Explores the history of American musical theater’s engagement with notions of madness, from Man of La Mancha to A Strange Loop

Table of contents

Part One. Madness in the Mind.

  1.  “Make a Date with a Great Psychoanalyst…”: Gazing Inward in the Dual Golden Age
  2. “Make up your mind! Make up your mind!”: The Neurotic Interior and the Dynamic Unconscious in the 1940s and Beyond

Part Two. Madness in Society

  1.  “There Are Heroes in the World…”:  Psychiatric Activism, Antipsychiatry, and Political Consciousness
  2. “To Dream the Impossible Dream…”: Communities of Madness in the Musicals of the Long Sixties
  3. “Is That Just Disgusting?”: Filth, Madness, and the City in Sweeney Todd and Other Musicals

Part Three. Madness in the Brain

  1. “What a Lovely Cure!”: Staging the Interior in the New Age of Diagnostic Psychiatry
  2. “Sing a song of forgetting…”: Listening to the Unconscious in Next to Normal

Conclusion: Contemporary Visions of Madness as Depth Theatre


Theatermakers in the United States have long been drawn to madness as a source of dramatic spectacle. During the Broadway musical’s golden age in the mid-twentieth century, creative teams used the currently in-vogue psychoanalytic ideas about mental life to construct troubled characters at odds with themselves and their worlds. As the clinical and cultural profile of madness transformed over the twentieth century, musicals continued to delve into the experience of those living with mental pain, trauma, and unhappiness.
Seriously Mad offers a dynamic account of stage musicals’ engagement with historically significant theories about mental distress, illness, disability, and human variance in the United States. By exploring who is considered mad and what constitutes madness at different moments in U.S. history, Aleksei Grinenko shows how, in attempts to bring the musicals closer to highbrow sophistication, theater dramatized serious medical conditions and social problems. Among the many Broadway productions discussed are Next to Normal, A Strange Loop, Sweeney Todd, Man of La Mancha, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, and Lady in the Dark.

Aleksei Grinenko teaches theater history at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

“An original piece of work that addresses a notable gap in the field . . . Seriously Mad not only brings madness and musicals into dialogue but forges important ground in terms of the serious exploration of musical theater practice . . . Grinenko takes interest in the ways in which psychoanalysis shapes theatrical practice but also the broader cultural atmosphere around ‘broken’ minds.”

- Anna Harpin, University of Warwick

“Reveals the complicated—and yet often repeated—intersection of musical theater and contemporaneous understandings of mental illness, in examples spanning decades. The research spans numerous fields including musical theater and the history of psychoanalysis, which are brought together in an entirely readable and persuasive way . . . The book will have an enormous impact on multiple fields.”

- Jessica Sternfeld, Chapman University