The Innovative New Musical Making Broadway More Accessible for Everyone

The new musical How to Dance in Ohio is teaching Broadway how to be more welcoming — and it’s already gotten a stamp of approval from one of the theater world’s most legendary figures.

Based on a 2015 documentary, How to Dance in Ohio follows a group of seven autistic young adults learning new ways to communicate and connect as they prepare for a spring formal. Authentically cast with an ensemble of seven autistic actors and seven neurotypical performers, the production is setting a new standard in Broadway accessibility, with innovative shifts in the processes around auditions, rehearsals, and performances.

“When we first started casting this show, a lot of people said to us, ‘Oh, of course you’re going to not cast autistic actors. That wouldn’t be possible,’” recalls director Sammi Cannold. “We were like, ‘Of course it’s possible!’”

Ashley Wool, Desmond Luis Edwards, Conor Tague, Imani Russell, Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce, and Amelia Fei. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
Ashley Wool, Desmond Luis Edwards, Conor Tague, Imani Russell, Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce, and Amelia Fei. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

A fast-rising talent who staged the new revival of Evita that played in Boston and Washington, D.C., this year, Cannold is making her Broadway debut with How to Dance in Ohio alongside composer Jacob Yandura and book writer–lyricist Rebekah Greer Melocik. But if theatergoers don’t recognize the creative team, they’ll certainly know the name of the Broadway giant who endorsed the show: Harold Prince, the late director-producer (The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd) who racked up 21 Tony Awards over the course of his landmark career.

Prince and his family knew Alexandra Shiva, the filmmaker who made the original documentary; the movie is dedicated to Prince’s granddaughter, Lucy, who is autistic. Soon after the movie came out in 2015, Ohio native Yandura watched the film, prompted by his sister’s recent autism diagnosis. What he saw fired his imagination.

“In the first five minutes, I knew it sang to me because of all the human connections people are making in the movie,” he says.

Melocik, his frequent collaborator on musicals, including The Last Queen of Canaan and Wringer, immediately agreed. “There was something so exciting about asking: How do we communicate? And can we learn to communicate better through a musical?” she says.

As they explored the idea, the pair were put in touch with Prince. He was so taken with them and the project that he signed on to direct it, and the creators began writing the show in earnest in 2018.

Prince passed away in 2019 before the creators could finish. But in a way he also connected them to their new director: When Yandura and Melocik spoke at Prince’s memorial service, they described the project they’d begun with him. Cannold was in the audience that day, and what they said inspired her to contact the songwriters.

For all three of the lead creators of How to Dance in Ohio, authenticity and accessibility are key. (Cannold has a brother who’s autistic, and Melocik identifies as neurodiverse.) In tandem with their producers, the trio has worked to make every stage of the musical’s development as welcoming as possible — not just for autistic collaborators, but for everyone.

“We’re doing things that are large and small,” Cannold says of all the ways the production has accommodated neurodiversity. “We have fidget toys in the corner. We have an Accessibility Team who consult on all materials, events, and processes. For example, our auditions looked quite a bit different.” That includes taking the time to introduce everyone behind the casting table to each auditioning actor, a rare step in the often-regimented routine of trying out for a show.

The seven autistic leads of How to Dance in Ohio have been involved since 2021, when they were all discovered through an open casting call early in the days of COVID. The musical’s creators remember being amazed by the talent.

The cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Photo by Curtis Brown.
The cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Photo by Curtis Brown.

“We could have cast the show three times over from that open call,” Cannold says. “People were just very excited to be themselves. Autistic individuals often will mask to ‘fit in,’ and what we were very clear on in this audition room was: ‘Please unmask. Be yourself. That’s the point of the show.’”

With the cast in place, creatives and producers instituted new measures to make rehearsals more welcoming. In one unusual move, actors were ensured access to a safe space in the form of an additional rehearsal room that anyone could use at any point during the process.

“We say to our company that it’s totally fine if you have to step out of rehearsal at any time — which in general is pretty foreign to musical theater” and its traditional, show-must-go-on ethos, Cannold notes. She adds that renting one more rehearsal room costs real money: “It’s not cheap, but it’s something our producers prioritize.”

All that care seems to have paid off. When How to Dance in Ohio had its pre-Broadway premiere last year at Syracuse Stage, critics and audiences enthusiastically embraced it.

Those early theatergoers discovered that even as the musical delves into the specifics of individuals on the spectrum, the story hits notes that resonate universally. “So much of the show is about finding ways to connect and stepping out of your comfort zone, and, come on, we can all relate to that,” Melocik says with a laugh.

“I think people respond to the joy and the warmth and the message of the show,” Cannold adds. “It’s a musical about everybody, and how we treat each other.”

On Broadway, the show’s creatives are now realizing their dream of welcoming both neurodiverse audiences and neurotypical ones with open arms. “To have this show and these voices authentically represented means so much to all of us,” Yandura says. “At the end of the show I want everyone to feel like they’ve had the biggest hug.”

Learn More About How to Dance in Ohio