Smash the Mirror, Tear Down the Wall

Posted on October 30, 2012


When I describe Next to Normal to patrons, it sounds complicated: “Yeah, it’s a rock-opera about a woman with mental illness.” But each weekend audiences leave Next to Normal perhaps a little crinkled, but reveling in the possibility of hope in the presence of psychological adversity. We can all relate on some level to how mental illness impacts an individual and their environment, whether it has affected us directly or if we have a family member, friend, or colleague who lives with it.

For the last two weeks of the Next to Normal run, we will have guest bloggers delve into the poignant, complex characters on the stage and in real life that use music to convey frustration with mental illness. This series is a way to highlight how music and performance have been used to process the gritty realities of the human psyche.

It is also an excuse to talk about concept albums and performers that we really really love.

First up: a brief look at the banner rock-operas of the 60’s and 70’s, without which we’d very likely have a drab, glitterless world void of the best musical quality and kitsch of all time- The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Like traditional opera, these primordial rock-operas followed the same characters throughout a storyline from song to song throughout an album, occasionally adapted for stage or screen. Unlike musicals, rock-operas use very little dialogue to carry a narrative.

The legend of the construct of rock opera gives most of the credit to The Who’s Pete Townshend, who wrote “A Quick One While He’s Away,” a song of a cuckolding army wife who is forgiven by her war-ravaged husband for boinking a train conductor in his absence. The concept was polished up and expanded into the 1969 double-album, Tommy, which went double-platinum Stateside.

Tommy is the story of a boy who goes “deaf, dumb, and blind” after witnessing the brutal murder of his MIA father by his mother’s pedophile boyfriend. Heavy, huh? But Tommy’s psychosomatic disabilities do not stop him from becoming the world’s richest and most powerful pinball player, gaining him a cult status with the nerd boys and the ladies. In the 1975 film version based on the album, Tommy snaps out of his mental state and becomes a guru who runs a commune made up of tires for hippies and scantily clad women. Tommy’s life becomes disillusioned by fame and power, and as the viewer, you are left to decide which form of isolation is worse, mental illness or the isolation one causes by being a jerk.

The album is still amazing and lauded by rock historians; the film has not aged well but has maintained a healthy cult following. The following star-studded video highlights have the makings for some crazy funny potential gifs:

Tina Turner as the Acid Queen with her heroin infused iron maiden.

Elton John with a hat I would like to knit and a bunch of people that look like “Where’s Waldo.”

Tommy’s super MILFy mom Ann-Margret hair sounds like a light saber: 

…and Roger Daltry does a pretty good butterfly stroke

Townshend and the boys’ work spawned, like, a million offshoots of concept albums. Most notable for music fans is Pink Floyd’s rock-opera, The Wall, which former lead singer and main composer of the album Roger Waters still tours in its entirety in megastadiums around the globe. (The best and most pricey stage show I’ve ever seen, thanks husband!).

Both Tommy and The Wall explore difference, disability, and excess through entire albums. Both are about the rags to riches sons of dead British fathers from WWII. The Wall takes a grittier, less cartoonish approach to the content. It’s more symbolic, political, and has a higher quantity of radio songs, e.g., “Comfortably Numb,” and “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Parts of the film version of The Wall are actually animated, but instead of moderate levity in the face of mental illness and abuse like Tommy, The Wall illustrates the terrifying possibilities drug abuse, mental imbalance, and isolation. No Pink Floyd laser light show needed to appreciate how music and visual artistry depict mental breakdowns here:

Goodbye Blue Sky

Another Brick in the Wall

The Trial

I encourage you to watch The Wall or listen to it in its entirety (both available on Youtube). The best of its genre, it is cohesive while leaving room for interpretation, confessional without being sentimental, and has just enough of a peek at imbalance to keep us relating. I mean, I think for a lot of us election season makes us feel like this:

When I see, hear, and feel someone sing a scream like this I am easily drawn into a story. I agree with the folks below that Mixed Blood’s current rock-opera does just that.

Next to Normal has 11 shows left. Join in the rock-opera/ mental health discussion here or in person by purchasing guaranteed admission online or calling the Mixed Blood Box Office.

If you have a mental illness or are a member of the disability community, we can reserve seats for you at no cost and even arrange a free cab through Radical Hospitality. Email for more details.

Radical Hospitality extends to anyone who wishes to attend a Mixed Blood performance. First-come first served seats are available for each show as early as 2 hours before each performance. Call 612.338.6131 for details.

Jill Michaelree is Community Outreach and Development Manager at Mixed Blood Theatre. She went to film school, does NOT play a mean pinball but tries, and will one day finish writing her own rock-opera about the Barbury Plague. This is a picture of her dressed up as David Bowie “Live in Santa Monica 1972.” She is currently in grad school for nonprofit management at Hamline University.

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