio at the Belasco Theater in Manhattan. Photo: Samuel Stuart Photography

In her 2015 Peabody-award-winning documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, Alexandra Shiva ’95  introduced viewers to a group of teens participating in this ritual for the first time through the lens of an added challenge: a diagnosis of autism. The critically acclaimed film, executive produced by fellow alum Jason Blum '91, was heralded for its sensitive treatment of its subjects and their interactions with Ohio-based psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo, the documentary focused on a three-month period leading up to the dance in which the young people practiced social skills, including how to accept rejection.

Shiva recalls her excitement when famed director and producer Hal Prince approached her with the idea of transforming the material to a new medium: a musical. At the end of 2023, almost nine years after the film premiered, How to Dance in Ohio, the stage production, opened on Broadway in December. With all of the autistic characters being played by actors with autism, the show is breaking new ground.

Among the ensemble cast of talented young actors—all of whom sing and dance—is Vassar alum Imani Russell ’18, who identifies as a Black+Boricua, queer, and disabled. Their character, Mel, based on a young person named Melissa, now Monte, offers audience members insight into the difficulty people with autism can encounter in the workplace.

A photo of Vassar alum Imani Russell ’18 performing a play with supporting cast members.
Vassar alum Imani Russell ’18, center, portrays the character “Mel” in the production. Photo: ©Curtis Brown

“As a musical, the story is more fun,” Shiva says, “and more family-friendly. It speaks to a lot of the confusion kids have about growing up and fumbling through, and the mistakes you make as you get there.” The Broadway team’s commitment to making How to Dance in Ohio accessible for all audiences, including those with autism, is in evidence at every performance. There are special cooldown areas in the theater, as well as aids such as headsets, available to anyone who might find the show overstimulating. Nevertheless, the show doesn’t hold back, and the performances are as big, colorful, and energetic, as any musical fan could hope for.

While Prince did not see the musical come to fruition—he passed away in 2019—the creative team behind the show continued to consult with Shiva, who provided unused film footage that helped inform a number of scenes. Shiva also arranged an essential meeting with the clients at the Amigo Family Counseling Center; elements of that meeting and the conversations that followed are now a part of the show, as well.

As with the making of the documentary, the young people whose stories serve as the basis for the production had questions—could they audition for a role in the show and how much of the material would be made up?—as well as a few concerns about representation. For example, would the characters have a stereotypical “autism voice,” one lacking in inflection, that some storytellers have used to signal autism?

Concerns also extended to the language. When Shiva began working on her film, her subjects preferred a person-first descriptor, i.e., “a young adult with autism.” The actors in the musical prefer identity-first language, i.e., “an autistic young adult.” 

“It depends on who you’re talking to,” Shiva notes.

A photo of Shiva and other panelists discussing her film's adaptation at the  Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC) in Pleasantville, NY.
Shiva, second from left, discussed the adaptation of her film at the Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC) in Pleasantville, NY, this January. Other panelists included, left to right: Broadway producer and JBFC board member Dori Berinstein, and the musical's creative team, Composer Jacob Yandura, Producer Ben Holtzman, Assistant Music Director Nicole D'Angelo,  and Director Sammi Cannold. Photo: Mia Bongiorno

Those in the cast were also eager to see the stories of more of the group’s members included. The show’s focus subsequently expanded to include seven characters versus the three young women who were followed in the film. Partly fictional depictions of the emotional lives of family members and clinic staff are also added in the musical.

“Documentaries are their own art form with limitations that you just don’t have when you’re creating a narrative structure that allows you to expand and make changes,” Shiva says. “I think the [Broadway team] did an incredible job working with the source material, but also broadening the story.”

Shiva’s interest in creating her film was originally sparked by a close friendship with the parents of a teenager with autism and her curiosity about what services are available to families.   “Understandably, there’s a lot of attention on young children with autism,” she explains, “but what happens when they get older? What kind of integration is out there? Is the world ready for them? And are they ready for the world?” A chance meeting with a client at the Center led her to Dr. Amigo, whom Shiva describes as “a great storyteller” and “a big personality” with a love of dance. When she learned  he was planning a spring formal with his clients, Shiva immediately knew she had found her subject.

Even as the Broadway production is bringing new audiences to the story, How to Dance in Ohio, the documentary, continues to reach viewers on HBO Max. Shiva has gone on to complete a number of other projects since making the film, including This is Home (2018), her documentary about Syrian refugees newly arrived in the U.S., and Each and Every Day (2021), which focuses on teenagers who have attempted suicide or have suicidal ideation. The latter project, which aired on MTV (and is available on demand), was filmed during the pandemic-related shutdown and much of the footage was completed remotely. While these constraints were not optimal, Shiva notes that given the underlying theme of isolation experienced by the subjects, “it works for the subject matter.” She is currently completing another film for HBO that is scheduled to air in the spring. In all of her work, Shiva says, “the throughline is to show the surprising connections, to show the shared humanity, instead of what makes us different.” 

February 10, 2024