It’s hot and humid in New York City. Even a walk through Central Park didn’t offer much respite. I found a few stores and public spaces I could duck into to cool off and I met a friend who writes for the TheaterMania Web site at a Starbucks, so I had a few escapes. Early in the evening, after a meal at a little Italian bistro, I walked through Times Square — now closed to vehicular traffic for several blocks, so it’s become a big pedestrian mall — where a movie shoot was being set up. But the sea of people never stops washing along Broadway. That meant the coolest part of my day on Thursday was an evening performance at the Booth Theatre.
Next to Normal: The 2009 Tony Award winner for best musical created a stir when it also landed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Next to Normal was not the recommendation of the Pulitzer drama committee, although it was a show that had been considered. The Pulitzer steering committee didn’t like what the committee offered and instead awarded the prize to the musical by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey. I can’t say whether that was the right thing to do, but I will tell you that Next to Normal is a remarkable, powerful piece of theater — as meaningful as many serious dramas I’ve watched.
It’s the story of Diana, a woman with bipolar disorder, and it demonstrates how mental illness affects her entire family. Actress Alice Ripley won a 2009 Tony as the season’s best musical actress when she originated the role. She stayed with the production until recently when it was taken over by another veteran performer, Marin Mazzie. I did not see Ripley play the role, but I can attest to the power of Mazzie as an actress who’s completely thrown herself into what must be an exhausting and draining performance. I will remember her portrait of Diana for a long time.
The show has a rebellious rock score that cranks it up from the get-go. There’s no overture; it simply slams right into the high-octane “Another Normal Day” — Diana is in a manic mode and her family tries to cope, dodging her as she mass produces dozens of sandwiches. She frets about teenage son Gabe (Kyle Dean Massey), puts up with husband Dan (Jason Daniely, Mazzie’s real-life husband) and largely ignores her hard-working, overachieving 16-year-old daughter, Natalie (Meghann Fahy).
It’s immediately apparent that Diana has demons; only gradually do we learn the details of who and what they are. Her doctors (several characters played by Louis Hobson) take her through progressively more serious therapies — medication, psychoanalysis, electro-shock — none of which work as intended, and most of which have deleterious side effects on Diana and her family. Her condition — and theirs — steadily deteriorates.
Natalie keeps rejecting the attention of Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), a persistent high school classmate, because she’s so distracted by her mother’s afflictions — and so desirous of maternal supervision. Dan tries to make things better, but he’s clearly a man groping for solutions in the dark. Gabe is the apple of his mother’s eye, but we learn that their relationship has dimensions we don’t initially suspect.
This might not sound like a story ideally suited for musical theater, but Next to Normal, in fact, exemplifies how the form can delve beyond actions to reveal emotions. When Diana sings “I Miss the Mountains,” we understand perfectly how medication has removed from her life the peak experiences that make life worth living. Natalie’s big number, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” shows her frustration with being compared to her brother. Dan’s “Light in the Dark” is a plaintive recollection of how his marriage once worked but today is a mere glimmer of what it once was. Kitt and Yorkey’s score is a remarkable accomplishment.
Although Next to Normal does not at all resemble the musical Spring Awakening that entertained Cincinnati audiences earlier this year, it has something in common: A musical approach that can appeal to younger audiences and subject matter that is serious, engaging and important. Traditional musicals often start and finish with characters yearning for love and eventually finding it. That’s not what happens in Next to Normal, although each character does yearn for something he or she is missing. By the end of the show we see that there might be hope, although the tone is far from optimistic. It’s how the real world works. That a musical can do this is quite remarkable, a fact that tells me this theatrical form has a lot more potential. I hope we see Next to Normal (which is mounting a national tour) in Cincinnati eventually.
Tonight I’ll be back to the world of traditional musicals with a bravura performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a tour of which will be stopping at the Aronoff Center in September.