Top Five Musicals With Mental Health Themes

theater mental health

Theater and Mental Health

By: Greg Harms

American theatre has long had a love affair with mental illness and addiction. Stories involving characters struggling with these issues often make for riveting theatre. Some of our greatest playwrights have mined psychological distress to great effect, notably Eugene O’Neill (Long Days’ Journey Into Night), Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), and Terrence McNally (The Lisbon Traviata). Audiences have responded enthusiastically to these works, encouraging the creation of more stories of characters with mental illness or struggling with addictions.

However, while these characters have often become synonymous with straight plays, musical theatre composers/writers have not been as successful in populating musicals with characters clearly dealing with psychological problems. Most shows that attempt to include a psychological-related storyline present the characters as idiosyncratic (Dear World, Grey Gardens), charmingly but chronically tipsy (The Drowsy Chaperone, Mame) or flat-out disturbed (Sweeney Todd, Gypsy) without fully identifying that the character has an addiction or a mental illness.

Credit: LA Times
Promises Promises

5. Promises, Promises The least apparently psychological of the shows on this list, Promises, Promises nevertheless honestly and compassionately deals with an on-stage suicide attempt by a major character. The scene, which occurs early in the second act, transforms what had previously been a lighthearted but slightly moralistic story of a guy in love with a girl in love with another guy (based on Billy Wilder’s Best Picture-winning film The Apartment), into a serious drama about the consequences of infidelity. This is no cry for help or attention getting act, the character seriously wants to die and almost does, perhaps the first time in any play or musical where an act of self-injury is shown on stage rather than relegated to off-stage drama later recounted by an on-stage character.

While the character survives, she did not go through therapy, but did still engage in a process of self-discovery through the remainder of the show aided by her loyal friend and admirer, and everything works out with a big splashy happy ending (this was still the last 1960’s after all, audiences were not yet ready for an unhappy or even ambiguous ending). Promises, Promises is notable for being the first, and so far only, theatre score by Burt Bacharach, featuring several of his now well-known songs, including Knowing When to Leave and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.

The original production starred Jerry Orbach, who won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and was a major smash, both on Broadway and in London, where it starred an early-career Betty Buckley. It was recently revived for the first time on Broadway a few years ago with Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth and frequently pops up in regional theatres around the country.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

4. On A Clear Day You Can See Forever Perhaps more famous now as a somewhat underwhelming Barbra Streisand movie (though only underwhelming due to the fact that it was her follow up to Funny Girl, and nothing she could have done would have matched it in entertainment), On a Clear Day is nevertheless an entertaining, although unrealistic, depiction of classic psychoanalysis. With a score by Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow) and script by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Brigadoon), On a Clear Day starred Barbara Harris as the hapless but charming Daisy, who comes to see a psychiatrist for help in quitting smoking.

Through the use of hypnosis, she remembers several previous lives in which she was known as Melinda. As the hypnosis continues, Melinda comes to take over Daisy’s personality, resulting in misunderstandings and charming misadventures, leading her psychiatrist to fall in love with her, and the show ends with Daisy/Melinda leaving her fiancé and running off with her psychiatrist (again, this was the late 1960’s and this was considered charming. Nowadays the psychiatrist would lose his license and could end up in jail). The storyline was intended as a satire of psychoanalysis as well as the increasingly popularity of beliefs in reincarnation, and was not well received.

The score though is marvelous and the title song became a hit for Barbra Streisand, who most recently performed it as the opening number on her Back to Brooklyn concert tour a couple years ago. Due to the clunky story, the musical quickly closed, and the movie did not fare much better despite the star power of Streisand and director Vincente Minnelli. However, it has remained something of a cult classic and was revived on Broadway in 2011 with Harry Connick Jr. and Chicago native Jessie Mueller (who was nominated for a Tony for her performance, and although she did not win, she won a couple years later for her star-making performance as Carol King in Beautiful). Unfortunately, the script revisions were even more ridiculous than the original story and the production quickly closed, making it unlikely we’ll see another major production. However, both the original cast recording with Barbara Harris and the movie soundtrack with Barbra Streisand are widely available and highly recommended.

Lady in the Dark

3. Lady in the Dark – Originally produced in 1941, Lady in the Dark is perhaps the first theatrical production of any type, musical or play, to depict psychoanalysis, and does so more seriously than On a Clear Day. With a superb score by Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera, One Touch of Venus), Lady in the Dark tells the story of anxiety-plagued magazine editor Liza Elliott, played by Gertrude Lawrence, who enters psychoanalysis to rid herself of her anxiety and move forward in her romantic and professional lives.

The story is presented as three separate psychoanalysis sessions in which Liza free associates to discover the source of her anxiety, making the show one of the first serious attempts at theatrical impressionism in the United States. There is no real plot to speak of other than Liza going to therapy. The show is essentially a variety act in which Liza’s memories, fantasies, and free associations get acted out musically in numerous production numbers. Yet, masterful composer Weill keeps everything humming along and musically ties all the themes together at the end, indicating that Liza has successfully resolved her anxiety and can now move on with her life, making her one of the first portrayals on the stage of a successful career woman.

Due to the non-linear nature of the story, and its essential lack of a plot, Lady in the Dark has not been frequently revived despite its very successful initial run in the 1940’s. However, its 1997 revival in London resulted in the first complete recording of the score, which is still widely available and highly recommended for anyone interested in unique musical theatre.

anyone can whistle review
Anyone Can Whistle

2. Anyone Can Whistle – Another product of the 1960’s, Anyone Can Whistle was the second Broadway show to feature both music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, coming a few years after his enormously successful Broadway debut, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Starring Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, the show was a spectacular failure, running for 8 performances and almost ending Sondheim’s budding career. As audiences came to learn over the next 40 years, Sondheim does not routinely tell “nice” stories, and the nature of Anyone Can Whistle’s plot was far too ahead of its time for 1960’s audiences.

Fortunately, audiences today have finally caught up to Sondheim and his genius, and Anyone Can Whistle is now roundly considered one of his finest works. The story involves multiple plotlines, one of which concerns a nurse at a psychiatric hospital. While awaiting the arrival of the new doctor and a new patient, the patients escape and mingle with the townspeople so that no one can tell who is sane and who is “mad.” The new doctor arrives and assists in resolving the confusion, bringing to light several nefarious schemes relating to other plotlines, and the nurse falls in love with him, only to have him ultimately confess that he is not the doctor that was awaited but the patient whose arrival had also been anticipated (oddly, no one seemed to care that the patient never showed up, and it was never really explained why the real doctor never arrived).

Again, this being the 1960’s, even Stephen Sondheim had to craft at least a marginally happy ending in which everyone gets what they deserved, whether good or ill, and those that deserved lived happily ever after. The theme of the show, that mental illness simply depends on one’s perspective and “crazy” people are often saner than “regular” people, while quite the cliché today (think Marat/Sade and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both of which owe their success to the groundwork laid by Anyone Can Whistle), was quite revolutionary for the time, and audiences just refused to go along despite Sondheim’s masterful score, including Everyone Says Don’t, and the title song, as well as There Won’t Be Trumpets, which was cut during previous but included on the cast recording and re-inserted into subsequent productions. Several concert productions over the following two decades led to a re-evaluation of the work, and following a definitive semi-staged production at Ravinia in 2005 starring Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Michael Cerveris, and John Mahoney, Anyone Can Whistle is finally starting to pop up at regional theatres around the country and getting the recognition it deserves.

next to normal review
Next to Normal

1 Next to Normal – Finally, in the late 2000’s, we got a serious, unflinching look at what it is like for both a patient, and her family, to live with mental illness. Next to Normal follows a housewife diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder as she decompensates, recovers, and moves forward with her life, while simultaneously exploring the impact of her illness on her husband and daughter. Despite hiding her suicide attempt off-stage (in order to make it more of a shock to the audience when it is mentioned), Next to Normal pulls no punches in its depiction of how devastating Bi-Polar Disorder is.

The score, despite being rock-based (and to a much higher degree than other so-called “rock musicals” such as Tommy or Rent), is almost operatic in the way that it defines each character and clearly portrays their emotional state. In order to avoid disclosing a significant plot twist, I won’t go into any more details about the story, but suffice it to say that it is quite intense, and the bare hint of a happy ending is well-earned. While the show lost most of its Tony nominations to Billy Elliot, it did manage to win Best Score and Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, both of which were well-deserved. The show also surprisingly won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only a handful of musicals to do so, which led to a brief period of critical backlash, led by Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, who felt disrespected as a member of the Pulitzer nominating committee by having the recommendations overturned in favor of Next to Normal.

Other than Ms. Weiss, who has continued to take a hatchet to the show at any opportunity (hers was the only negative review of the touring production, staring Alice Ripley, when it came to Chicago and she blithely revealed the plot twist multiple times in both pre-opening interview pieces with cast members and in her review), critics have come back around and Next to Normal has become recognized as one of the defining works of 21st century musical theatre.

It is one of the most frequently produced shows at regional theatres around the country and the cast recording (which does reveal the plot twist, so be warned if you want to listen to it before seeing the show), is widely available and required listening for any musical theatre lover.

Final Thoughts

While these shows have all seen various levels of success, they have all been groundbreaking in their depiction of mental illness and psychological treatment in a medium commonly thought of as fluff and associated primarily with happy endings (West Side Story and a handful of others notwithstanding).

Hopefully the success of Next to Normal will result in the continued inclusion of people with mental illness into musical theatre stories and continue to normalize psychological treatment and the experiences of those who deal with mental illness on a daily basis.