Thursday should be author Ned Vizzini’s 38th birthday. He should be celebrating with his wife, Sabra Embury, and his seven-year-old son, Felix. Perhaps he would have written more books depicting the hardships of coming-of-age. He definitely would be celebrating his first novel, Be More Chill, hitting Broadway and his most well-known novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, entering the process of becoming a musical.
Unfortunately, Vizzini died by suicide in late 2013 at age 32. From a complete outsider’s perspective, he had everything going for him. His professional career as a writer was taking off. All but the final number for the musical adaptation for Be More Chill was completed. In addition to his musicals, he was also writing for TV shows like Teen Wolf. However, scratch beneath the surface and you see that, as Embury recalled, “everything was clicking, he’s getting everything he wanted, then at some point, things shifted.”
Even to those who knew about his struggles with mental health, his death came as a surprise. Novelist and Scholastic vice president Dave Levithan, who had been friends with Vizzini since 2004, expressed the disbelief he felt, saying “it was just something we did not see coming ... we were always in awe, because he started writing in his teens, and we thought he was going to be writing into his 80s.”
Edison Price Vizzini, known as Ned Vizzini, was a young adult author who effectively captured the struggles of adolescence. His first novel, Be More Chill, follows Jeremy Heere, a socially awkward high schooler, who tries to get the attention of theatre-fanatic Christine with the help of a magic pill that helps him say and do all the right things. In 2015, the book became an off-Broadway musical written by composers Joe Tracz and Joe Iconis. Just this March, the musical hit Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Additionally, the book is also having a film adaptation in the works.
Although Vizzini was excited about the thought that Be More Chill would become a musical, he, unfortunately, never got to listen to any part of it. “He never heard anything from the show, which is the weirdest, saddest thing,” Iconis states. The final number, “Voices in My Head,” was the only one that had not been started prior to Vizzini’s death. After learning this, it seems impossible to not hear this song almost as a tribute to Vizzini. Iconis stated that he and Tracz wanted something that “feels reflective and a little bit more human.” “Voices in My Head” is acoustic, contrasting a bit from the more synthetic poppy beats from the other numbers, yet it meshes well with the rest of the musical.
The musical also left a subtle yet powerful tribute to Embury that did not go unnoticed. In the scene where Jeremy picks up the pill in a Payless store, he gets it in a box labeled “SABRAS by Pinkerton.” “Sabras,” is a reference to Sabra Embury; “Pinkerton” references Weezer’s Pinkerton, an album that the couple enjoyed.
Vizzini’s most notable novel is perhaps It’s Kind of a Funny Story. In the novel, Vizzini tells his five-day experience in a psychiatric hospital through the character of Craig Gilner, whose experience of the pressure of a prestigious high school pushes him to suicidal ideation. Even for those not struggling with mental illness, many readers will find at least some component of the novel relatable. Vizzini truly was a talented author. Despite writing about such a grave topic, he manages to do so in a way that doesn’t feel heavy. He infuses the story with hope while accurately capturing mental illness, and hooks the reader in without romanticizing the realities of living with depression.
The movie adaptation that was released in 2010 failed to capture Vizzini’s unique voice. However, the novel’s musical adaptation is currently in the works, something I doubt that Vizzini could have ever imagined. He was surprised when Iconis and Tracz called him to discuss Be More Chill’s theatrical potential; having another novel become a musical probably would have been within reach. Tony nominee Alex Brightman and composer Drew Gasparini signed a deal with Universal Studios to do just that. The musical was performed in Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City in 2017.
It’s heartbreaking that someone so brilliant and clever left the world too soon. However, his life left an indelible impact on many. He taught his readers that it’s okay to not be okay; that life is filled with hardships, but also joy worth fighting for. He vocalized the feelings of hopelessness and awkwardness for those who couldn’t find the words to express these frustrations. Even when writing about the darkest parts of life, he could still find a way to make a reader laugh. He never got to see two of his books come to life on the stage, but I’m sure that he would be more than proud.