This show was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize in a very long time, and it deserved it. It features a very unconventional subject for a Broadway musical—living with mental illness. And as someone who has a certain measure of personal experience with the subject, I was struck by this show’s powerful and painful honesty in dealing with this sensitive topic.
The characters are complex, human and fascinating, and the score is monumentally intense, never letting up in its blinding musical anguish…but unlike the work of, say, Lachiusa, it’s also extremely catchy and enjoyable. It consists mostly of sung dialogue, but the few structured ‘numbers’ are extremely memorable and do an amazing job of capturing the feel of living with mental health issues.
The moving ballad “I Miss the Mountains” offers a feeling most medicated bipolar sufferers secretly feel from time to time…a certain wistfulness for their past heights of mania. “You Don’t Know” is an equally great musicalization of depression (“the sensation that you’re screaming/but you never make a sound/or the feeling that you’re falling/but you never hit the ground”), while “I’m Alive” is the seductive power of mania incarnate in a song. The show’s finale, “Light”, offers a difficult but sincere message of hope (“you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive”).
The show also featured a superb cast, headed up by a monumental performance by the brilliant Alice Ripley, who embodied all the craziness, pain and love of her character in one of the finest performances of the decade. This show probably deserved the Tony that year, but I find the way things turned out kind of fitting…the feelgood, traditional goodtime show gets the Tony, while the daring and powerfully honest artistic showpiece gets the much rarer and more coveted Pulitzer.