Musical Chairs opens to scenes of an urbanized, working-class NYC neighborhood purportedly in the Bronx, but with a lot of scenes filmed in Brooklyn. Puerto Rican flags flutter in the air, old Hispanic men play dominoes at outdoor card tables, and a middle-aged Puerto Ricans woman with dyed dark hair, dark red lipstick, and a low-cut dress walks into a botanica for candles and a love potion. The occult aids to romance are not for herself, she is more or less happily married, but for her young adult son Armando, who is still single. At the botanica, she also picks up Rosa, a girl of similar background and long raven hair, whom she deems to be a suitable match for Armando, and spends a lot of time in the movie trying to throw her in his way. All budding drama of a conventional sort and within a milieu of the Hispanic culture and striving socioeconomic class within which they live (Rosa is going to college for accounting, while Armando works in a Times Square area Manhattan dance studio by day, and his family’s outer-borough restaurant by night).
While his mother initially seems to have a clear agenda as to whom he should settle down with and what future path he should take, Armando has his own ideas about his prospective romantic partner. He has been admiring blonde German-English Mia, an advanced dance student and social partner of his boss at the dance studio.
“Mia and Armando’s worlds are as far apart as you can imagine: she’s from the Upper East Side hailing from a well-to-do family; Armando works at his family’s restaurant in the Puerto Rican section of Bushwick, Brooklyn,” says producer/actor Joey Dedio. However, it takes some time to get into a circumstance where he is alone with her and they can do some romantic dancing. It is shortly after that encounter when Mia, reminded that she had forgotten her scarf, tries to cross the street to get back to the studio and is mowed down by an errant taxicab. It is this tragic accident which provided the entree to the world of the disabled for two able-bodied young people who were seemingly unlikely to have encountered disability issues otherwise (neither one is seen to have friends or relatives in wheelchairs before the fateful incident). This is also how they meet other patients in the hospital also in wheelchairs, who are interesting and compelling, if not realistic characters. A goth girl, a right-winger, and a transexual are among them.
Armando, undoubtably feeling guilty for his role in the accident which led to the spinal cord injury which put Mia in a wheelchair, plays the “good boyfriend” and constantly visits Mia in the hospital, brings her flowers, and suggests that they go to in-hospital actvities together. (The other suitor has conveniently disappeared. It is never said outright, but perhaps he is no longer interested now that Mia is no longer able-bodied. Nevertheless, Armando is.) Mia, still under the influence of situational depression, nixes every activity Armando suggests, including the on-line video he shows her of wheelchair dancing. In order to overcome her reluctance and provide a situation in which they could engage in wheelchair dancing, Armando attempts to organize a wheelchair dancing class at the hospital. He is met by bureaucratic opposition from a white, upper-class hospital administrator, who cited budget concerns and insurance liability, even though Armando said he would volunteer to teach the class for free, and the hospital already plays host to wheelchair basketball in their gymnasium. (Besides wheelchair basketball, there also seems to be a rec room with a public internet-connected computer and an aquatherapy room with an enviable pool)
Downcast, he pours out his troubles to the plump black working-class nurse on duty, who believes in his effort sufficiently to collude with him in getting around the bureaucratic obstacle, and as keeper of a stuffed keychain, enables him to utilize the gym after the wheelchair basketball team have finished. When this insubordination is discovered, as it inevitably would be, she enables the wheelchair dance class to continue by blackmailing Mr. Grinker with the fact that her iPhone contains video footage of him flirting with a blonde at the office Christmas party which would cause even more drama if it were revealed to his wife.
Though his wheelchair dance class initially gets off to a slow start, new life and catchy music are injected into it by one of the patients, a black transsexual who later enlists a group of his/her gay/trans friends to make costumes for the dancers, who later, in the name of drama, end up entering a wheelchair ballroom dancing competition.
There are a couple of instances in the movie pointing out some other practical issues facing people with physical disabilities as well as societal stigma and myth-making. When Armando’s mother first becomes aware that he is seeing Mia, she is inclined to discourage the budding romance not only because she favors Rosa, but because she may well believe some misconceptions about women in wheelchairs. She articulates a few, along the lines of “she can’t make Armando happy”, and (what if) “she can’t have children”.
After having done some Santeria to try to bring Armando and Rosa closer, Armando’s mother eventually changes course and tells Mia the reason for the change of heart is, “I’ve seen the way he looks at you”.
After the accident, Mia’s parents try to get her to move back to the family home, on the grounds they could “have it totally renovated” for wheelchair access (presumably they have unlimited finances). But, cherishing her independence, she wants to return to life in her own apartment. She and Armando return there for a visit: while Armando is willing and able to carry her up multiple flights of stairs to get there, Mia realizes that she cannot live there again: “the cabinets are all too high”, and a number of other things are wheelchair-unfriendly. The goth girl gets stares and questions about her wheelchair from curious children. Wheelchair ballroom dancing, as it turns out, requires an able-bodied partner for each person in a wheelchair, and as one of the participants in Armando’s clandestine class in the hospital said, referring to the isolated and institutionalized character of their lives at that time” where are we going to get one of those?” Armando’s traditional extended Latino family comes to the rescue, and helps bring about some comic relief, as well as a happy ending for all but perhaps the goth girl with the vanity wheelchair.