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Musicals and the envoicing of mental illness and madness: From Lady in the Dark to Man of La Mancha (and beyond)

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Because musicals routinely position musical expression as an enabling form of madness, they can have a difficult time when they try to consider mental illness in thoughtful ways. This essay considers four prominent musicals that deal overtly with mental illness and/or madness to delineate these difficulties and show how musicals try to surmount them. The relatively few musical numbers in Lady in the Dark (1941) allow its protagonist Liza Elliott to both confront her mental block and give voice to her emancipation. In Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Hapgood's ambiguous mental status allows him to swing from absurdities to rebellion to the touchingly human, each phase differently opposing the insanities of the world. Quixote, in Man of La Mancha (1965), defies reality in favour of impossible dreams. And the songs of next to normal (2008) provide a panoply of escapes from the painful realities of the dysfunctional Goodman family, none of whom quite finds a way to a desired 'normal'. As these shows exemplify, mentally unstable women and men generally have different options in musicals: women (at least, Liza and Diana Goodman) are obliged to chart paths to mental wholeness, with decidedly mixed results, whereas men (at least, Hapgood and Quixote) are allowed to indulge their flights from reality as forms of romanticized idealism, becoming heroes and liberators in the process. next to normal exemplifies a renewed determination to take mental illness seriously in musicals, further advanced in the four-season television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Keywords: disability; femininity; hysteria; mental illness; musical theatre studies; musicals

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2019

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  • JIVS provides a forum for scholarly and practice-based engagement with voice as a phenomenon of communication and performance, and a methodology or metaphor for analysis. This peer-reviewed journal draws on an interdisciplinary series of lenses, including cultural studies, critical theory, performance studies, inter-culturalism, linguistics, visual culture, musicology, architecture and somatics.
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