Broadway’s ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ Stars Seven Autistic Actors

The musical is loosely based on a 2015 documentary of the same name

How to Dance in Ohio Actors
The cast of How to Dance in Ohio brings neurodivergent characters to the Broadway stage. Marc J. Franklin

A new musical following a group of seven autistic young adults—all played by autistic actors—opened at Broadway’s Belasco Theater over the weekend. 

Titled How to Dance in Ohio, the production follows the leads as they prepare for an upcoming spring formal. Along the way, each character encounters unique coming-of-age challenges, such as attending college, navigating romantic relationships and managing hurtful criticism.

The musical is based on a 2015 documentary of the same name. The film focuses on a social skills program at the Amigo Family Counseling Center in Columbus, Ohio, where a group of young adults similarly prepares for a dance. 

“In many ways, the dance is going to be a collection of the worst possible sensory experiences that people living with autism encounter,” says Emilio Amigo, the psychologist who runs the Ohio center, in the film’s trailer. “But they will believe they can succeed when they succeed and when it makes sense—not when I teach them, but when they live it.”

The musical’s creators, book writer and lyricist Rebekah Greer Melocik and composer Jacob Yandura, are two Ohioans who met at New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program. Yandura was inspired by the documentary based in his home city, which he watched soon after his sister was diagnosed with autism, per NPR’s Jeff Lunden.

The duo traveled to Ohio to discuss the show with Amigo and some of the participants in the documentary. “The most profound question was, ‘Are the characters going to have an autism accent?’” Yandura tells NPR. “And we had never heard that term before. And what they meant [is] a stereotypical, … monotone voice. And so, we assured them no; the whole purpose of the show is to defy stereotypes.”

HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO World Premiere Musical at Syracuse Stage

The musical’s plot doesn’t always adhere closely to the documentary’s. The show starts with each of the actors, as themselves, walking onstage and speaking briefly about the production. Madison Kopec, who plays one of the leads, tells the audience: “This show is based on things that actually happened, but parts have been embellished for dramatic purposes,” per Time Out’s Adam Feldman. “You have to spice things up in Ohio.”

So far, reviews for the musical have been mixed. Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross writes that the show tries to cover too much ground, though he has nothing but praise for the performances. “The moments that do hit—when we see these young adults confronting trepidation and unfamiliarity, and just generally celebrating life—hit hard, and will resonate with both the neurotypical and neurodivergent alike,” he adds.

The New York Times’ Jesse Green notes that the original documentary’s tone is “objective and thus often dour. Not all its stories are happy: We see some clients struggle to speak, let alone dance.” In contrast, the musical “starts from an assumption of ability and excellence,” he adds. “The young actors, all making their Broadway debuts, are highly skilled, sparkly cute and perfectly comfortable holding the stage.”

Still, even with the glamor of Broadway, Yandura and Melocik hope they’ve tapped into something authentic.

“We really wanted to make sure that the show didn’t veer towards being too saccharine or, you know, like, ‘Oh, autism is my superpower!’” Melocik tells NPR. “That’s not the point of our show. It’s about showing that, yes, there is struggle, but also there is community and also there is hope and there is joy. And honestly, there is autistic culture to learn about and to respect and to celebrate.”

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