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Mental illness on Broadway: how musical theater sheds a light on touchy topics

Musical theater has a habit of disguising powerful messages in catchy tunes and dance numbers. Some shows, such as Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, and Spring Awakening discuss mental illness in an unapologetic manner.

Next to Normal follows the life of Diana Goodman, a mother suffering from schizophrenic bipolar I disorder, and her family, including an over-working husband, an anxiety-ridden teenage daughter, and a dead son.

In short, Next to Normal tells the story of a family’s hurting and healing as such a major component in their life deals with a mental illness.

Diana has ups and downs throughout the show, including constant hallucinations of her dead son, Gabriel, and a suicide attempt. Her daughter, Natalie, is an overachiever and eventually starts to experiment with Diana’s pills.

N2N tells the very real story of how mental illness affects a person as well as their family. It’s a story of love, loss, and the reality of mental disorders.

Dear Evan Hansen comes from the same director as Next to Normal (Michael Grief, who also directed Rent). The show tells the story of shy, anxious teen Evan Hansen who wants to be apart of something bigger than he is, but eventually finds himself in the middle of a web of lies and misunderstandings involving Connor Murphy, a boy in his class who committed suicide.

As well as shedding light on mental illness, the show also shows the impact of the internet and social media and the strained relationship of parents and their children.

The Act I finale ends with a moving anthem of hope, promising “you will be found”.

Next is Spring Awakening — in the story of discovering teenage sexuality in the 19th century German countryside, there is Moritz Stiefel. He is ostracized by those around him because he’s awkward and, according to his parents, a failure. The pressure of failing as well as the confusion surrounding his sexuality leads him to take his own life. 

Along with Moritz’s mental health issues, the show also doesn’t shy away from physical/sexual abuse and rape.

Following the same theme of mental illness and a repressive society as Spring Awakening, Bare: A Pop Opera (although it only played off-Broadway) takes place in a Catholic boarding school where the two main characters, Jason and Peter, reside. The two boys are in love and, because of their religious school as well as the possibility of not being accepted by friends and families, the couple aren’t out — although many students and staff believe/know they’re together.

Jason tries so desperately to be straight and eventually the pressure of his sexuality, as well the pregnancy of a girl he had sex with catch up with him. After he dies, Peter goes to confession, singing the haunting words: “Lost in the teachings was a boy so all alone and scared / Father we were so in love / And that’s what I find so odd / Our love was pure and nothing else brought me closer to God”.

Some other musicals that feature characters with/themes of mental illness are: Promises, Promises, A Light in the Dark, Anyone Can Whistle, and Grey Gardens.

Music has been proven to help mental illness and can “improve mental health by reducing certain symptoms of depression and by making people feel more in control” as well as “reduce stress, help us get better sleep and improve our mood”. By using music to discuss these hard-hitting topics, it not only helps listeners coping with mental illness feel less alone, it also uncovers the emotional truth of the disorders.

Musical theater is assisting in destigmatizing mental illness by breaking down the barriers surrounding the subjects. In N2N, someone had told Brian Yorkey, one of the creators of the show, to make Diana Goodman a painter, to which he responded, “no, she’s a surburban mother”. Diana being a mother shows that mental illness effects everyone, not just the artsy and edgy.

The Broadway community is a place where many find themselves, and finding representation of mental illness that doesn’t romanticize or demonize the person or disorder is a major component in the progressiveness of difficult conversations.

While the stories and characters may not be real, the struggles they face and their emotions are relatable and true for audiences. These shows portray mental illness as part of a individual, not the whole individual, and don’t paint the struggling characters as evil; They’re just people, who happen to have a mental illness, trying to get by. 

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Written By

Victoria is a seventeen-year-old from New Jersey who loves music, reading, and attending Broadway shows. She also enjoys going to concerts and educating herself on social justice issues. Writing is an outlet for her, and she hopes to use doing so to get her voice out. Follow her on Instagram at @victoriamione, and on Twitter at @victoriamione or @drrncrss

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