Skip to content

What the casting team behind ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ discovered during their eye-opening process

The new musical, which stars seven autistic actors, will open on Broadway on Dec. 10.

"How to Dance in Ohio" at Syracuse Stage (Credit: Curtis Brown)

When “How to Dance in Ohio” opens at the Belasco Theatre this fall, seven autistic actors will make their Broadway debuts portraying autistic characters. The new musical, which begins previews on Nov. 15 ahead of an opening on Dec. 10, takes place at a group counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, where seven young adults prepare for a spring formal dance.

In the latest episode of “The Broadway Show with Tamsen Fadal” —  which is a packed fall season preview — Perry Sook speaks with longtime casting directors Benton Whitley and Micah Johnson-Levy about their work behind the table.

“How to Dance in Ohio” is based on Alexandra Shiva’s eponymous HBO documentary, and Whitley and Johnson-Levy were told to watch the film to inform their casting process.

Johnson-Levy was quick to note the traditional “job interview mentality” of auditions. She said it can be especially nerve-wracking as performers bring more of themselves to a role. But Johnson-Levy said she and Whitley are looking for human-to-human interaction and connection more than anything else.

“For so long it was about actors transforming themselves, becoming something they’re not,” Whitley said. “But I think now, storytelling has changed and the suspension of belief has changed.”

Those adjustments have led to more authentic storytelling, evidenced by shows like “Here Lies Love,” which features an all-Filipino cast telling the story of Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos and the People Power Revolution. Casting directors, and production and creative teams, have made it more of a priority to put performers in roles that align with who they naturally are.

“We’re looking for people to actually, sincerely and authentically share themselves with us, and we shape stories around them,” Whitley said. “‘How to Dance in Ohio’ is a really great example of a show [with which] we’ve been able to do that really beautifully.”

Still, Whitley shared his expectations of the casting process. “Finding seven autistic young people to play these seven young people in this show seemed like a really hard quest, at first,” he acknowledged. “But once we actually began the search and auditioned thousands of people across the country, we really discovered that we’re looking for folks to actually be themselves.”

“How to Dance in Ohio” was then shaped around the actors cast. “These seven, their DNA is in the story that we’re telling which, as a casting director, is the coolest thing.”

On this week’s fall preview episode of “The Broadway Show,” Paul Wontorek chats with “Gutenberg! The Musical!” stars Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. Tamsen Fadal discusses the revival of “Spamalot” with the show’s King Arthur, James Monroe Iglehart. “Back to the Future” star Casey Likes  announces his new vlog, the “McFly Files.”

Then, viewers will hear from producer-actor Leslie Odom, Jr., actor Kara Young and director Kenny Leon from the revival of “Purlie Victorious.” Maria Friedman, director of the “Merrily We Roll Along” revival, speaks about Stephen Sondheim’s impact. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” playwright Jocelyn Bioh walks and talks with Charlie Cooper. Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge shares a message about her Main Stem return with “Melissa Etheridge: My Window.” Recording star and composer-lyricist Barry Manilow talks about creating the new musical “Harmony.” Actor Danny DeVito discusses his upcoming role in “I Need That” alongside his daughter, Lucy DeVito. And viewers can learn more about actor Sarah Paulson’s return to the Main Stem in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate.”