Musical Spotlight on Mental Illness

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:08

Committed: The Musical explores the fictional world of a late-1980s psychiatric ward

Upper West Side After the success of her recent parody musical, "50 Shades of Fucked Up," writer, director and choreographer Tricia Brouk started writing what she thought was another comedy, settling on a psychiatric ward for the setting. But as she researched mental health issues, prescription drug use and inpatient clinics, she discovered the subject matter was much heavier than she anticipated.

"I realized I had an opportunity to bring awareness and use art to destigmatize mental illness," said Brouk.

Working with composer and lyricist Andrew David Sotomayor, her collaborator on "50 Shades of Fucked Up," Brouk developed her latest musical, "Committed," which opens at the West End Theater on April 17. Set in an Upper East Side psychiatric ward in 1989, the play explores the pain, complexities and sometimes humorous circumstances that eight inpatients experience during one typical afternoon.

"The moral is, we're not alone," Brouk said. "These people are very likeable and they're very flawed, just like everyone."

As research, Brouk and Sotomayor studied works by once-institutionalized writers, including Mary McCarthy and poet Robert Lowell, who were both patients at Payne Whitney Clinic on the Upper East Side, and Susanna Kaysen's memoir, "Girl, Interrupted," based on her experiences at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.

Brouk also received feedback on her script from psychiatry students at Columbia University in order to ensure her characters were accurate and honest, though her close relationship with Sotomayor offered an additional tool.

"This is the second time we've written a show together," Brouk said. "Because of the nature of our relationship and how safe we feel with each other, we were able to dive into the subject matter head on and just go for it. It comes from a place of complete security and trust. We made sure we were always being honest and honoring the material with the seriousness and sincerity that it needed."

The eight characters in the show - five women, three men - all suffer from different illnesses, including clinical depression, bipolar disorder and auditory hallucinations. Brouk wrote many of the parts for specific actors, including Sotomayor, who plays a musician named David.

"I've had a very deep connection to the nature of depression and how it manifests in a creative artist," said Sotomayor.

Brouk said that because of "Committed," she's frequently asked if she suffers from mental illness herself.

"My family is definitely crazy," she said. "But not clinically."

But she does see the musical as a means of connection.

"If we can entertain people while opening a dialogue, that's an amazing gift," she said.