Diana Goodman and Moritz Stiefel are two of musical theatre’s greatest warriors. No, neither character fights tooth-and-nail against the Jets or the Sharks; neither waves a revolutionary flag atop a barricade in France. These characters fight internal battles onstage.
Broadway has a history of characters suffering from mental illness, be it Grey Gardens or The Light in the Piazza, but as of late these characters and their illness take center stage. Recent shows like Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, The Father and Dear Evan Hansen all spotlight characters suffering from mental illness, from bipolar disorder to depression, from dementia to anxiety.
Mental illness might be a stealthy enemy, but its cover has been blown, and the theatre has sparked a conversation happening out loud and onstage. Musical theatre, in particular, is a fitting medium to explore, normalize and de-stigmatize mental illness.
“Music operates on levels that words and images alone don’t…this very subconscious, emotional level, [which] vibrates with your soul,” says Brian Yorkey, book writer and lyricist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. The musical element of musical theatre provides depth and dimension to emotions that may exist outside our everyday boundaries.
Yorkey also says that musical theatre gives audiences special access to the internal workings of a character. “[A character] can turn to the audience and sing to us, bring us into their mind and let us see what’s happening inside it,” he explains. “With Next to Normal, the characters are constantly at this state of high emotion…. The music makes it possible to empathize with what these characters are going through rather than just sympathize.”
“Michael Greif [director of Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, another new musical whose lead character is struggling internally] talks about this: To sing, you have to open your throat, your chest and gut open up to sing and access emotion in a way that speech doesn’t,” says Yorkey. “So when a person plays Diana, [it’s] an opportunity for the actress to bring us into her emotional world, and that’s a thing that is particularly special about musicals.”
Musical theatre depicts reality in an honest, revealing and insightful way. “Theatre has this amazing ability to hold up a mirror to people,” says Alex Boniello, who voiced Moritz in the 2015 Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening. For a character—or even an audience member—suffering from a mental illness, that kind of honest reflection is a rare opportunity to find empathy.
Daniel Durant, the Deaf actor who played Moritz in the same production, says the isolating experience of mental illness can parallel that of the Deaf community. “Many people in the Deaf community have experienced similar issues of isolation due to communication barriers.” For this reason, Moritz’s story resonated widely among audiences of differing abilities and backgrounds.
Mental illness is more pervasive than we think. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 43.6 million adults in the U.S. suffer from mental illness. If you do not suffer, you likely know someone who does. This closeness to home is what compelled Yorkey and his writing partner Tom Kitt to develop Next to Normal a decade ago. Yorkey says that much of the initial motivation came from the people he loved who struggled with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder; he and Kitt wanted to understand that experience better.
To deepen this understanding, Yorkey conducted research, reading dozens of books on psychology as well as personal memoirs of people who suffered from different mental illnesses. The N2N team consulted with a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a pediatrician who read each draft of the show as it was workshopped, helping to create a story that, while fictional, was still authentic and sensitive.
For Boniello and Durant, character research was even more personal. Boniello has been open on social media about his personal history with generalized anxiety disorder.
Durant also drew from personal experience—though not battling his own inner demons. A close high-school friend of his committed suicide, and Durant faced bullying as a child. Boniello says the two actors combined these experiences and emotions into a complete portrayal. “I would fill my voice with all of those feelings, while watching Daniel beautifully embody a boy struggling with himself who is (in our production) literally being denied a voice.”
Multi-dimensional and personal by its nature, musical theatre is also a powerful medium for conveying the experience of mental illness because audience members share in and respond to these historically untold stories.
Audiences have gathered—literally and virtually—in the comfort of shared experiences and open dialogue. Thanks to Boniello’s social-media candor as well as the exposition of depression in Spring Awakening’s plot, numerous fans have reached out through Facebook, Twitter and email to share their own stories and express how moved they were by the show. J. Robert Spencer, who played Dan Goodman in the Broadway run of N2N, had a similarly communal experience with empathetic fans who told him and his castmates stories about their own struggles with mental illness. “When I would come out the stage door, that’s when the audience members would rush to all of us in the show [and] would say to us personally, ‘Thank you.’”
“A thing musical theatre does…particularly well is communion,” Yorkey adds. “We’re sharing our humanity, and that doesn’t happen enough in this world.” For many people, mental illness is a part of everyday reality. Fortunately, musical theatre is a unique medium for portraying a usually silent battle. Yorkey hopes that his work inspires discussion and introspection.
“As long as we are open and acknowledging these things,” says Yorkey, “acknowledging the illnesses the people we are struggling with, there’s hope.”