Updated: Apr 11, 2019
As clinical psychologists, we often reach inside of our tool bag to refer patients to reading material to supplement their work in session. Bibliotherapy is a useful resource, especially for those who easily consume written information. For those who are not avid readers, it is beneficial to have other tools in the kit, such as films, photography, popular songs, etc., for their referral. As a self-proclaimed musical theater geek, I have discovered the utility of sending my patients to check out a specific song or cast album as a way to elucidate their own experiences with mental health, which is especially helpful for others who love musicals and speak that “language”. Here is my list of most common musical therapy song references.
Next to Normal is an intimate family drama about mental illness. Diana Goodman is experiencing serious mental health problems as she copes with the trauma of losing her son. At one point in the play she stops taking her medication, a common issue in treatment of this disorder. Diana sings about missing the highs of her manic episodes which is expertly dramatized in the song “I Miss the Mountains”.
We Have Apples follows Jane, whose depression is an actual character in the show with whom Jane converses. Jane’s mood dips so low that she requires an inpatient stay in a hospital. The entire score focuses on mental health and treatment, which songs such as “The Ocean” expertly dramatizing the comfort and familiarity between a person and her depression.
Waitress is a bona fide hit with music written by the pop artist Sara Bareilles. The story focuses on Jenna, a waitress who tries to repress her problems through baking. Those problems mostly consist of a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive husband as well as a pregnancy with this man she does not love. Bareilles has always possessed a knack for writing with a touching level of insight, and this score is no exception. In “She Used To Be Mine”, Jenna sings about the self she lost, the personage that was chipped away at over the years. The lyrics are relatable to any survivor of domestic violence, as well as anyone who has lost touch with themselves.
Grey Gardens is based on the documentary about two Kennedy related recluses living among the pile-up of personal effects, cats and art work in a house falling down around them. Little Edie and Big Edie remain utterly and consistently in denial, focused only on themselves and each other. They appear to have a multitude of comorbidity, including hoarding, co-dependence and agoraphobia. The dynamic between them is endlessly fascinating, with them alternating between deep hurt and enmeshed closeness.
Dear Evan Hansen opens with the song, “Anybody Have A Map,” a wryly humorous and sharp take on the rift between parents and teenagers. The adults struggle to connect and direct their children, such as when the lead character’s mother sings,, “Anybody maybe know how the hell to do this? I don’t know if you can tell but this is me just pretending to know.”
Dear Evan Hansen is about an anxious teenager who carelessly lies to a mourning family out of fear and convenience. Evan Hansen struggles with social interactions and practically vibrates when talking to his peers. The song “Waving Through A Window” is an insightful piece about the desire to connect but the anxiety that stands in the way. Anyone with social anxiety can relate to lines such as, “Try to speak but nobody can hear, So I wait around for an answer to appear, While I’m watch, watch, watching people pass, Waving through a window”.
Be More Chill is a bona fide cult hit, with a fandom that buoyed the show from a 2015 premier at Two Rivers Theater in New Jersey to an upcoming off-Broadway production. The musical centers on Jeremy, an anxious outsider who accepts a medical/sci-fi potential solution to his social woes. Many youth have come to this show through discovering the song “Michael In the Bathroom”, a musicalized panic attack from the point of view of Jeremy’s best friend, Michael.
The Band’s Visit offers yet a third option in this category. (Side note: Social anxiety is ripe for musicalization. There is a trope in musical theater that says when you can no longer speak, you sing. Since social anxiety is, by its nature, an internal experience, making it perfect fodder for being given a “voice”.) This sublime show is simply about an Egyptian band ending up overnight in the wrong Israeli town for a performance, but more deeply it is about human connection. In the song “Papi Hears the Ocean”, this young adult sings about the anxiety he experiences anytime he tries to speak to any female. It is a humorous and insightful take on the overwhelming power of anxiety.
Dr. Alisa Hurwitz is a clinical psychologist and writer. She practices at The Counseling Center of Nashua in southern New Hampshire, specializing in family therapy, autism spectrum disorders, and trauma. She maintains a blog and interview site that focuses on the intersection of theater and psychology. You can read more of her articles and interviews with Broadway luminaries at www.drdrama.com.