Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mental illness, the musical: More exploration of topic in Broadway shows, TV

From The New York Times:

“I wanted to get ahead on the lunches,” Diana tells her husband, Dan, as she frenetically lines up slices of white bread on the floor and begins piling on the lettuce and mayo.

That is the moment in “next to normal,” the new musical at the Booth Theater, when Dan (J. Robert Spencer) realizes it is time for his manic-depressive wife (Alice Ripley, pictured) to go back into therapy. As artistic portrayals of mental illness go, the moment is fairly tame. Wonder Bread doesn’t have the same dramatic bam as, say, gouging out the eyes of six horses (as in “Equus”). But that quotidian element is perhaps what makes “normal,” which opened on Broadway on APril 15, so unusual.

Mental illness on the stage and screen is often portrayed in extreme ways, and not just for dramatic effect. In Western culture psychic pain has tended to be seen as the territory of the artist, visionary, rebel and genius, from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia
and Friedrich Nietzsche to John Forbes Nash Jr. So it should be no surprise that madness is often used to signify creativity, sensitivity or spiritual and intellectual depth.

In “Proof,” for instance, a troubled math prodigy fears she will unravel like her brilliant father, and in “Equus,” recently revived on Broadway, an emotionally flattened psychiatrist envies his young patient’s creative religious passion, however warped. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” mental illness is portrayed as the only refuge of the social misfit.

“Depression can appear to embody an aesthetic or moral or even political stance,” the author and psychologist Peter D. Kramer writes in his book “Against Depression.” In our culture, he added, it “is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.”

Brian Yorkey, 38, and Tom Kitt, 35, the creators of “next to normal,” were keenly aware of that romantic strain and studiously worked to avoid it. “Someone said to make her a painter,” Mr. Yorkey said of the protagonist, Diana. “I said no. She’s a suburban mother.”

Mr. Yorkey, round and bearded, and Mr. Kitt, thin and fresh faced, were sitting in the lower lounge of the Booth recently. “The worst thing would be for someone to come and say, ‘There’s something wrong with that portrayal,’ ” said Mr. Kitt, the composer. “We want to do right by those people.”

Mr. Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, said he spent exhaustive hours researching the subject. At times in the show he references some of the popular cultural myths. When Diana’s doctor and Dan, having tried all other treatments, suggest electroshock therapy, Diana mentions “Cuckoo’s Nest” and continues singing:
I’m no sociopath
I’m no Sylvia Plath.
I ain’t no Frances

kind of find for you ...
So stay out of my brain.

Ambivalence toward the therapeutic solutions can also be found in the Showtime series “United States of Tara,” which follows another suburban mother. Tara, played by Toni Collette, has decided that living with her multiple personalities is preferable to the deadening side effects of prescribed medication.

“I definitely think it’s a kindred spirit of our show,” Mr. Yorkey said of the television series.

Yet “Tara” also retains more familiar conventions. She is an artist, and as a recent episode revealed, her other personalities don’t cloud her true self, but constitute it, as if mental illness signals authenticity.

Mr. Kitt insists that “normal’ “is not autobiographical in any way,” but acknowledges that every family has difficulties that affect its members in different ways. Theatergoers have contacted them after the show to praise the truthfulness and describe its cathartic effect, he said. One was David Stone, who offered to produce the musical after seeing an early rough version at a showcase in 2005.

“My brother was at this workshop as well,” Mr. Stone said, “and at the end we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God.’ ” Mr. Stone compared his own situation as a child with that of the daughter in “normal,” Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). It “spoke to me about being in a household where one person sucked all the attention,” he said.

The original germ of an idea came from a news program about electroconvulsive
that Mr. Yorkey watched back in 2000, when he and Mr. Kitt were on a
BMI musical theater writing fellowship. The two, who met each other (as well as
Rita Pietropinto, now Mr. Kitt’s wife) at Columbia, had teamed up for an assignment: write a 10-minute musical. They called it “Feeling Electric.”

“We kept expecting people to shoot it down,” Mr. Yorkey said. Instead audiences were intrigued and excited. The duo continued working on the show, as well as other projects. Mr. Kitt, for instance, collaborated with Amanda Green, whom he met at BMI in 1997, on the 2006 Broadway musical “High Fidelity.” The show quickly flopped.

“That was very difficult and disappointing,” Mr. Kitt said. “I went into a tailspin.” Having another project to work on was “extremely helpful,” he said.

Mr. Yorkey said he struggled to balance the comic and dramatic elements and to strike the right tone. “We were very excited and inspired by things like ‘The Who’s Tommy,’ ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Rent,’ their trippy and fantastical sensibility,” Mr. Kitt said. “We wanted elements of that to fit in our show.” But over the course of the musical’s gestation, those initial inspirations ended up not fitting the material.

“Those types of stylistic elements we were really excited about have fallen away in the process,” Mr. Kitt said.

Mr. Yorkey explained: “We’ve sort of grown up. Tom got married and had a family, my parents divorced, we’re now in our 30s, and we have a different perspective. I was pretty snarky, and the ’90s were an exciting time for irony.”

Phillip S. Freeman, a Boston psychiatrist who has consulted on productions for the American Repertory Theater, said mental illness is generally “used in a story to illustrate some idea about madness, not madness itself; it portrays a school of thought or particular ideas about the origins of mental illness.” “Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Equus,” for example, don’t depict insanity as much as comment on stifling social conventions. John Cassavetes’ 1974 film “A Woman Under the Influence” shows a pathological family dynamic as a particular woman’s breakdown.

The playwright Craig Lucas has been through psychoanalysis, which made its way into his play “Reckless” as well as “The Singing Forest,” which is currently at the Public Theater. “I thought Sarah Kane’s play ‘4.48 Psychosis’ engaged with mental illness in an honest way, as did Anne Sexton’s play ‘Mercy Street’ at American Place Theater 40-odd years ago,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

As for “normal,” the director Michael Greif pushed the authors to focus on each family member’s individual story. He wanted to rid the play of excessive authorial commentary.

“I had very passionate responses,” said Mr. Greif, who had directed “Rent” and “Grey Gardens,” and was first brought in to direct the Off Broadway premiere of ‘normal’ at Second Stage last year. “There were things about it I loved and things I found problematic.” Critics, it turned out, had a similar reaction.

So instead of moving immediately to Broadway, Mr. Stone decided to take more time to develop the show at the Arena Stage in Washington.

Some of the comic elements, like having Diana break down at Costco and the original title song, “Feeling Electric,” were cut. “It was hard for them to lose it,” Mr. Stone said of Mr. Yorkey and Mr. Kitt. “Feeling Electric” was not only the title song, but also the founding idea. But that show no longer existed. The creators said about 40 songs were cut during the writing.

The musical now presents a much more subtle and complex view of psychotherapy. In “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” Diana catalogs the side effects of her drugs — nausea, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, headaches, seizures — until she finally says, “I don’t feel anything.” The doctor pronounces, “Patient stable.”

At another point, she sings, “I miss the mountains ... All the manic magic days/And the dark depressing nights.”

Mr. Yorkey said, “Some people have walked away thinking we were against psychologists or psychotropic drugs and nothing could be further from the truth.” They consulted with professionals, including the psychiatrist Anthony Pietropinto —
Mr. Kitt’s father-in-law. Lyrics from one song in which the doctor sings: “Is
medicine magic? You know that it’s not ... But it’s all that we’ve got” came directly from a conversation with Dr. Pietropinto.

“We knew there was no easy happy ending to this,” Mr. Yorkey said. “You find some way to survive.”