Musical Theater: a Vehicle for Humanizing Medicine

Sep 2, 2018 | Humanizing Medicine | 0 comments


Research has demonstrated the benefits of integrating the humanities into medicine. What about bringing medicine to the arts? There are countless examples of physicians in literature: John Keats, Williams Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Abraham Verghese. These poets and authors help us understand humanity through the unique perspective they developed as healers. But what about the performing arts? Is there a role for the physician’s perspective on Broadway?

“So you want to know how I died.” These lyrics begin the first song Michael Ehrenreich, MD, wrote for Medicine: The Musical. It encapsulates that common first-year experience of dissecting a cadaver—wondering about the person whose body you’re using to learn, so intimately, about structure and function, yet not dwelling so much on the individual that the work before you becomes impossible.

Full disclosure: I’m the proud parent of a current musical theater major. My daughter came to the field on her own, but I have eagerly supported her, because of my deep love of the genre. I adore musicals and have the utmost respect for their creators. So I was fascinated to learn that a dermatologist with no formal musical training had crafted a full-scale musical, writing the book and lyrics himself. In an interview, Ehrenreich assured me that he had not set out with a specific agenda and that the musical “wrote itself.” Perhaps, but clearly the physician is gifted. And he has managed to steer the piece through the complex path that is theater production today.

The ensemble piece follows five medical students over the course of their first year. It delves into “imposter syndrome,” experiences in gross anatomy lab, stress, a suicide attempt, and the juxtaposition of an attending physician who is burned out and cynical with one who remains optimistic about the profession and his role in it.

Ehrenreich organized a staged reading with professional actors at the Daryl Roth Theater in New York in April of 2017. He’s now raising funds for an off-Broadway run. (His Kickstarter campaign, which offers tickets in exchange for donations, ends on March 4, 2018.)

I asked Ehrenreich if he created the show with a message and particular audience in mind. Mostly, he said, he wanted to show the public, including potential medical students, what training is like, how much pressure to succeed medical students feel, and how hopeful people are when they enter the profession.

For those in medicine, he wanted to show that while many physicians today are disillusioned and dissatisfied, medicine remains a great profession. He said that the messages seem to resonate. An elderly physician who attended the staged reading told Ehrenreich, “The show was the most moving thing I have ever seen.” Ehrenreich was both pleased and surprised by the comment—he disclosed that he had anticipated enjoyment, laugher, identification, but hadn’t expected his audience to be so touched emotionally.

Personally, I have my fingers crossed for Ehrenreich’s success in staging an off-Broadway run. Having watched a recording of the reading and spoken with the creator, I want to experience this performance piece the way it’s meant to be experienced: live. I want to see if bringing the perspective of the physician to the stage is as powerful as it is in the work by physician authors and poets. I want to see if the marriage of medicine and musical theater sheds more light on, perhaps even humanizes, the unique experience of becoming a doctor. I want to see if the performance moves me the way the elderly physician described, which is ultimately what we seek in art.

With luck, Medicine: The Musical will reach the stage. I’ll be there on opening night.

PS–Medicine: The Musical did make it to the stage and I was there. The show was both funny and insightful. I’m ready for more!

Photo credit: Fotolia


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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