The Girls On The Go: Who’s Crazy?: Female Characters and Mental Illness in Musicals

Remember how crazy Amanda Bynes was on Twitter? We had a good laugh, right?

…And then she went to treatment for mental illness.

From the Salem Witch Trials to Twitter, our society has a difficult time remembering that mentally ill women are still human beings. This unfortunate fact of life makes me feel so thankful for one Ms. Mama Rose.

Patti LuPone as Mama Rose (Photo: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times)

Patti LuPone as Mama Rose
(Photo: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times)

Mama Rose led so many of us into the musical theatre of today with her complexity, multifaceted emotional life, and belt-your-face-off money notes. Also, lest we forget, the real-life Mama Rose lived with mental illness…Digest that information and then listen to “Rose’s Turn.”

I know this is a blog about contemporary musical theatre, but we have to know where we have been as an art form to know where we need to go next.

There’s the Sondheim factor in this equation as well. I could talk for days about Stephen Sondheim’s musical style and subject matter in relation to mental illness, but I trust that you understand what I’m saying here. You get it: We’re all influenced by Sondheim. Sondheim wrote some dissonant-ass soliloquies, and some of the memorable ones are performed by women. See also: “Losing My Mind.” Okay, moving on.

The fact that Mama Rose will go down in history as an all-time favorite role in the musical theatre canon is significant in the representation of women and mental illness. Without Mama Rose, there could never have been Mimi Marquez, let alone Diana Goodman.

Mental illness is a taboo subject, out of fear and general misunderstanding. When we create art about people whose experiences are stigmatized, we show the audience the humanity they may not have originally considered.

If you are a character actress or you like to write roles for them, here are some thoughts about mentally ill female characters in musical theatre.

  • Caricatures aren’t cute. When a character is “Crazy,” especially in a comedic context, it can be so tempting to go all-out with bits and character choices. Don’t get me wrong –  I love an inspired interpretation if it is grounded in truth. If you want to channel your inner Lenora and sing “Screw Loose” from Cry-Baby, take cues from the writer. That song is clever and gives you room to be funny, but there are still blatant lyrics about self-harm (“But I just don’t see the harm in carving your name in my arm.”) and how hard it is to have a mental illness (“Darling, it’s so hard to be sixteen and schizo”). If you choose to play to the truth of these moments, your character will be more genuine and less offensive.
  • Mental illness isn’t One-Size-Fits-All. Addiction is a mental illness. So is schizophrenia. Clinical depression and anxiety are two separate conditions. They all manifest themselves differently in brain chemistry and behavior. Just as individual people have unique qualities, mental illnesses do as well. For example, the anxiety of the character singing “Calm” from Ordinary Days is completely different from the grief-onset depression of the character singing “Anyway” from Tales from the Bad Years. Do your homework, and it will pay off. I promise.
  • Idina Menzel as Kate in Lippa's Wild Party.

    Idina Menzel as Kate in Lippa’s Wild Party.

    Backstory will serve you. Before wailing  “Let it Go” to the delight of seven-year-olds and gay men nationwide, Idina Menzel played two different characters who both grapple with cocaine addiction. In Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, Kate is snorting lines between singing the vocal lines of “Life of the Party.” In Michael John LaChuisa’s See What I Wanna See, the actress tells the story of her rock-bottom-point in the song “Coffee.” Even though both characters arguably deal with the same illness, they cannot be played in the same way. Their stories and motivations are entirely different. If you just phone it in and play all addicts as if they have the same idiosyncrasies and emotions, you’re stereotyping a group of people who very well could be in the audience. Also, fun fact: Before Idina played that role in See What I Wanna See, Audra McDonald played it…Fast forward to her fifth Tony in the role of Bess in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: another Tony winner with two completely different cocaine-addicted characters under her belt!

I hope I’m not sounding like a broken record here, but your choices as an artist should be directed by truth. In the cases of marginalized characters or situations that are difficult for the average layperson to understand, it is especially important to remember the reality in the stories you tell. Sometimes it’s hard to do.

I want applause as much as the next person, but I have made the personal decision I will not make acting choices that degrade groups of people for a cheap laugh or standing ovation.

The decision is yours to make: Do you want to create art that sheds light on truth and makes people feel less alone?

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