‘They’re about the mess of being human’: how the mental health musical won over the west end

<span>‘I was electrified by the sound and haunted by the humanity’ … Jamie Parker, Jack Wolfe and the band in Next to Normal.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
‘I was electrified by the sound and haunted by the humanity’ … Jamie Parker, Jack Wolfe and the band in Next to Normal.Photograph: Marc Brenner

A new breed of musical theatre is rising amid the jukebox singalongs and well-worn classics of the West End stage. It is the mental health musical, an all-singing, all-dancing genre bringing identity and personal crises to the fore. This means many new musicals are preceded by trigger warnings that the performance to come may feature suicidal teens and sexual assault such as in the case of Spring Awakening; bullying and queer identity in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie; high school violence in Heathers the Musical;, and even a bipolar mother undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in Next to Normal.

How did such dark, introspective material establish itself in the West End and why is it gaining such traction with audiences? Musicals are, after all, predicated on song and dance, not exactly conducive to explorations of difficult and intimate mental health issues, especially within the modern British tradition led by the big, balladic sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh’s West End shows.

Some cite the trailblazing achievement of Next to Normal, a 2008 musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey about a suburban mother living with bipolar disorder, a new production of which transfers from Donmar Warehouse to the West End in June. Its producer, David Stone, suggests the musical format can actually make difficult and intimate themes more powerful by appealing to the emotions through melody and song. When he saw Next to Normal for the first time, with characters’ lives set to music, he felt that the show “entered the audience’s soul in a way that was difficult to describe”.

For Michael R Jackson, writer and lyricist of the multi-award winning A Strange Loop, an American musical about queer identity, homophobia, racism and fetishisation of the Black body that is set to pop and R&B melodies, the form can accommodate any story. “I think anything can be musicalised,” he says. Neither do such musicals have to be discordant in their sound: minor chords don’t need to denote sadness, nor major chords happiness. His show depicts hookups and sex scenes through song, with lyrics speaking of Aids and bare-backing, these aspects arguably gripping an audience on a visceral and empathic level precisely because they are set to music.

Back in 2007, Next to Normal built on the edgy, award-winning musicals that had come before it, such as Rent and Falsettos, about gay identity and HIV, and Spring Awakening. Next to Normal, with its explorations of pharmacotherapy, child loss, addiction and depression set to a catchy pop and rock score, confirmed the Broadway breakthrough of this new genre with its critical acclaim (three Tonys and a Pulitzer prize) and paved the way for shows such as Fun Home, about sexuality and suicide, and Dear Evan Hansen, about young masculinity in crisis.

Next to Normal tells its stories more intimately than the average Broadway musical and tackles subjects usually reserved for serious plays or indie dramas. Set in a family home, there are songs about therapy and grief, featuring references to Valium, Prozac and Adderall. In the rock number, Feeling Electric, the central character undergoes electric shock treatment for her bipolar disorder. “At our workshop [in 1998], there was a feeling that we had not seen a story like this in musical theatre,” says Stone. “We expected people to say ‘You can’t do this,’ but instead they said, ‘Keep going.’”

Stone, who has also produced shows including Wicked and The Vagina Monologues, was struck by how the songs dealt with subjects that are usually cloaked in shame. “This is going on in everyone’s home, or if it’s not your own home it’s next door. There’s shame in it, whether it’s mental illness in a family or physical addiction.”

I discovered Next to Normal when I was 13 or 14 through the cast recording. It made me feel uncomfortable – in a good way

Jack Wolfe

Actor Jack Wolfe was nominated for an Olivier award for his part in Next to Normal as the Goodman family’s son, and is also shortly to star in a staged concert of Spring Awakening, in which he plays the anxious character Moritz. His introduction to both shows came through their soundtracks. “I discovered Next to Normal when I was 13 or 14 through the original cast recording, which I listened to all the time,” he says. “I remember not only being electrified by the sound but haunted by the humanity in it. I didn’t know musicals could sound like that. It made me feel uncomfortable – in a good way.”

The growing success of such musicals may partly be down to younger audiences who similarly connect with the album before they see the show. “We have access to the material and form opinions about it. It’s a very different experience from seeing the musical at the theatre,” says Wolfe.

The soundtrack of Spring Awakening had the same effect on him, he adds. “It wasn’t patronising in its themes. As a young person, I was confused and angry about my identity and my place in the world – the changes I could or couldn’t make – so it was inspiring to hear these pieces. Both are about the mess of what it means to be human. They’re unblinking and make you feel less alone.”

Actor Sophie Issacs saw young audiences connecting with the story of Heathers the Musical, based on the film starring Winona Ryder. A black comedy that deals in violent school bullying and sexual assault with songs in which characters swallow pills and contemplate suicide, its dark humour makes the subject matter less charged. It was staged off-Broadway in 2014, until UK producer Paul Taylor-Mills picked it up and developed it for the West End in 2018. It became a storming success and is back in the West End this spring. Issacs was part of the original cast and noticed how it facilitated difficult conversations for audiences as young as 12.

“When you consider how taboo these subjects were when the film came out, and still are even now, the fact that Heathers explicitly dealt with them meant it became a way for young people to begin conversations via music and relating to characters.”

At every show, she would see young audience members with parents or grandparents. “One father and daughter came every Sunday. It was all about the conversation on the tube home, and what it brought up. There was huge cosplay, too, with young boys dressed as [the character] Veronica.”

I wanted to write about real emotions, things people don’t talk about openly, feelings that people don’t necessarily share

Michael R Jackson

For audiences to connect this way, the musical has to be well crafted, says Taylor-Mills. “Younger audiences seem to have a fascination with darker subject matter [and] I think there’s probably a lot of people thinking: ‘What’s the next musical that explores these darker themes?’ but I think the art has to be the first and most important thing.”

When it premiered on Broadway, A Strange Loop was hailed for its formal inventiveness and emotional depth, winning the Pulitzer prize and two Tonys among other accolades. Jackson was not trying to write a groundbreaking musical, he says. “I wanted to write about real emotions, things that people don’t talk about openly, feelings that people don’t necessarily share publicly. I didn’t think people would ever see it.”

What is striking is how long it has taken for these shows to land in the West End after finding success in the States (more than 15 years in the case of Next to Normal). Perhaps that has something to do with the UK’s famed emotional reserve. The pandemic, though, seem to have changed things. Wolfe, who is 28, certainly feels it is the case among his peers.

“There’s a difference in language and understanding now,” he says. “We can speak about medication and therapy [much more openly]. We are learning to explore our psychology in a new way and you have the capacity to see that in these shows. Lots of people were craving contact and humanity [during the pandemic] and now want to know how others are feeling. These shows can begin that conversation. They are not always an easy watch but are well worth it.”

Related: ‘It’s so close to the bone’: Sheridan Smith on her very public meltdown – and reliving it on stage

Taylor-Mills has also noticed the changing audience demographic over the past five years. “With everything that’s gone on socially and politically, theatre and audiences are shifting very quickly. The people coming are different and the work I’m putting out now is responding to that. Gone are the days when we were trying to find shows for [only] 45-plus female ticket-buyers coming in from the Home Counties … As we rebuild, it shouldn’t be seen as something to be resisted. It’s how we ensure a future for those who would typically go and see a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, or something more traditional, as well as a future for new audiences.”

And where the West End is embracing tried-and-tested musicals with such themes, the British producer, Nica Burns, is fast becoming a champion of edgy homegrown productions, from Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, which she saw in its early guise in Sheffield and developed for the West End, to The Little Big Things, about disability, mental health and family guilt. “Developing a musical is much more expensive [than a play],” she says. “I’m prepared to take a risk and give opportunities.”

Young people in particular are telling their own stories in musical theatre form, she thinks, and audiences, for their part, are responding to shows about life today and its everyday challenges. “These contemporary shows speak to everyone,” she says. “They don’t take away from the classics.”

Next to Normal runs at Wyndham’s theatre, London, 18 June to 21 September. The Spring Awakening 15th anniversary concert is 2 June at Victoria Palace theatre, London. Heathers The Musical is on a limited six-week run @sohoplace, London, to 6 June.