Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

I was lucky enough to see Next to Normal on Broadway when I was attending the SCBWI Winter Conference last year, and it completely blew me away. Not only did this show win the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2009, but it also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the first musical to win this award since Rent in 1996).

Next to Normal can be easily compared to Rent in many ways. In watching it, I felt I was seeing the promise to American musical theater made by Rent a decade and a half before finally coming to fruition. We saw a profound movement in this direction with the success of the award-winning Spring Awakening in 2007, but Next to Normal took this progression still further. It combines the rock-inspired score with a book scored with deep contemporary issues. The lyrics are also a stand-out here; not since Jonathan Larson have I seen such clever and facile lyrics being used for dramatic (as opposed to comedic) effect.

An article about the Pulitzer prize win says, “The Pulitzer jury recognized the work for its subject matter and stated that it “expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.”” You might be noticing a trend by now in my favorite musicals. They all expand the scope of subject matter for musicals. They talk about things that matter; they have something to say. Just as I mentioned last week that this is a major quality I look for in the short fiction I read, so is it also an important criteria for the theater I love best.

In the case of Next to Normal, the subject matter is mental illness, grief, and a family in crisis. And I have to say that, while the score is excellent, it’s the emotional subject matter that makes this show so memorable for me. The show follows the journey of Diana Goodman, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder and hallucinations, along with the struggles of her family, including her husband who is suffering from depression himself and her teenage daughter Natalie, who feels ignored and isolated. It is often quite dark, and the emotional notes ring very realistically. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about dysfunctional families, and many of those dynamics were shown — indeed, played out to their messy conclusions — during the course of the play.

I can’t talk about Next to Normal without mentioning how important I find it that this show introduces an open discussion about mental illness, a subject that is often marginalized in American society. Diana Goodman is without question the main character of the musical, and we are taken on a tour of her highs and lows, her moments of lucidity and complete mental breakdown, her pain and regrets, and the tough questions she is forced to answer. But for me, it was the character of her daughter Natalie who tugged on my heart-strings the most, just wishing for as “normal” a family as possible and trying to survive in a turmoil she can’t change or leave behind her.

Here are a few of my favorite musical moments:

Natalie’s song “Everything Else”, which is sung to a Mozartian piano accompaniment. I should note that Natalie’s song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is possibly the more popular of the two, and also excellent.

“Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I”: this song is all about the lyrics.

“Maybe (Next to Normal)”: the song that gave the show its title, coming towards the end of the second act.

Happily for me, Next to Normal is currently on a national tour so I’ll have the opportunity to see it again in a few weeks. And as I said about Adam Guettel, I’m very eager to see what comes next from the talented Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.

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