A Blind Theatergoer's 'Hamilton' Lawsuit Aims Spotlight On Broadway Accessibility

Mar 14, 2017
Originally published on March 14, 2017 5:33 pm

A recent lawsuit brought by a blind theatergoer against the producers of the hit musical Hamilton has highlighted Broadway's spotty track record in serving audiences with disabilities.

Hamilton opened almost a year and a half ago, but it's still the hottest ticket on Broadway. Mark Lasser of Denver, who is blind, wanted to take his wife to the show and get audio description services to help him enjoy a performance. That means he hoped to get a headset and hear the stage action being described in real time, during the show. But he discovered that Hamilton doesn't offer this particular service.

"I think what this suit brings to light is that you have a hidden population out there that is not gaining the full access to Broadway," says attorney Scott Dinin, who is representing Lasser in the class-action suit against the show's producers and theater owner.

"Sometimes you need a lawsuit like this to bring this to the public's attention," Dinin says.

Broadway has taken great strides in the decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in 1990. Last year, a new website called Theatre Access NYC launched — a collaboration between the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, and the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit that offers discount tickets and services to theatergoers with disabilities.

Lisa Carling, TDF's director of accessibility programs, says the goal of the website is to provide one stop where people with disabilities can find accessible performances.

A quick glance shows that most Broadway theaters are wheelchair accessible and offer open captioning and hearing assistance devices; there are also occasional special performances for people on the autism spectrum. But only four long-running musicals, including The Lion King and The Book of Mormon, offer audio description.

Audio description has been around since the 1980s, says Mark Annunziato, vice president for operations and engineering at Sound Associates, a company that rents audio and video equipment to Broadway shows and develops audio description services.

In the past, groups of blind and low-vision customers attended special performances with a live interpreter. Since Broadway shows now use computers to trigger light, set and sound cues, automated audio description can be set up to work with those systems and offered at every performance, with minimal cost — especially when Broadway musicals have budgets between $5 million and $25 million.

"The base system varies, but it usually ranges in and around $20,000," Annunziato says. "So that would be the automation system, the computer system and the wireless broadcast system to all the devices."

Then add $5,000 more to write, record and sync a script, and a monthly maintenance fee. When you're talking about a hit show, the cost of setting up an audio description system more than pays for itself, says Howard Sherman, of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.

"Certainly once a show sets up a sustained run — and when we look at musicals that run five, 10, 15, 20 years — it really is a very small price to pay for opening up a show to a much, much wider audience," Sherman says.

That's really what Dinin, Lasser's attorney, is trying to say with this legal action. He is not seeking damages for his client — he can't, under the terms of the ADA. He is trying to make sure that theater becomes more inclusive, by spotlighting the problem, using Broadway's biggest hit.

"Audio description is so necessary," Dinin says. "It's the right thing to do. It's not that expensive. And it's just a thinking process. It's a mindset. We have to get a mindset: How do we increase inclusion? It should be top-of-mind. Equality, accommodation and respect. Because once people put that at the decision-making table, all the services will flow from that."

With the case ongoing, Hamilton's producers declined to comment for this story. So did a number of other Broadway producers.

Radio editor Tom Cole and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Broadway has a spotty track record of accommodating audience members with disabilities. That was highlighted recently when a blind theatregoer sued the producers of the hit musical "Hamilton." Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: "Hamilton" opened almost a year and a half ago, but it's still the hottest ticket on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHOT")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot.

LUNDEN: And Mark Lasser of Denver, Colo., who's blind, wanted to take his wife and get audio description services to help him enjoy a performance. That means he hoped to get a headset and hear the stage action being described in real time while the show goes on. But he discovered that "Hamilton" doesn't offer this particular service.

SCOTT DININ: I think what this suit brings to light is that you have a hidden population out there that is not gaining the full access to Broadway.

LUNDEN: Attorney Scott Dinin represents Lasser in the lawsuit brought against the show's producers and theater owner.

DININ: And sometimes you need a lawsuit like this to bring this to the public's attention because no one with a real, I think, heart or mind or living in modern society would say anything but, like, audio description at least one performance a month, one performance a year.

LUNDEN: Broadway is taking great strides in the decades since the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in 1990. Last year, a new website called Theatre Access NYC launched. It's a collaboration between the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, and the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit which offers discount tickets and services to theatergoers with disabilities. Lisa Carling is TDF's director of accessibility programs. She says the goal of the website is...

LISA CARLING: To make it one stop where people with disabilities could go to find out what accessible performances were available.

LUNDEN: A quick glance shows that most Broadway theaters are wheelchair accessible, offer open captioning and hearing assistance devices, and there are occasional special performances for people on the autistic spectrum. But only four long-running musicals, including "The Lion King" and "The Book Of Mormon," offer audio description.

MARK ANNUNZIATO: Audio description has been around for a number of years, since the '80s.

LUNDEN: Mark Annunziato is vice president for operations and engineering at Sound Associates, a company that rents audio and video equipment to Broadway shows. The company also developed automated audio description services. In the past, groups of blind and low-vision customers attended special performances with a live interpreter.

ANNUNZIATO: I'll start it at the beginning.

LUNDEN: Annunziato sits at a laptop in Sound Associates' studio to demonstrate the automated audio description.

ANNUNZIATO: This is not automated. This is me just hitting go. And this is...

LUNDEN: He selects a bit from the recently closed hit musical "Jersey Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All the fencing rises and ascends into the ceiling. The rapper comes down the right staircase and dances across the front of the stage. He gyrates his hips and kicks his feet side to side. He holds a microphone.

LUNDEN: Annunziato explains that since Broadway shows now use computers to trigger light, set and sound cues, audio description can be set up to work with those systems and offered at every performance with minimal cost, especially when Broadway musicals have budgets between five and $25 million.

ANNUNZIATO: The base system usually ranges in and around $20,000. So that would be the automation system, the computer system and the wireless broadcast system to all the devices.

LUNDEN: Add $5,000 to write, record and sync a script and a monthly maintenance fee. Howard Sherman of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts says the cost of setting up an audio description system more than pays for itself with a hit show.

HOWARD SHERMAN: Certainly once a show sets up a sustained run, and when we look at musicals that run five, 10, 15, 20 years, it really is a very small price to pay for opening up a show to a much, much wider audience.

LUNDEN: And that's really what attorney Scott Dinin is trying to say with this "Hamilton" lawsuit. He's not seeking damages for his client. He can't under the terms of the ADA. He's trying to make sure that theater becomes more inclusive by spotlighting the problem using Broadway's biggest hit.

DININ: Audio description is the right thing to do. It's not that expensive. We have to get a mindset - how do we increase inclusion? It should be top of mind - equality, accommodation and respect - because once people put that at the decision-making table, all the services will flow from that.

LUNDEN: With the case ongoing, "Hamilton's" producers declined to comment for this story. So did a number of other Broadway producers. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.