26 February 2012

All about next to normal

I've become obsessed with the musical next to normal. The composer is Tom Kitt and the lyricist/book writer is Brian Yorkey.

History of the work

Kitt and Yorkey met as undergraduates at Columbia University. In 1998, they presented a 10-minute workshop piece called Feeling Electric. After a couple readings (2002), many workshops (2005, 2006, 2007), and the steadfast backing of producer David Stone, the title of the show was changed to next to normal and was produced off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre during early 2008. The reviews were mixed, so the producers took the show to Arena Stage in DC, where Kitt, Yorkey, and the creative team tinkered with it until it was deemed ready. Then it premiered on Broadway in April 2009. That only took 10 years (!).

What it's about

The plot of next to normal has some clever twists, so without giving anything away, I would say that it's the story of a generic suburban American family trying to cope with loss and crisis. In the center of it all is the mother, Diana, who can't take care of herself much less her husband Dan, 17-year old son Gabe, and 16-year old daughter Natalie. It turns out that Diana has recurrent manic episodes and delusions, which the doctors think might be bipolar disorder, but they're not sure.

It's easy to call next to normal the musical about the bipolar mother, but that's a huge injustice. There are deeper issues like Diana and Dan's past, and Dan's habit of suppressing bad feelings and hoping that doctors will fix everything. Natalie is frustrated about having a "crazy" mother who monopolizes the attention of the family (namely Dan) and makes Natalie feel "invisible." The fact that Diana "might" be bipolar is very flashy and provocative, allowing for some interesting scenes. But it just happens to be that Diana is mentally ill. She could have had some other illness or be a very difficult person, and many of the same family issues would have come up.

I missed the Broadway production (yeah, stupid me). I've always been a very conservative theatre goer. I tend to see the "classics" like Gypsy and Sunday in the Park with George. I'm pretty sure I heard about next to normal in the New York Times but paid no attention. I didn't think that anyone could do a musical about mental illness. Not that it's really about mental illness, but many people say that. To remind you again, that's wrong!!!

Discussion of the work

With the help of the libretto, cast album, videos, clips, reviews and interviews, I've pieced together a sense of what the stage production must have been like. I understand why people love next to normal. It's (1) an original musical with original music and original story, (2) the book [1] is well-written, challenging, and addresses controversial, relevant issues, (3) the staging is very clever, (4) the music and lyrics are excellent, and (5) the story is personal.


The way people talk about it, there hasn't been any revolutionary work in musical theatre since Sondheim, his last real success being Into the Woods in 1987. There have been some baby steps moving musical theatre in a more modern direction. Rent (1996) showed that you could use "rock-style" music in a contemporary setting. Spring Awakening (2006) had beautiful alternative rock score that integrated well with a story about teenagers coming of age. As wonderful as Rent and Spring Awakening are, their success derives from celebrating teenage angst and might I say, self-absorption. (Avenue Q has similar themes.) This is clear when you look at the fanbase, which is all pretty much between 12 and 30.

I guess this is better than the "sentimental" and "light-weight" reputation of the Golden Age musicals [2]. All the musicals I've mentioned [3] have barely kept Broadway semi-relevant in an age dominated by Hollywood and internet. Mostly the other musicals are filler -- jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys, productions based on film/TV like Spamalot and Shrek, and revivals. It's wonderful that most of Sondheim's best work has been revived in the last decade, but isn't that a sign that nothing has come along to replace this guy?

What makes next to normal special is that it has both original music and an original story. It is not based on a TV show, movie, play, or book. The story was written from scratch. Moreover, its main theme is not teenage angst (though there is a little bit of that) but timeless, universal issues like grief, spouses who have difficulty communicating, or a daughter who feels ignored and terrified that she'll turn into her mother. Truly a musical you can bring the whole family to!

Themes and book

The discussion of mental illness gives the work a timely relevance and contemporary setting. The musical brings up questions like how should mental illness be treated and how do people deal with their mental illness when modern medicine fails or is unsatisfying? The title of the show provokes some interesting thoughts. What does it mean to be normal? Maybe we can find the bright side of people who are a little "different." Many bipolar people are extraordinarily creative. Is it important to be normal or to reach some ideal? Maybe "next to normal" is good enough. Perhaps we can appreciate what we have and the people who love us even if they aren't quite "normal."

next to normal is well-characterized as an intense dramatic play set to music. If you read the book (libretto) without listening to the music, you'll see that the material is on-par with any straight play. The musical is mostly sung-through which makes the music like a tidal wave pushing you relentlessly through the action. The few non-musical scenes are underscored. The pacing is great -- fast but not too fast. I'm amazed that there are no dull moments in the show. Every scene is interesting. The one exception is the "Song of Forgetting" in Act 2, which as you can tell by the title, was unimaginative. Brian and Tom, what were you thinking? Why would any character sing "sing a song of forgetting" and not just once but multiple times? It seems like a meta-reference, which is not what you want in a realistic musical play.

Back to praise... kudos to Yorkey for the well-done humor in next to normal. The funny things are actually funny and they emerge organically from the characters and their personal situations. For example, some humorous moments arise from Diana's adventures in psychiatric drugs and Natalie's interactions with her boyfriend Henry.

Problems with the book

I am disappointed that the musical feels somewhat anti-medication/anti-ECT and portrays psychiatrists slightly negatively. The writers definitely did their research and attempted to make the portrayal of psychiatry more balanced, but the fact is that there are far more instances where psychiatry is mocked or criticized than advocated. In the ending, it is suggested that Diana stops all medical treatment permanently (she might be continuing talk therapy, it's not clear). There is a point where pain ceases to be educational and is merely pain that prevents you from living your life. Chris Caggiano has similar complaints (though he sounds much more unhappy than me) in his blog review.

Most of my specific complaints are about Act 2. "Light," the show finale, rubs me the wrong way. The constant metaphors of "light" and the cast belting "shine" four times feels borderline religious. The events of Act 2 are dark and ambiguous and not something to celebrate. Broadway musicals suffer from the expectation that the audience must not leave depressed or that there must be a comic scene somewhere, even in the darkest of works [4]. Why not end on some low-key ambiguous dialogue like in Gypsy? Or use a finale song that is not so in-your-face and bright and doesn't sound like a choir at Christmas mass? I think the message of the show is that survival and the acting of moving forward are huge accomplishments in themselves and are not things to be taken lightly. I should say that apparently the writers revised the off-Broadway version of this song to address complaints like mine. I guess it wasn't enough for my satisfaction.

I'm also not entirely happy about using a dramatic conceit (the same thing was done in the Season 1 finale of Homeland). But the payoff was some revealing scenes, most notably about Dan, so it was marginally okay in my book.

This is more minor, but I wasn't a fan of the opening number for Act 2 "Wish I Were Here". It seems like the remnants of the off-Broadway Act 1 finale "Feeling Electric." I felt like Natalie's foray into illicit activities was forced and the act of mother and daughter running around the stage in a trippy haze while lights flash didn't fit the serious tone of the show [5], especially Act 2 which is musically more low-key overall than Act 1.

That said, I've never encountered an (overly?) ambitious musical that didn't have problems. That must be why many musical theatre aficionados consider Gypsy to be the best musical of all-time. It had ambition, but not too much. Writing dramatic musical theatre is incredibly hard, especially in a modern world where people prefer either realism or irony over metaphor in art. Some people might say that it shouldn't be attempted. Obviously, I don't share that opinion, given my life-long love of singing.


I love the Broadway staging (much of the credit goes to director Michael Greif). The set is sparse -- a few shelves, chairs, a table, a medicine cabinet, and a mock piano. The elaborate part is the three level design with poles. It allows some separation when there are scene with Diana overlapping a scene with another character. I'm not sure about the poles, but they do give the actors some extra options in blocking. It's particularly effective for the character of Gabe who is dancing with the poles and making trouble. There's a fantastic scene during "I'm Alive" where Gabe is on the third level and Diana is at the bottom reaching out towards him.

There are only six characters in the cast and they are on stage almost all the time, except to change clothes. I like how you'll see characters out of the action doing things like Gabe reading a book or Dan cleaning up the house. The blocking is fantastic. The characters move around the stage and go up and down the levels constantly. It feels dynamic and every movement sets up the next one. In general, next to normal is as minimalistic as possible without losing anything -- no fat and all muscle. The work invites intimacy -- the six-person cast, six-person band, and minimalistic staging. It would be fantastic for a small 100-200 seat theatre.


Rent and Spring Awakening showed me how much fun contemporary music can be [6]. I think Spring Awakening might have a better and more creative score than next to normal, but next to normal has the most effective score. Yes, there are some pastiches of folk, rock, Gilbert & Sullivan, and waltzes, but among innovative composers, there is only one Sondheim [7] and the wannabes (Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, etc) haven't come up with any musicals that integrate the music and book well. Plus, Sondheim wrote pastiche scores (Follies, Assassins), too!

I like how Tom Kitt chooses the right style of music for each moment and each character. It's eclectic but it works. Diana is frequently manic and has lots of energy so she has most of the heavy rock numbers [8]. In their key "this is who I am and what I want" songs, Gabe and Natalie sing in a bright rock style which suits their youthful ages. Dan is reserved guy, so he mostly sings moody, lonely ballads.

The two waltzes are wonderfully written and yet completely different aside from the style. The first is a satire and the second is a pivotal emotional scene. The conversations between Natalie and her boyfriend Henry ("Hey #1", "Hey #2", "Hey #3") are low-key, alternative or modern musical theatre [9] style. I took me a while to appreciate these songs, but it's cool to hear songs that are conversational and not "big" or "I want" songs.

My favorite song is "You Don't Know/I Am the One." It's intense, thrilling, and has the most sophisticated and interesting blocking. Diana's tirade really scares me (boy, I'm glad I've never been that depressed), while Dan's angry response makes complete sense to me. I think my personality is probably closest to Dan; I am not Diana jumping on the hospital bed and belting rock songs at the doctor.

Also on my karaoke list, the Gabe and Natalie rock songs "I'm Alive" and "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" (very very fun and showy) as well as Dan's emotionally heavy [10] and touching ballads "I've Been" and "A Light in the Dark." (very very dark and emotional)

Besides "Song of Forgetting", there are two songs I'm lukewarm about. I'm not a huge fan of "I Miss the Mountains," mostly because I don't really like folk music. But I think that's my personal taste. It's a well-done song and there's a nice belt in it, which always makes me happy.

Original Broadway Cast

I should make some remarks about the original Broadway cast (OBC). I didn't see them perform, so I can't really comment on their acting except to say that for the most part, critics and audiences thought they were outstanding. Alice Ripley (Diana) convinced me that singing doesn't always have to be "pretty" (I tend to like the legit, classical style of singing.) and raw, imperfect singing [11] can be beautiful, too, and arguably more interesting than legit singing sometimes. Before I studied (yes, that's the word) next to normal, I had never heard of Ripley (guess I need to brush up on my Broadway knowledge) but she has a reputation for the most gigantic and enthusiastic belt on Broadway [12]. J. Robert Spencer (Dan) has a nice rock voice, but I prefer Brian d'Arcy James' (off-Broadway original and Broadway replacement Dan) strong, expressive baritone for the ballads. Jennifer Damiano (Natalie) and Aaron Tveit (Gabe) sound fantastic. This guy Tveit, how can he be so good looking and have such an amazing voice? What planet does he come from? Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry, Natalie's boyfriend) is absolutely charming, and Louis Hobson (Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden) has a gorgeous, angelic tone to his voice. Despite the small cast, the choral numbers sound much bigger than one would think. Is this some clever sound engineering?

Personal comments

My favorite thing about next to normal is how personal it is. I've been Natalie, Dan, and Diana at various points in time. I understand how they feel and Brian Yorkey's lyrics are spot-on. I feel connected to the story and the characters most of the time (there are a few parts in Act 2 that lose me, but it's minor).

I think Sondheim is fantastic (like everyone else), but I tend to like specific songs. I'm never completely satisfied with his musicals as a whole. next to normal isn't without its flaws, but to me, it's the best musical overall. In the end, that's why we have diversity in art. Hopefully, there is something out there, that speaks to you and resonates for a long time.

Because of next to normal, I've reached a new level in my understanding of theatre. It's inspired me to think about how to play characters in different ways (for example, Marin Mazzie, Ripley's replacement, played Diana very differently) and the importance of making good acting decisions so that the work hangs together as a whole (acting choices for Dan affects how Diana is played; playing one scene one way might be exciting for that scene individually, but not be consistent with other scenes). I understand why English professors love deep plays like Hamlet. I don't think next to normal is Hamlet, but I find that I learn new things on repeated viewings. I understand why theatre nuts get excited about understudies going on a Broadway show -- it's fun to see how a different actor will interpret the role. There are many interesting ways to play Diana, Dan, and Natalie and that separates next to normal from most musicals.

After this ridiculously long post, the only thing left to say is that if there's a production of Next to Normal playing near you, go see it!

[1] The book of a musical is like the equivalent of a movie script or the dialogue and stage directions for a play. Many musicals fail due to a badly written book.

[2] There are some fantastic musicals that are amazing and definitely not "light," for example, Gypsy, West Side Story, South Pacific, and most of Sondheim's work.

[3] I might also add The Lion King, Wicked, and the various British pop operas written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg.

[4] In particular, I think of "The Song of Purple Summer" from Spring Awakening (two main characters died, but we need to make the audience feel okay!) and a very awkward joke about dumb Texans in Sunday in the Park with George.

[5] Jesse Green of New York Magazine has similar comments in an interesting lament about "bombast" on Broadway.

[6] I grew up with one parent who liked oldies and another parent who thought anything but classical music is trash, so my taste through high school was only musicals and classical. I didn't start listening to "contemporary" music until I was 21.

[7] Not that my musical theater knowledge is particularly extensive, but I can think of one more example: Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

[8] I feel concerned for whoever plays Diana. Those heavy rock numbers, constant singing, heavy intense scenes, 2 hours on stage -- I wonder if the actress will either shred her voice or collapse.

[9] What I mean by modern musical theatre style is Sondheim and the young guys who look up to him, the before-mentioned Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, etc.


These songs are sooo heavy. In "I've Been," we see Dan cleaning up the blood from his wife's suicide attempt and squeezing blood out of the towel. In "A Light in the Dark," Dan is trying to persuade his wife to go through with the ECT treatment, believing that it will save her life.


[11] Though I'm confused sometimes whether Ripley is singing in character voice or if her voice is strained. Supposedly, she told some students at a master class that she bruised a vocal cord back when the show was doing its off-Broadway run and I don't know if she ever fully recovered from that injury.

[12] Someone said she should get an award for "belting your face off." In Side Show, she belts for 45 seconds. Insanity. Also, check out Alice Ripley and Anthony Rapp singing "Take me or leave me" from Rent. More insane singing.

No comments:

Post a Comment