By Cami Hancock
During the Great Depression and World War II, musicals needed to be light and fluffy, so that they could provide audiences with a chance to escape reality. Cut to 2019, and the theatre has become a place where social issues, including mental health, are addressed front and center. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided I would highlight some of the contemporary musicals that have made great strides in providing mental health awareness, as well as why I believe it is important for mental health representation to appear on Broadway.
Topics of mental health appearing in musicals isn’t exactly new—musicals such as Lady in the Dark and Oklahoma! danced around the subject as early as the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until 2009 when Next to Normal opened on Broadway that mental health was explicitly addressed and used as the focal point of a show. Next to Normal shows the life of Diana Goodman, a mother struggling with bipolar disorder. What makes Next to Normal resonate with audiences is that it not only shows Diana’s bipolar disorder—it shows how her mental illness impacts her ability to maintain relationships, the long-term effect on her family, and her journey of trying different psychiatric treatments. This was the first show to demonstrate that the effects of mental illness extends beyond one person. The show gives representation to families impacted by mental illness— a group rarely seen in a Broadway musical before.
Broadway addressed mental illness prominently again when Dear Evan Hansen opened in 2016. The show follows the life of 16-year-old Evan Hansen after a classmate of his, Connor Murphy, commits suicide. Connor struggled with depression for a long time, and Evan himself experiences his own struggles with mental illness. Evan has severe social anxiety, which only continues to spiral after the death of Connor and because of the presence of social media. Dear Evan Hansen shows how Evan’s social anxiety inhibits him from forming genuine relationships with others, including his own mother. Dear Evan Hansen’s portrayal of mental illness is important because it shows that it is not only limited to depression; there is a wide variety of mental health disorders that impact the lives of people every day.
Be More Chill opened on Broadway in March of 2019, and it, too, showcases the isolation of social anxiety. The most explicit portrayal of this is in the show’s Act Two showstopper, “Michael in the Bathroom.” Sung by the character Michael Mell, he details his paralyzing fear of social situations and the detrimental loneliness he experiences after losing his best and only friend. The number is painfully honest, and that is what makes it relatable, resonating deeply with audiences.
Each of these shows has received backlash from people who claim that the show’s portrayals of mental illness isn’t accurate. While every person has a right to feel this way, I think it should be noted that each of these shows do show an accurate portrayal for some people, as not everyone’s experience with mental illness looks the same. It’s important that mental health is seen on Broadway so that it can provide comfort for those struggling and prove that they’re not alone. These portrayals show those struggling with mental illness that their experiences and feelings are valid. These musicals are encouraging other writers and composers to create shows focusing on mental illness. Most importantly, the widespread reach of these musicals has prompted families, schools, and communities to start having more discussions about mental illness. I think we can all agree that having discussions is a good place to start in spreading awareness.
Cami Hancock is a Wharton Center intern and a junior at MSU, studying Arts and Humanities with a focus on writing and theatre.