UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 18 Spring 24 Library
Left to right: Abraham Axler (COL, '17), Jenna Rich, Corinne Thomas (McIntire '17), Anderson Granger (McIntire '16) at the Opening Night of How to Dance In Ohio. | Image by Valerie Terranova
Alumni Spotlight

How to Dance in Ohio

The stage door after the first preview of How to Dance in Ohio on Broadway
(Photo: Andy Henderson)

Anderson Granger's (McIntire '16) road to becoming a Broadway producer started with an important skill. He loved building things. While an undergrad, he took a work/study job in the UVA Drama Department, helping the late, much-beloved Steven Warner run carpentry classes. "I was a TA for him for three semesters in his set design class, where I would shepherd 11 students through the design and build processes and help them build 5-6 sets each year."

Often, while in the shop, he would cross paths with his friend Abraham Axler (College '17). Both had grown up regularly seeing Broadway shows, and their friendship was bonded by that shared interest. Axler's firsthand experience was limited to having taken "Voice for Theatre," taught by Kate Burke. "It was," he said without hesitation, "the hardest course I ever took at UVA."

After graduation, both friends ultimately landed in the investment banking world, but for Axler, it came after a meaningful internship with the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities in New York City.  Axler, who has dystonia of the hand as well as profound dyslexia, said, "I was at an early point in my career. I had a transition within the bank where I was working and was doing very academic, public-sector work. I was looking for a way to think about accessibility and advocating for people with disabilities."

Through mutual friends at P3 Productions, a New York-based theater-producing team, Axler was invited to an early "see-through" presentation of their work-in-progress musical, How to Dance in Ohio. Based on Alexandra Shiva's Peabody Award-winning HBO documentary of the same name, the show follows a group of young autistic adults and their families as they prepare for their first-ever formal dance – in the process, they face challenges that break open their routines as they experience love, stress, excitement, and independence. 

The subject of the musical made the show groundbreaking. The way it was told made it revolutionary. Each of the seven young people featured in the documentary were portrayed by autistic actors. "I was immediately taken by how the show portrayed these stories of people with disabilities in a really joyful way," Axler said. "I felt a very personal connection and thought it was such an important message to get out into the world."

The Cast of How to Dance in Ohio
(Photo: Curtis Brown)

One of Axler's first calls about the project was to Granger, who was working at another New York investment bank. "He said yes on the first phone call," Axler said. Thus began a ride that took the two inside the show in ways they had never imagined, taking them from tiny rehearsal rooms to an out-of-town tryout run in Syracuse and, ultimately, to the biggest stage of all.

It's been a rollercoaster ride, they agreed; they both marvel at how much the show grew and changed during the road from that first presentation to Syracuse and to Broadway's Belasco Theatre – but also how the heart of the show that initially drew them in stayed the same. "It speaks to how meaningful this story is," Axler said, "that even when it was just a few people and no props in a random rehearsal space, the show's power shone through. Seeing it on Broadway is a fantastic experience, but I don't like the show any more than I did when I first saw it in that stripped-down format."

The show's Broadway chapter ended when the show closed on February 11 after 99 performances, but its message and music will live on in part due to the history it made, as well as its Original Broadway Cast Album. The Autistic Representation Team has been honored as a 2024 Drama Desk Special Award winner, and the show received two Drama Desk nominations, including for Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical (Liam Pearce) and Outstanding Book of a Musical (Rebekah Greer Melocik). The Drama Desk Awards will be presented on June 10.

As for Axler and Granger's futures in arts production, it seems there are chapters still to come. Axler is currently on the board of a small opera company called On Site Opera, which produces site-specific, immersive operas in some of New York City's most fascinating and unusual spaces. 

"For me, the whole experience was incredibly meaningful," Axler said. "I remember years ago being in my first Disability Pride parade and feeling what it was like to be able to be vocal about having a disability and having it be OK. There is a huge amount of talk about how the show does not want to be described as 'inspiring' because these are people living their lives who may need a little more support, but this is really a show about showing the humanness in all of us through highlighting the ways we face and overcome our challenges."

"I feel confident that this is not the end of my work in theater," Granger said. "I love that you can go to a Broadway show and have fun, be wowed and laugh, or you can go to a show and be challenged and enlightened. I watched people, night after night, walk out of our theater with a respect and understanding they may never otherwise have had." Much of the credit, Granger said, goes to the show's lead producers, P3 Productions, whose mission is to bring underheard or newer ideas to Broadway. "To put ableism and the autistic experience front and center on a Broadway stage; that is pretty special."

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The David Berman Memorial Fund