Musicality of mental illness: growing pains for a new type of theater

Dear Evan Hansen/Courtesy

Related Posts

Theater is not often one to shy away from hot-button issues. Even in the more rose-colored world of musical theater, mainstream shows such as “Rent” addressed drug abuse and the AIDS crisis when television and movies shied away from it, and “Cats” articulated the inner thoughts of the common feline before “I Can Has Cheezburger” was even an idea. In the past 10 years, but especially in the past two, there has been an explosion of interest in shows about mental illness. We’re talking more honestly about mental illness in our society now, but media has been slow to reflect this. In the current moment, the best portrayals of mental illness are coming from theater, a genre uniquely able to tell these stories.

“Be More Chill,” which is coming to Broadway in February 2019, is the newest addition to this emerging canon of musicals dealing with mental illness, which “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” are also a part of.

While these musicals receive nothing but positive attention — “Be More Chill” is moving to Broadway after an almost cult-like, off-Broadway following — with this representation comes a host of new complications to the relationship between audience, creator and performance.

“Be More Chill,” based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, wanted to avoid becoming an “issue show” and portray something everyone was going through, according to an interview with show creators Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz on the NPR podcast “1A.” Iconis and Tracz’s show follows Jeremy after he takes a pill that implants a supercomputer into his head that tells him how to be cool. Ultimately, this doesn’t end well for Jeremy, and the show addresses the harm of a voice in your head telling you all the things that are wrong about you.

Any art about mental illness becomes complicated when it is joined with a commercial enterprise. As more and more avenues are beginning to deal with this, it becomes a big task of how to make mental illness “marketable,” which is ultimately a necessity of its continued existence in any mainstream media iterations with big budgets and public backing.

Although “Be More Chill” is largely accepted to be a metaphor for anxiety, depression and medicating mental illness, it takes on a much lighter tone than other shows tackling similar issues.

There is a delicate line these shows have to tow between normalizing mental illness as something that is not shameful and normalizing mental illness as something everyone goes through. The latter is appealing for the commercialization of a show but is complicated by the importance of dissuading self-diagnosis and false comparisons. Creating a show about something neurotypical people cannot understand yet asking them to sympathize will be a difficult balance to strike.

What grabs people most about theater is the visceral nature of it — the immediacy — something that can’t be found in the same way in films or recordings. The act of live performance, whether it be theater, concerts or even comedy, requires the actor to put their physical body on display for sometimes as many as eight shows a week.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” which comes to San Francisco early next month, is a recent Broadway exploration into themes of suicide. During his run with the show, the show’s star, Ben Platt, was praised for the tremendous emotional depth and crippling physicality he brought to the role. Each night on stage he would slouch and exude anxious energy, crying on stage several times a show, reaching deep within himself to pick at his own history with anxiety and depression.

While on Broadway last year, Platt got into some hot water after not appearing at the stage door post-show, a long-held Broadway tradition. Some people accused Platt of not caring about the fans — to which he responded in a tweet, “Performing Dear Evan Hansen every night is wonderful but also hugely tough- as much as I would like to be out there every night, very often I cannot come to the stage door after the performance. My priority must always be self-care so I can recreate the same quality show each night…”

The difference between physical and emotional exhaustion is one that may be understood in  day-to-day life, but when seen in actors who are expected to be boisterous and affable at the stage door every night, there arises a disconnect.

“Next to Normal” was an early addition to the genre and didn’t shy away from being very concrete and analytical with its terms, aligning the show closely with the clinical side of mental illness. The show first premiered on Broadway in 2009 and since has had a vibrant afterlife in community theaters across the country. The show provides an important look into what the post-Broadway life of shows dealing with similar themes might look like.

In every new production of this emotionally fraught show, the producers, actors and directors are given complete creative control of how they represent the work. Some shows are directed by therapists who see the show as deeply personal to their line of work — scenes between the therapist and Diana are handled with sensitivity and care, and there are mental health specialists brought in to be at the show during intermission and afterward to discuss the themes of the show with any audience members who have questions. Others are not. Heartbreaking lines of dialogue about the overt corruption of pharmaceutical companies are played for laughs, and the sessions with the therapist are acutely disconnected from the reality.

As theater expands into a new territory, there are bound to be some growing pains; and as musical theater continues to move away from the idle pleasure cruise of generations past and into more dicey waters, the relationship between theater and the audience is going to have to change from one of entertainment to one of education.


Kate Tinney covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.