Not Kidding, Or: Sybil! The Musical

Very frequently I say deadly serious things that people assume are jokes.  Like, “Hey, save me some of that Percocet you’ll be prescribed post-back surgery!”  Or, “I actually believe that photographs steal a bit of the subject’s soul.”  Or, “Remember when I exhibited at Art Basel in Miami?”  People laugh and say, “ID, you’re so funny,” and I’m left scratching my head, wondering how I could communicate to others better when I really mean something and when I’m just joshing around.  Case in point: when I beseech people to find me a musical theater composer to help me write the libretto for a project I’m working on called Sybil! The Musical, and they laugh and then never find me any damn composer.

For those of you not into psych misery lit, Sybil is a classic––nay, THE classic––of the genre.  Written by Flora Rheta Schreiber, with the help (or perhaps collusion) of psychiatrist Cornelia Wilber, Sybil tells the story of Shirley Mason––not named in the book––a young woman inhabited by sixteen distinct personalities.  Her condition––Multiple Personality Disorder––was, the good doctor discovered, the result of unbelievable childhood trauma.  When it was published in the 1970s, the public went wild for the story, and for the diagnosis (prior to Sybil, fewer than two hundred cases had been documented; after its release, individual clinicians claimed to be seeing thousands of cases a year.)  There was a TV movie starring Sally Field, multiple appearances on talk shows for Schreiber and Wilbur, and talks of board games, dolls, and t-shirts.

One small glitch, though: Sybil wasn’t true.  There was a woman named Shirley Mason, and she did enter therapy, but as Debbie Nathan tells it in Sybil Exposed, her fascinating 2011 expose of the whole clusterfuck, Shirley was heavily influenced by her therapist––and the drugs Wilbur frequently administered to her hapless patient––to basically behave like someone with MPD.  And then doctor hooked up with writer and figured they could all get rich off the very salacious story of sex abuse, inner children, and ultimately, redemption.

One of the offshoots of Sybil they considered was a musical.  Here’s Nathan:

“By 1986 [Flora Rheta Schreiber] realized that The Shoemaker [the book she wrote after Sybil] had put her $100,000 in debt.  Sybil had sold millions of copies in America by then and been published in nineteen foreign editions, yet Flora was utterly broke.  Desperate to make money, she tried to sell The Shoemaker to Hollywood or television.  There were no takers.  She pitched spinoffs of the TV version of Sybil: a soap opera; a Broadway musical she proposed should be choreographed by Twyla Tharp, with songs including ‘The Peggy Part of Me,’ ‘Nobody Likes Girls,’ and ‘I Want to Be the Man I Marry.’  These efforts also bombed.”

When I first read about the musical, I thought it was the funniest fucking thing I had ever heard.  Obviously I’m not talking about Shirley Mason’s predicament, or the wave of irresponsible psychiatry her ersatz biography spawned, but just the concept of the musical.  I have––no exaggeration–-thought about Sybil! The Musical every day for the last two years.  And finally, I’ve decided to make a go of it.  But I have no idea how to write a musical.  For a short while in 2014, I worked for a very famous actor (his NDA spidey sense is probably kicking in right now) who was writing a musical, but I actually think I was better prepared to work within this genre before I had that experience.  All I know is that I’ve decided on a meta-plot––the play will be about a troupe of actors working to put on a production of Sybil, in other words––and that the grand finale will be a modern dance-esque sequence in which all Sybil’s personalities merge together, culminating in a spirited version of “One” from A Chorus Line (provided I can secure the rights.)

So!  Now that you know I am NOT KIDDING, will you help me find my composer?  I think this will take Edinburgh Fringe by storm.


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