The American Musical at the Psychiatrist: Medical, Mental, and Musical Encounters (Panel)


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Women's and Gender Studies

Melanie Kreitler (Justus-Liebig University of Giessen)

Florian Zitzelsberger (Universität Passau)

American musicals are said to offer pure entertainment in an escapist and utopian world, over which audiences can temporarily forget reality. With examples like Lady in the Dark from 1941, the 2008 Pulitzer-Prize winning next to normal, and Dear Evan Hansen reeling in audiences today, the feelgood factor of musicals has been infiltrated by characters struggling with mental conditions. Seemingly detrimentally opposed to its assumed lighthearted nature, negotiations of mental illness harness musicals’ aesthetics that allow us to feel, experience, and understand in new ways through their numbers. This quality illustrates the crackle of difference between narrative and musical number, to borrow from Scott McMillin’s The Musical as Drama, that allows for a juxtaposition of an alleged outside view and a subjective point of view, without imposing societal standards of the former on the latter. This genre-specific quality becomes increasingly important when turning to the therapy encounter, where professional medical discourses, social and cultural beliefs, and subjective illness experiences overlap and clash. The inversion of hierarchical structures that gives voice to the individual over the medical professional poses an interesting junction with musicals and their ability to move struggling subjectivies into the limelight.

This panel discusses the musical’s aesthetics and its relation to mental illness as staged and represented in therapy encounters to ask the questions of how and why musicals have become sites for negotiating lived experiences of mental illness. Harnessing musicals’ crackle of difference enables crossing the line between professional, public and private spheres and discourses, by putting into words - into song, dance, and image - what otherwise remains behind closed doors, silenced and invisible. We thus invite presentations that address how musicals open such doors by focusing on the representation of therapy, as a private endeavor, in the (semi-)public spaces of stage, film and television musicals.

This panel discusses mental illness in American stage, film, and television musicals as performed, represented, and negotiated in therapy encounters. We invite papers that address how the musical’s aesthetics, characterized by a crackle of difference between narrative and musical number, can serve as a means of crossing the line between professional, public, and private spheres, and as such open metaphorical doors to make invisible—or inaccessible—discourses of mental health tangible.