The Phantom of the Opera ? Supernatural Love Story or Psychiatric Case Study?

November 16, 2016


It certainly isn’t a common occurrence to see someone – anyone – spontaneously break into song and dance in a medical school classroom. But that’s just what happened recently when Anthony Tobia, Professor of Psychiatry of Rutgers’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, arranged for a live streamed presentation of portions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famed musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

Tobia has been using the musical, as well as other film, music and literature, to illustrate his teachings of various issues in psychiatry since 2009. In this case, he collaborated with Broadway actress Julia Udine, who recently wrapped a three-year stint playing the musical’s leading lady, Christine, for the live event that reached more than 450 students, faculty, residents and others at two dozen universities nationwide.

The goal was to illustrate the storyline’s psychiatric underpinnings, helping medical students and instructors to better recognize potential issues in real-life patients. In The Phantom of the Opera‘s storyline, Christine, a beautiful soprano, becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured genius. But is it simply a supernatural love story or a case study of someone experiencing major depression with psychotic features? Tobia and viewers explored that question throughout the presentation, as Udine performed in character as Christine and Tobia explained to the audience the character’s possible psychological goings-on at each major point in her story.

“Phantom is not only the most inspiring musical I’ve ever seen, it is also a perfect clinical study for teaching about mood disorders,” Tobia says. “In Christine, we find a character who is dealing with complicated bereavement – she is still mourning her father who died when she was 13 – along with significant stress in her life. It allows us to talk about what is known in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] as persistent complex bereavement disorder and its potential evolution, which includes full-blown clinical depression, psychosis and suicidality.”

The experience has proven beneficial not only to medical students planning to specialize in psychiatry or utilize knowledge of it in their future practices, but also to Udine in her approach to developing the characters she plays. 

“As an actor, you try to connect with the role you are playing, find the subtext, so you can make sense of what’s happening on the page,” she says. “If I were to play Christine again, I would use some of his teachings to prepare myself.”

Tobia now is working with a student to develop a similar project using the 1874 film, Young Frankenstein.

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