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How Is Musical Theatre Shining a Light on Mental Illnesses?

Musical theatre has always led the way in addressing important issues. The narrative approach allows us to connect with musicals uniquely. Recently, musical theatre has explored the topic of mental health. Let’s examine Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill, and Next to Normal to see how theatre shines a light on mental illnesses.

Content warning: These musicals explore suicide-related topics. If you or someone you love is suicidal, please call 988 for help.

Dear Evan Hansen

In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan—a socially anxious teen—inserts himself into the aftermath of a peer dying by suicide. He lies about his connection to his late peer, Connor, to feel accepted, wanted, and needed.

Throughout the musical, we see how difficult mental illnesses are to manage. Evan experiences uncontrollable anxiety spirals. Connor displays substance abuse and suicidality, but his family doesn’t know how to help. We also learn that Evan also previously attempted suicide, but he hides this fact.

Additionally, the musical shows how decisions made during mental illness episodes can harm everyone involved. Evan’s lies stem largely from his anxiety and desire to fit in. In this way, he’s a character we can sympathize with, even if we don’t like his choices. By the end of the musical, Evan hurts and isolates every person he cares about.

Be More Chill

At face value, Be More Chill is a sci-fi musical theatre production about a high school student named Jeremy who gets a super quantum unit intel processor (SQUIP) in his brain to help him fit in. This musical is one big metaphor for depression, suicidality, and anxiety. The SQUIP fills in for negative self-talk and self-hate caused by mental illness. Each character explores this internal experience.

The lyricist and composer, Joe Iconis, confirmed this in a 2018 interview with Playbill, “I don’t think being depressed or suicidal is a laughing matter, but I do think sometimes people feel like there is a voice inside their head telling them to hurt themselves.” Iconis incorporated this mental illness expression throughout the musical numbers. It doesn’t resolve in the unrealistic way of the illnesses going away. Rather, the characters must learn to live with them.

Next to Normal

Out of these examples, Next to Normal is the only musical that directly centers on severe mental illness (SMI). The main character, Diana Goodman, lives with bipolar disorder, hallucinations, and grief over the loss of her son. She starts out attempting to manage her illness with medications and therapy. After her mental illness leads to a suicide attempt, she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The ECT causes a complication in which Diana loses her memory. Her daughter, husband, and doctor try to help her recover.

The musical shows the effect of SMI on everyone in a family system. Each character wrestles with issues related to Diana’s illness. Moreover, it displays the messier, less romanticized side of mental illness. For example, Diana goes back and forth between treatment compliance and non-compliance. Because of the time in which it was written (2002-2008), the language is mildly outdated. However, it still sensitively portrays the topic.

Musical theatre has helped bring light to the importance of mental health care. Recent musicals have explored the issue of mental illness in a compassionate way. If you find yourself relating to characters in the examples we discussed, you may want to consider contacting The Guest House. The Guest House offers comprehensive care for mental illnesses. If you connect with the self-expression of theatre, we offer therapies like psychodrama, music therapy, and cinema therapy. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to start healing.