Mental Illness is often used in fiction to raise the stakes or explain someone’s behavior. In other pieces, the illness affects the main character, and we see the world around them through the lense of their illness.
In some pieces, the illness is shown affecting others while the main character struggles to get their illness treated properly or even recognized in the first place. In still others, the illness is a reaction to events such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, drug addiction, or grieving a loss.
Perhaps surprisingly, musical theatre as a medium addresses these themes and elements very successfully. Because of the often heightened emotion of characters who sing about their feelings, and the fact that songs can either move the plot forward or reveal a character’s thoughts, struggles, and triumphs, musical theatre can easily handle these subjects. Here are just a few of the shows that directly or indirectly deal with mental illness in a variety of ways.
NEXT TO NORMAL
I would be remiss to start this list any other way. Next to Normal is a unique show in that it addresses mental illness more directly than most other musicals. The show premiered off-Broadway in 2008 but quickly moved up to Broadway in 2009.
The main mental illness addressed in the show is Bipolar Disorder, however, other issues such as suicide, depression, and prescription drug abuse are also discussed. The show takes the angle of looking at a modern family affected by just one member with a mental disorder. Main character Diana is the matriarch of the family, dealing with delusions and her bipolar disorder while struggling with the long-lasting trauma of losing a child.
The show also depicts hospitalization, Electroshock Therapy, and medicinal treatment of mental illness. This song, “I Miss the Mountains”, is where Diana struggles with her medication, specifically the lack of emotional peaks and valleys that result from the combination of her prescriptions.
Based on a 1906 play of the same name, the musical Spring Awakening premiered off-Broadway exactly 100 years later. Just seven months after that, the show transferred to Broadway and ran for three more years. In 2015, Deaf West Theatre revived Spring Awakening and added ASL performances along with the dialogue and lyrics. The cast also included Broadway’s first performer in a wheelchair.
Spring Awakening is a coming-of-age story which pits adults against teenagers. The aftermath of abuse is hard to ignore in this show, but it also deals with themes of suicide, depression, and the effects emerging sexuality can have on one’s psyche. The show is heavy on language and includes scenes of rape and abuse on stage, so approach with caution.
The song “The Guilty Ones” takes place after Wendla and Melchior lose their virginity to one another. The act itself has been played as everything from dubious consent on the part of Wendla, to overt rape on the part of Melchior, depending on the production’s themes.
For the last several decades, each generation has a defining musical which changes Broadway to more accurately represent the current times. The latest show to do this is Hamilton, but the hip-hop smash hit of 2015 took over from 1996’s rock musical RENT.
Jonathan Larson wrote this rock opera based on the bones of Puccini’s Italian masterpiece La Boheme. Transferring the characters, plot, and themes from the 1896 opera to 1980s New York, Larson successfully created a new genre of musical theatre while resonating with New York artists of all kinds. The show primarily deals with addiction and recovery, without really delving too overtly into the psychological effects of these issues.
However, the characters are clearly struggling with their problems, and their communication skills, creativity, and quality of life suffer as a result. The show also addresses grief following loss, and found families or communities in favor of isolation.
Each of the characters struggle with a different issue, from Joanne and Mark trying to find meaning in the paths they’ve chosen, to Roger, Mimi, Angel and Collins all figuring out how to live HIV/AIDS positive.
Like Spring Awakening, RENT doesn’t shy away from strong language and the film includes graphic depictions of drug use. The song “Support Group” gives us a glimpse into Life Support meetings for people with HIV/AIDS, which had risen to epidemic status in the late 80s/early 90s in America.
THE COLOR PURPLE
This powerful and moving musical debuted in Atlanta, GA in 2004 and transferred to Broadway a year later. The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name, the plot includes incest, physical and sexual abuse, as well as psychological abuse and isolation.
Main character Celie is raped and impregnated by her father multiple times, then isolated from her sister (her main support), cheated on by the husband she is “given” to by her father, and convinced that being beaten is a normal element of married life.
Much like RENT, the show does not overtly deal with the effects of these issues, but shows through action and character development how someone may react to this kind of treatment over a long period of time. The show does not glorify its main character, but rather depicts honestly how someone who has endured years of abuse may normalize it, and even assume it’s the best way for others to deal with problems in their lives as well.
After Celie tells her stepson Harpo to beat his wife, Sofia, into submission, Sofia confronts her in “Hell No”. The song directly addresses the different ways in which women specifically react to abuse from their spouses. The show and book both take place in the early 20th century, which complicates the situation significantly due to more heavily dictated gender roles.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Certainly the newest show on the list, Dear Evan Hansen premiered in DC in the summer of 2015, but quickly transferred to New York the following year. The main character, the titular Evan Hansen, has social anxiety disorder as well as depression and, arguably, delusions.
The plot of the show follows his reactions to a fellow student’s suicide, when he fabricates an important role in the student’s life for himself in order to make friends and feel important to his high school community.
The show integrates the struggle to make lasting, meaningful connection with others in the age of cyber-communication, and how that can affect one’s ability to recognize the relationships in their life. Evan also works through some of his issues during therapy sessions, and by enacting recommended activities from his therapist in his everyday life.
“You Will Be Found” rounds up the first act, and puts forth common feelings for a person with social anxiety, as well as uplifting messages from others.
Watching and listening to these and other shows like them can be very cathartic for those affected by mental illness. As you can see, the shows address a variety of relationships to mental illness, from putting those affected in the spotlight to creating ensemble pieces which explain how illness can affect relationships.
If these issues are affecting you or someone you love, perhaps these shows can help you explain or get in touch with your feelings on the subject. As always, if you are affected by illness, you should seek professional medical assistance as part of your road to recovery.