Mental Illness and Musicals

The theater where my sister and I hold season tickets is getting the touring Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen for its 2019/2020 season. Pretty exciting, right? Actually, I’m excited about the entire upcoming season. It’s packed full of musicals, and they’re all such good titles that I can’t say there’s one that I’m least exited to see.

I can, however, tell you that Dear Evan Hansen is one I’m most excited about. Two years ago, this musical was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Actor in a Musical for Ben Platt. And it more than earned those accolades with brilliant scrip, music, characters, and acting all coming together to tell a story that contributes to an important conversation about mental illness.

Dear Evan Hansen

Evan Hansen is a teenager struggling with social anxiety. His therapist suggests he writers letters to himself. After a series of rejections from other kids at high school, he writes one letter saying that he has given up on having a good year and wonders whether anyone would notice if he were not there. A boy named Connor takes this letter. When Connor dies by suicide, the letter addressed “Dear Evan Hansen” is found in his pocket and people assume it’s his suicide note. Feeling intensely awkward, Evan doesn’t set the record straight and ends up lying about him and Connor being friends. He keeps the lie going and eventually ends up starting The Connor Project to keep Connor’s memory alive. His inspiring “You Will Be Found” speech then goes viral on YouTube.

I won’t give away any more of the story line, since I’m hoping some of you will want to check it out for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This musical has become hugely popular and influential and you only have to check out #youwillbefound on Twitter or Instagram to see how many people it has touched.

It was such an incredible feeling two years ago to watch the conversation Dear Evan Hansen sparked about mental illness like the anxiety I struggle with. Granted, the play didn’t resonate with everyone. But for many people it was powerful to see a character they related to so completely take center-stage on in a Broadway play. Some have even described the play as “life saving.”

For me, even though I won’t be seeing it for the first time until later this year, it’s one of my favorite plays. I can’t count how many time I’ve listened through the sound track or how many performances of key songs I’ve watched on YouTube. I was about Evan’s age when I had my first panic attack. Now approaching age 30, I’m finally talking about it with people. Maybe that would have happened sooner if I’d had a play like this to help open dialogue about issues surrounding anxiety.

Next To Normal

Dear Evan Hansen isn’t the first Broadway play to tackle mental illness, but it’s probably the most accessible. Another one of my favorite plays, Next To Normal, can’t be recommended without quite a few trigger warnings. With its explicit language and themes surrounding child-loss, bipolar disorder, drug abuse, and suicide Next To Normal isn’t an easy play to watch or even listen to. But it’s also brilliant and I absolutely love it. In 2009, it was nominated for eleven Tonys and won three for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley.

The story opens with suburban mother Diana Goodman waiting up late for her curfew-challenged son and attempting to comfort her anxious and overachieving daughter, Natalie. As the play progresses, we learn this son is one of Diana’s hallucinations. Though she sees him as a teenager, in reality he died as a baby 16 years ago. She’s seeing a doctor who’s been treating her bipolar disorder and continually adjusts her medications, with various side effects. Her husband, Dan struggles to keep the family “normal” while dealing with his wife’s illness and his own untreated grief and depression.

After she chooses to go off her medication and then attempts suicide, Diana’s doctor recommends electroconvulsive therapy. The therapy takes away a large chunk of Diana’s memories, but it seems to work at first. Dan is persistently, almost frantically, optimistic and insists that things are going to be good from now on. Natalie, now exploring the club scene and drugs, is less convinced that this therapy can fix a lifetime of dysfunction in her family.

There’s more to the story, but I’ll skip to the end. The finale for Next To Normal is hopeful, though certainly not perfect. It doesn’t pretend that there’s an easy solution to mental illness or to the type of grief Dan and Diana have been struggling with for most of their marriage. Diana’s not miraculously cured, though she is finally ready to start moving forward. Dan finally realizes that he needs help as well, and seeks out a therapist. Their daughter Natalie commits to figuring things out and risks investing in a relationship with the guy who’s her closest friends.

I can’t personally relate to Next To Normal as directly as I can to Dear Evan Hansen. But I find it a deeply moving story. And even though the in-play description of Diana’s illness isn’t quite up-to-date with the current DSM it holds up pretty well under scrutiny in publications like Psychology Today. Even articles that bemoan where the play falls short in attempting to destigmatize mental illness acknowledge Next To Normal as a ground-breaking production that many people with mental illness identified with and which sparked important conversations.

Starting Conversations With Art

It’s impossible for one or two plays to perfectly represent everyone who struggles with mental illness. But they don’t really have to. One of the things I’ve learned as a writer is that if you want to tell stories about big issues, then you have to zoom-in on how that issue affects a small group of individuals. No one is going to relate to a story that tries to give them all the information available about mental health issues. But they will relate to characters struggling through something on an individual level. It’s similar to this quote:

“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” –Richard Price

Tiny human moments resonate on a universal level. Dear Evan Hanson doesn’t show us what anxiety and depression looks like for everyone affected — it show us how they affect a guy named Evan. Next To Normal doesn’t give us a picture of everyone who lives with bipolar disorder — it shows us the story of one woman named Diana. And by telling these individual stories, the plays invite us to talk about what those issues look like for people in the real world and open up dialogue about mental illness in real life. That’s what makes them so powerful.

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5 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Musicals

  • Charlotte, my hometown, also has a strong season coming up in its 2019-2020 season. Les Mis, Jersey Boys, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Once on This Island, Come From Away, Jesus Christ Superstar, My Fair Lady, Anastasia, Spongebob the Musical, Frozen, and Wicked- part of these are part of Blumenthal’s Broadway lights and part of what Blumenthal call their extras. This upcoming season has a wide variety in terms of shows (it spans from old classic to contemporary), and I believe there is a musical for everyone in its upcoming season.

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    • That sounds amazing! I’d really like to see Frozen and Once On This Island. Our full season includes Mean Girls, Les Mis, Anastasia, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Jersey Boys, and Wicked, plus Dear Evan Hansen. They also announced Come From Away for the 2020-2021 season, so we’ll have to wait a year longer than you but I’m excited that we’ll get to see it.

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      • Miss Saigon and Dear Evan Hansen was part of Charlotte’s 2018-2019, and I saw Miss Saigon. If you go to February of this year on my blog, you will find my review of that show.

        Usually in one season, I only want to see 1-2 musicals. This time that number is 4: Les Mis, Anastasia, Frozen, and Wicked are the four shows I want to see. Les Mis and Wicked will be repeat shows for me while Anastasia and Frozen will be shows I never saw in person.

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        • I’ve been expecting Miss Saigon to make me cry, but now after reading your review I’m sure it will.

          Wicked is a repeat for me, too. It’s such a good play! I’m really excited to see Les Mis because I love the music and story but this will be my first time seeing it live on stage

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          • Les Mis is coming this year- so I am going to be in tears twice this year. Well, Les Mis, more like an emotional wreck, hitting me like a pile of bricks- words alone can’t describe the power of Les Mis.

            Well- now that you read the Miss Saigon review, imagine what Les Mis is going to do. It hits me harder.

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