NEXT TO NORMAL
background and analysis by Scott Miller
Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s surrealistic, expressionistic Next to Normal was surely the most adult, most mature rock musical to hit Broadway in decades when it opened, an unrelentingly intense, brutally honest story about a bipolar woman undergoing electroshock therapy, about the impact of her illness on her family, and about the shortcomings of the medical profession’s understanding of mental illness. But this score wasn’t Broadway pop; this was hard driving rock and roll, authentic enough to match the authenticity of its emotion. It was only the second rock musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, alongside Rent.
Why is Next to Normal so powerful? Because we humans are emotional adventurers. The thing that makes a good story into a good musical is emotion. And the thing that makes a production of a musical really wonderful and powerful is the honesty and authenticity of its emotions. That’s one of the musical theatre’s top priorities, second only perhaps to clear storytelling.
People come to see a musical specifically because it’s a more emotional kind of storytelling (whether or not they consciously realize that), so if a production delivers phony emotions, the producers are committing fraud as surely as someone selling glass diamonds. When young writers wonder if a story is worth adapting for the musical stage, the answer is about whether or not the story is primarily an emotional one. Because its language is music, emotion is the lingua franca of musical theatre. If a story is primarily about action, songs might well get in the way – which is why there are very few successful musical farces or musical mysteries, because those forms are about intricate plotting, not emotion.
A lot of older musicals follow a similar arc – we watch as the Hero tries to assimilate into a community, and a “happy ending” is one in which the Hero succeeds in that assimilation, like in The Music Man, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, or Brigadoon. In more serious musicals, the Hero often is unable to assimilate, so he has to be removed, sometimes by death, like in Sweeney Todd or Carousel. In South Pacific there are two Heroes (Cable and Nellie), so we get both outcomes. You might argue the same thing about The King and I and Man of La Mancha.
But in order to have a community to assimilate into, a musical needs a big chorus. And starting in the mid-1960s, choruses starting shrinking on Broadway, mostly for economic reasons. By the 70s, the leads became the chorus, as in Company and A Chorus Line. And if you don’t really have a “community” onstage, that assimilation story loses its power. (Bat Boy sort of mocked that problem by creating a community of a couple dozen characters, but all played by five actors.)
For that reason – and also because of the philosophical underpinnings of the 1960s counter-culture – musicals began to turn to a different kind of story, the classic Hero Myth, in which our Hero starts out on a journey (sometimes concrete, sometimes psychological), meets a “wise wizard,” finds his “magic amulet” (ruby slippers, light saber), picks up companions, navigates various obstacles (sometimes including a trip into “the underworld”), does battle with an “evil wizard,” and finally gains new wisdom, often returning home to share it with his community. It’s an incredibly powerful form because the Hero Myth is just a stand-in for a human life. We each have our own life journey, full of wise and evil wizards, companions, and magic amulets; so we connect to that story form in a really powerful, personal way.
The Hero Myth has become progressively more relevant in American culture because more people are living alone today than at any other time in human history – mostly just because we can, thanks to various technological and economic developments. The book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone is about that trend. The assimilation story, once very powerful to a nation of immigrants in twentieth century America, has given way to the Hero Myth, as modern society allows us more time to look inward.
Think about how many contemporary musicals follow the Hero Myth model – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot (times three!), Shrek, Billy Elliot, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Spring Awakening, Taboo, and lots of others. This trend started in the 70s, with Company, Pippin, Follies, Jesus Christ Superstar, then later in the 80s with Nine and Sunday in the Park with George, among others. But it really exploded in the early 1990s, when musical theatre started to decouple itself artistically from New York commercial theatre on and off Broadway.
Because these new American musicals were being written with less thought to commercial potential, often with no aim toward Broadway, they were much more personal works, which generally steered them toward the form of the Hero Myth. In Next to Normal, Diana’s arc follows a classic Hero Myth structure, even as far as a journey to the “underworld,” in the form of the ECT and her memory loss. As Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment (the book that inspired Into the Woods), “Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our own way to become ourselves, and have entered the wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.” Yorkey and Kitt have used this ancient device but removed its metaphoric cloak. Here, Diana literally journeys into her own unconscious.
Even more relevant to Next to Normal, Bettelheim also writes, “From the earliest versions, fairy tales [and Hero Myths] stress that both desires reside in each of us, and that we cannot survive deprived of either: the wish to stay tied to the past, and the urge to reach out to a new future. Through the unfolding of events, the story most often teaches that entirely cutting oneself off from one’s past leads to disaster, but that to exist only beholden to the past is stunting; while it is safe, it provides no life of one’s own. Only the thorough integration of these contrary tendencies permits a successful existence.”
Next to Normal is actually a double Hero Myth. Diana follows her Hero Myth and Natalie follows a secondary Hero Myth; and key to Natalie’s character is that the two journeys are very similar. Natalie’s awareness of that is what creates her fear that she will live a life as fucked up and damaged as Diana’s, that her relationship with Henry will be as scarred and empty as her parents’.
Diana is also aware of these parallels, and of Natalie’s fear of these parallels. At the beginning of “I Miss the Mountains,” Diana sings:
There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl running free
Would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me there
All these blank and tranquil years,
Seems they’ve dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.
That’s quite a jam-packed lyric. It’s about Diana missing her manic past, worrying that Natalie will suffer the same fate, her shame for failing as a mother, her inability to feel anything because of her meds, and even a tinge of jealousy of Natalie’s youth and freedom. Despite the abundance of rhyme here, the language and sentence structure are completely natural, and the self-awareness Diana expresses moves her character forward and propels her to action. But beneath that, there’s such extraordinary lyric-writing craft here. There are wonderful, almost hidden interior rhymes, like blank and the first part of tranquil, a trick Yorkey uses throughout the score. And there’s also a ton of alliteration – the w’s in the first three lines and the last two lines, the f’s in the fourth and tenth lines, and the n sounds in lines 4-7, particularly in the fifth line.
This intro works as important self-awareness for Diana, but it also makes sure the audience recognizes these two parallel journeys. Just as Oklahoma! sets up a secondary love triangle to mirror the primary love triangle, here bookwriter and lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt do the same thing with the Hero Myth. But it’s a messy, chaotic Hero Myth, as befitting Diana’s state of mind. Could Gabe be both magic amulet and evil wizard... and companion...? Could Dr. Madden be both wise wizard and evil wizard?
The one advantage Natalie has in her Hero Myth is self-awareness. While Diana is desperately trying to understand herself and her journey, Natalie is very clear-eyed, though maybe a touch too pessimistic. To Natalie, each disaster for Diana is a future disaster for Natalie. While the end of Diana’s story is totally ambiguous – especially as we see at the end that her journey has been mirrored by a hidden journey Dan has also taken – the end of Natalie’s story is more hopeful. It’s still ambiguous, because let’s face it, life is ambiguous...
The one significant difference between Diana’s and Natalie’s stories is in their partners. In Hero Myth terms, Dan fails as Diana’s faithful companion, while Henry succeeds as Natalie’s. It seems that Dan may not have known about Diana’s problems when he married her, and to some extent he was “forced” into the marriage, if only by his own sense of duty and decency and whatnot. After all, Dan sees himself as the martyred Good Guy (which may be his great tragic flaw). On the other hand, Henry does seem to know exactly how damaged Natalie is, and he chooses to be with her, without any external pressures, with his eyes fully open. Natalie and Henry have a much more honest relationship than Diana and Dan do, and so the younger couple will probably have a healthier relationship.
Of course, it’s not important that an audience consciously recognize all this stuff. The Hero Myth works because we instinctively recognize the elements of the story, even if only subconsciously, as elements of our own lives. As Ben Kingsley once said about actors, “The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that’s what the storyteller is, and I think it’s important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it’s all about them, when in reality it’s all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you.”
We are all emotional adventurers.
Like many shows today, Next to Normal had an unusually long, rocky road to Broadway. In an age of skyrocketing ticket prices and more and more non-English-speaking tourists in the audience, Broadway producers are rarely eager to take on a brand new show, especially one dealing with a topic as harrowing as mental illness. The show began its life in 1998 as a ten-minute workshop sketch called Feeling Electric. Writer Brian Yorkey had brought the idea to composer Tom Kitt (High Fidelity) while both were at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and Kitt wrote a rock score for the piece. Both Yorkey and Kitt moved on to other projects, but they kept returning to their ten-minute piece, eventually expanding it to a full-length musical. This version went through several workshops as the team kept working on it. In September 2005, an abbreviated version of the full-length piece was part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it attracted some positive attention. Second Stage Theatre in New York workshopped the piece in 2006 and 2007, featuring for the first time the woman who would give the brilliant, startling, visceral performance at the heart of the story, Alice Ripley, and with director Michael Greif (Rent, Jane Eyre, Grey Gardens) at the helm.
The show moved to off Broadway in 2008, now retitled Next to Normal¸ where it ran barely a month. Still it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Score, and it was nominated for two other Outer Critics Circle Awards (including Best New Off Broadway Musical), three Lucille Lortel Awards, two Drama League Awards, and two Drama Desk Awards. The New York Times said, “As befits what is surely New York’s first mainstream musical about manic depression, Next to Normal is apt to produce bipolar reactions in anyone who sees it. How could it be otherwise with a show that suggests a hybrid of fractured-family soapers like Ordinary People and The Who’s Tommy, the 1969 rock opera of illness and noncomformity? To watch this tale of a haunted housewife (beautifully played by Alice Ripley) and the household she in turn haunts is to ride a speeding roller coaster of responses. One minute you’re rolling your eyes; the next, you’re wiping them. When the show ends, you’re probably doing both at the same time.” New York’s Daily News said the show “is audacious, original and – like its heroine – has issues. . . In the end, the show is exactly like Diana – always unpredictable, never fully balanced. But if you’re looking for something that’ll shake you up, Next to Normal is just what the doctor ordered.”
Perhaps it could have stayed that way, flawed but fascinating. That worked for Rent. But Yorkey and Kitt kept working, focusing like a laser on the emotions of the family, ultimately fashioning a score that was almost unbearably emotional. Yet another new version of the show was then given a regional theatre production at the Arena Stage from November 2008 through January 2009. Greif returned as director. Ripley and most of the off-Broadway cast participated, but Brian d’Arcy James remained in New York to play the title character in Shrek the Musical, and he was replaced in the role of Dan by J. Robert Spencer.
Finally, though no one might have expected it, the little six-actor rock musical that could began previews on Broadway in March 2009. This time, The New York Times said, “No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart – or wrings it as thoroughly – as Next to Normal does. This brave, breathtaking musical focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives. Next to Normal does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts. Such emotional rigor is a point of honor for Next to Normal. . . With an astounding central performance from Alice Ripley as Diana Goodman, a housewife with bipolar disorder, this production assesses the losses that occur when wounded people are anesthetized – and not just by the battery of pharmaceutical and medical treatments to which Diana is subjected, but by recreational drugs, alcohol and that good old American virtue, denial with a smile.” Rolling Stone called it “The best new musical of the season – by a mile.”
The first Broadway show to embrace social media, about six weeks into the Broadway run Next to Normal began publishing an adapted version of the show over Twitter. Over the course of a month, this serialized version of the show was “performed” 140 characters at a time, presented as if the characters themselves were tweeting about their day-to-day activities in real time. In between these tweets, the show would periodically post a link to an audio file of a song from the show to move the story forward. This Twitter feed, designed to build a community around the show, eventually racked up more than a million followers. The Twitter “performance” culminated in a new song written by Kitt and Yorkey, based on suggestions from Twitter followers, who helped decide details about which characters are performing the song, where it takes place in the story, as well as structure and lyric suggestions. The song was then publicly performed at a special event in New York. The producers also announced a “fan mashup” on YouTube, in which fans of the show recorded their own interpretations of songs from the score.
The show’s investors recouped their initial investment of four million dollars a few days after its one year anniversary on Broadway, proving that new, challenging work can occasionally succeed on Broadway, but also that it rarely originates there anymore. Late in the run, real-life married couple and Broadway veterans Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley took over the two leads, while Alice Ripley went on tour with the show. The Broadway production closed in January 2011 after 754 performances.
Let It Shine
Tom Kitt’s music for Next to Normal is extraordinary. It’s not just great pop/rock music – driving pop anthems, muscular guitar rock, gorgeous ballads – but structurally it’s very much an opera score, with arias, duets, quartets, sextets, recitative. The vocal arrangements are spectacular. But beyond that, this is a bipolar score, following the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form. Music primarily brings emotion to a story, and this story requires a special kind of emotion. So Kitt has expressed Diana’s bipolar mood swings through his music. And not just Diana’s. As much as they talk about Diana’s mood, notice how erratic Dan is musically, from his weirdly manic “It’s Gonna Be Good,” to the conflicting emotions – and musical styles – of Dan’s big solo, “I’ve Been.” And notice the several musical fights in the show; the darker the emotions get, the more rock and roll the music becomes. As he did with High Fidelity, Kitt does as much storytelling here with his music as his collaborators do with words.
Kitt and Brian Yorkey have written musical dialogue scenes that both sound entirely naturalistic and also boast really economical, well-crafted lyrics with wonderful, original, surprising rhymes, including tons of interior rhymes, some almost hidden. Yorkey’s lyrics are among the best ever written for the stage. Several times in each song, Yorkey reimagines a cliché, turns a phrase, or left-turns a sentence in an unexpected way that keeps us engaged and provides important foreshadowing or the development of textual themes. And sometimes a dark laugh too.
‘Cause what doesn’t kill me doesn’t kill me,
So fill me
Up for just another day...
And there’s this amazing alliteration in the same song:
In the hustle and the hurry,
You want to wipe your worry
For just another day,
I will keep the plates all spinning
With a smile so white and winning
All the way.
And notice that in those last three lines, Yorkey’s sets of alteration overlap each other. We get the Ps of keep, plates,, and spinning; then the Ss of spinning, smile, and so; then the Ws of with, white, winning, and way. And those Ws link back to the Ws of the previous three lines, and want, wipe,, worry, and away. The audience doesn’t consciously recognize all this, but it works on them, creating energy, momentum, in this context, maybe even a kind of frantic desperation.
This is really skillful, powerful writing. And beyond the remarkable craft here, these few lines tell us almost everything we need to know about this family, even if we don’t consciously realize we’ve taken in all this information. Later on, we may think back to Dan’s desire to “wipe your worry...away” and realize how ironically it foreshadowed the dark choices he makes.
Following Sondheim’s rule that Content Dictates Form, Kitt and Yorkey have written Next to Normal in a storytelling style that mirrors Diana’s world. The music itself, even without the lyrics, could not be set to any other story. Kitt uses the 7/8 time signature (essentially dropping half a beat out of each measure of music) frequently throughout the score. He sometimes plays two key signatures against each other. He almost always refuses to give numbers clear “buttons” at the end, which holds back the audience from the release of applause, and builds up the show’s ever increasing tension. In many ways Kitt’s music works like a horror film score, and like Sweeney Todd, which was consciously built on the horror movie music of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo).
Dramatically, the score is just as extraordinary. It uses interior monologues for all the main characters, a device most people today think of as a Rodgers and Hammerstein staple, but it really goes back to Shakespeare. Diana’s “I Miss the Mountains” is a close cousin to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Both are deeply felt, desperately complicated, wrapped around metaphors, and focused on a choice to be made. Diana’s song has companion pieces in Dan’s soulful wail “I’ve Been,” Gabe’s defiant “I’m Alive,” and Natalie’s existential “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” In old-school musicals, they called these the “I Want” songs, though the device goes back a lot further than Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter..
But Kitt and Yorkey are at their dramatic best in the fight scenes – real, visceral, knock-down-drag-out fights. The double number, “You Don’t Know” and “I Am the One” is just one example among many of a powerful book scene quite artfully set to music and rhymed lyrics.
The show is also very cinematic. Almost every scene dissolves into the next, sometimes even interrupting each other. Throughout the show there are moments when an actor in one scene simply turns around and now he’s in another scene, in another time and place. There are often two scenes going on onstage at once, juxtaposing the action in really interesting, revealing ways. As just one example of many, Natalie screws up her piano recital on one side of the stage, while at the same time, Diana’s telling her doctor about not being able to hold Natalie as a baby. The two scenes slam up against each other in a powerful, emotional way, but only implying the connection that we in the audience then complete, delivering more character and relationship information than a much longer dialogue scene could. And this happens throughout the show, often in a cinematic split-screen effect.
Next to Normal is part of an evolution of the musical theatre. Many of the devices described above are also present in bare, Passing Strange, American Idiot, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. These new rock shows demand a very minimalist physical approach – there’s no time or place for traditional set changes – and a less naturalistic, more fluid, more expressionistic, more cinematic kind of staging. Michael Bennett taught us in Dreamgirls how to use film devices on stage, close-ups, pans, focus pulls, dissolves, split-screens; and today’s audience accept those devices on stage as easily as they accept them on the screen.
No one today goes to a musical expecting the old Rodgers and Hammerstein faux naturalism.
Next to Normal lives in a metaphorical world as much as in the physical world. Many of the devices Yorkey and Kitt use are designed to keep the audience off kilter, to disorient them, to hold them in suspense, to not allow them time to think about and judge the things they’re witnessing, to force them to experience these events rather than thinking about them. The audience is on this roller coaster ride with Diana, strapped in right beside her.
And that ties into the central point of the story, that a person’s illness affects not just them, but everyone in their orbit. And because of the way Kitt and Yorkey have told this story, we the audience are among those in Diana’s orbit. We have to live in her illness, her delusions, her twisted world, with her for two hours. When she sees the doctor as a metal rocker, we see that too. When she finds herself inside a delusion, we’re there with her. That both binds the audience to Diana and gives them a more profound empathy than lesser writers might have allowed.
A Light in the Dark
Next to Normal is very surrealistic, maybe even more so than the original production suggests. The story’s narrative is so fractured, sometimes linear, but often detouring into fantasy, delusion, flashback, lots of time telescoping. Following the Sondheim rule, Kitt and Yorkey have written a show as fragmented and deconstructed as Diana’s world, their intention to make the audience understand Diana’s mental state by making them literally experience her broken perception of reality.
One of the show’s central points, an existential view that it shares with Passing Strange, is that everyone has his own road and his own destination – or as Passing Strange puts it, his own Real. You can’t follow someone else’s path, because their Real is different from your Real. Diana has to find her path, but throughout much of the show, everyone else is telling her what that path should be. It’s only at the end when she takes control of her own life, that we think she may find her Real. Of course, like Company, the end of Next to Normal is ambiguous. Diana is taking action, but we have no idea what the results of that action will be. Will she be better? Worse? Those answers aren’t the point of this story. The point is that Diana finds her path. Just like Bobby in Company.
This is a complicated, adult story. It’s not adult because the characters say fuck a lot, but because this is a story about things usually only adults experience – a disintegrating marriage, regret, emotional scars, weariness, big existential questions... Next to Normal is endlessly rich and complex and also brutally honest. Despite what the shallow types will tell you, audiences don’t go to the theatre (or movies) for escape; we go for connection. To make sense of the world around us and our own lives, to be reminded that we all go through essentially the same trials, that we are not alone. We don’t all have bipolar disorder, but we do all deal, in one way or another, with the same challenges and questions Diana faces.
It’s the same reason humans told stories around the camp fires in our earliest days. As the show reminds us,
Day after day...
We’ll find the will
To find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done,
There will be light.
Sondheim says the point of art is to make order out of the chaos of our world. Art selects from life, focuses, juxtaposes, reveals, magnifies, all in the service of telling a meaningful story that helps us navigate the rough terrain of being human in the 21st century. You don’t have to be bipolar to see your own daily struggles in Diana’s more extreme struggles. And that’s why storytelling is important to the culture. And why we need theatre. And why people find Next to Normal so genuinely powerful and incisive.
You Find Some Way to Survive
The “agent of chaos” is a common storytelling device, and these characters are often the misfits. In Next to Normal, Diana is a misfit, but only psychologically. On the outside, she’s an average suburban wife and mother, and yet on the inside she is broken. And that brokenness makes it very hard – impossible? – for her to fit in the world. In Act II, as the family surveys old photos, we catch references to multiple embarrassing incidents in Diana’s past. This has been going on a long time. But in Diana’s case, she’s not an agent of chaos because she is Id run wild, as with many agents of chaos, but because Ego and Superego are largely dysfunctional. She is an unwilling, “accidental” agent of chaos.
In an interview with the Next to Normal creative team, composer Tom Kitt, lyricist and bookwriter Brian Yorkey, director Michael Greif, and producer David Stone, the team talked about how the show was originally called Feeling Electric, partly because the original impetus for writing the show was the issue of ETC (shock therapy), and partly because the show originally had a snarkier, more smartass tone. But one of the lessons the writing team learned as they developed the show over several years, was that they had to write about a person, not an idea. As they rewrote the show, it became more personal and more sincere. In its earlier versions, it was about ETC. Now it’s about a woman and her family grappling with mental illness. Big difference. And the new title, apparently chosen more by gut instinct than by reason, reflected this new tone. Interestingly, they chose this title before the title song had been written, so they built that song around their new title.
“Next to Normal” is an unusual phrase that grabs your attention, and though we’re all so used to it now, if you think about it even for a second, you see that it packs a lot of meaning. In most shows, the misfit doesn’t end up fitting comfortably into the community. Once a misfit, always a misfit. (Two exceptions are Harold Hill and Maria Von Trapp, although you might argue that Meredith Willson’s River City is a whole town full of misfits.) So in Next to Normal, instead of taking Diana on a journey from misfit to normal, the writers gave her a more modest, more honest, more nuanced goal, of finding a place next to normal. In the show’s finale, Diana sings:
You find some way to survive,
And you find out you don’t have to be happy at all
To be happy you’re alive.
This is not a Rodgers and Hammerstein bromide like “You’ll never walk alone.” This is real life. Here, Diana chooses to walk alone. And notice that Diana’s lyric is in the second person – you find some way to survive – as a reminder that this is not just her journey, but all our journeys. This song is sort of a companion piece to the equally ambiguous “Being Alive” in Sondheim’s Company. There is no happy ending here because there are no happy endings in real life; there’s always a next chapter (so we all learned from Into the Woods). What’s fucked up today may be fixed tomorrow, but it’s equally true that what’s fine today may be fucked up tomorrow. We know at the end of Next to Normal that Diana has made a decision, but we have no idea how it will turn out. As the song says, they will go on...
The show’s secondary story (and parallel Hero Myth journey) between Natalie and Henry, both mirrors and intersects with the primary story. Like Diana, Natalie is also a misfit, but lucky for her, so is Henry. Structurally, Natalie and Henry are more serious, more integrated versions of Ado Annie and Will Parker. Throughout Next to Normal, there is an underlying tension as we slowly realize the friction between Natalie and Diana comes from Natalie’s fear that she will grow up to be über-misfit Diana, that she is as broken as her mother. This fear permeates and shapes Natalie’s relationship with Henry. Yorkey underlines this by setting these two couples together at one moment in Act I, when they actually say lines together in unison.
And while Diana takes her own Hero Myth journey, Natalie takes one too. Natalie’s goal throughout the show is to find normality. But by the end, she has learned that she has the wrong goal. Instead of trying to be normal – in other words, like everybody else – Natalie finally understands that her real goal should be to figure out who she is and what her road is, just like the Youth in Passing Strange. We know Natalie has grown up – or is growing up – near the end of the show when she sings to Diana:
I don’t need a life that’s normal.
That’s way too far away.
But something next to normal
Would be okay.
Yeah, something next to normal,
That’s the thing I’d like to try,
Close enough to normal
To get by...
She’s freeing Diana of guilt and expectations, and in the process, she’s letting go of her own neuroses as well. Maybe Natalie has finally realized, with the help of Stoner Zen Master Henry, that normal is artificial, that it is a construct. The Goodmans are not like other families because everyone’s road is different. There is no such thing as normal in the real world, just as there is no such thing as average. Those labels are about statistics, but our story is about complicated, ever-changing individuals. Normal has no meaning here.
And if there is no such thing as normal, can someone really be a misfit? Or are all of us misfits? Also, isn’t life itself fundamentally chaotic? And if it is, doesn’t that make all of us agents of chaos? As the kids in Spelling Bee remind us, “Life is random and unfair.” Neither good or bad, wrong or right, just chaos. You can be scared by that or you can embrace the adventure. Diana and Natalie have been scared by that and must both learn to embrace the adventure.
The show’s title even seems to invoke (though probably unintentionally) the new American musical, in which love stories and Hero Myths are as complicated as real life, in which there are no easy answers or endings, in which we can see ourselves and our own lives much more clearly than we can see them in simplistic shows like The Sound of Music or Brigadoon. This isn’t a “normal” musical (if there is such a thing anymore), but it does use devices from both the R&H model and classic musical comedy (as in “It’s Gonna Be Good”), so it’s fair to say that Next to Normal is “next to normal”...
This story is not neat, tidy, or easily wrapped up in a nice little narrative package, the way many musicals did in the old days. That’s part of what some people hate about the New Golden Age of Musical Theatre that we’re in now, but it’s what others love most about it.
What Are You Doing in My Electricity?
In the off Broadway production, in a song (later cut) called “Feeling Electric,” they did a trick with a hospital gurney up on its end and Alice Ripley standing up against it, so it seemed like we’re were looking down on her from above. It’s an effect also used in Into the Woods, The Capeman, and Hairspray, but it works, it’s clear, and it’s always a fun bit of stage trickery. On Broadway – using the new song “Wish I Were Here” in that spot – they brought out a Diana double on a gurney while the real Diana sang from another part of the stage.
But arguably, the gurney gets in the way of the story because this scene doesn’t really take place in the hospital; it takes place inside Diana’s anesthetized mind, in a hallucinatory dreamscape. Though Diana is on the table and Natalie is at a club, the two meet here in Diana’s dreamscape, and Diana says to her daughter, “Sweetheart! What are you doing in my electricity?” Even Diana has the self-awareness to know that she’s inside her own head as it’s being zapped.
This song isn’t about the hospital, it’s about the chaos in Diana’s mind, as it’s under assault by the shock treatment, as her memories are being annihilated, as the electricity blasts away at her past and her very identity. After all, our sense of self comes from the accumulated experiences and understanding we’ve picked up along the Road of Life, so destroying memories – whether temporarily or permanently – means the destruction of self as well. From that perspective, the whole show becomes about Diana’s struggle to save her own life.
This is a song about an existential threat to Diana’s very existence. It’s about Diana’s consciousness and the violence done to it, represented by the throbbing rock beat in the music – Diana’s heartbeat, her lifeforce, in the voice of electric guitar. It’s a powerful and subtle use of music as storytelling, something of which Tom Kitt is a master – just listen to High Fidelity.
The whole show is dreamlike to some degree, but a few moments in the show are very dreamlike, disorienting, disturbing, and revealing in ways that more naturalistic writing or staging would not be. One of the reasons the show has such resonance for audiences is that Diana sort of stands in for America at this moment in our history – confused by competing versions of reality, unable to rely on authority figures or long-established institutions (government, education, religion, capitalism, etc.). Hero Myth stories like Diana’s are metaphors for a human life, but they’re also a metaphors for our collective journeys, like the evolution of a society. “Wish I Were Here” represents the part of the Hero Myth in which the Hero must journey to the Underworld and do battle with the Evil Wizard. Here the underworld is the fractured personal reality of Diana’s electrified mind, and the ECT is the Evil Wizard’s magic spell. But is Gabe her magic amulet or the antagonist here? Or both…?
Diana’s Underworld easily stands in for America’s current darkness, in which competing parties can’t even agree on what is factually true anymore, in which opponents compare each other to Hitler, in which one side rewrites school textbooks to comport with their belief system (and, let’s be honest, in order to indoctrinate the next generation), in which so many of the rules of “polite society” have been tossed aside. How do we navigate this new, altered, dangerous landscape? As we watch Diana navigate her own Underworld, we gain some understanding of our own personal and collective Underworlds. “Wish I Were Here” is less about this damaged woman undergoing a scary medical procedure, and more about Finding Your Way in the Dark.
Which is kind of the point of the whole show. How do we find our way when we have no map to guide us? We use art.
Sing a Song of Forgetting
“Song of Forgetting” in Act II is an interesting song structurally, because the verses are dialogue, but the choruses are commentary, a kind of Fourth Wall-busting that acts as a potent meta-moment because they’re singing about singing. In the original production, Dan sang the chorus to Natalie, presumably enlisting her into his warped agenda, but that choice makes Natalie into a more active player in the family psycho-drama, which doesn’t mesh well with the rest of her character arc. Natalie stands outside the central storyline for most of the show, and that’s important for the resolution of her story. The script doesn’t say that Dan’s singing this to anyone in particular. If he sings the chorus to the audience, it makes us accomplices, and it leaves Dan’s dark agenda “unspoken” inside the reality of the story, which makes his motivations richer and more complex, only to be gradually revealed to Natalie in “Better Than Before.”
The phrase “Sing a song of...” has Biblical roots, but it’s intentionally ambiguous here. Throughout human history, why do we sing songs? To celebrate and to remember. Is Dan celebrating Diana’s memory loss? Notice specifically what he’s celebrating:
Sing a song of forgetting...
A song of the way things were not.
Sing of what’s lost to you,
Of times that you never knew....
Sing of not remembering when,
Of mem’ries that go unremembered, and then
Sing a song of forgetting again.
He’s celebrating the way things were not, times that they never knew. And then he sings of not remembering, and of unremembered memories. Also, notice that the first two lines don’t rhyme – they stick out, in order to underline the most important idea – “the way things were not.” This is a poetic way of articulating Dan’s agenda, which is to reshape Diana’s – and the family’s – past to his liking. This is a dangerous road he’s going down, but we only gets hints of that here. The rich music gives it a romantic feeling, but when you listen to what he’s saying, we realize the song itself mirrors Dan’s duplicity, operating on two levels at once.
The song starts with the discovery of the breadth of Diana’s memory loss after her treatment. Notice how natural the dialogue sounds, but also notice that Yorkey never violates the structure and rhyming.
This house and all these rooms?
Last Christmas or last year?
Out back the dogwood blooms?
Do I really live here?
The paint, the walls...
All this glass and wood...
You don’t recall?
How I wish I could.
Our house on Walton Way
The house with the red door?
Our trip to St. Tropez,
The whole week a downpour?
My first few steps...
And my first lost tooth...
What, nothing yet?
To tell the truth...
Sing a song of forgetting...
A song of the way things were not.
Sing of what’s lost to you,
Of times that you never knew....
Sing of not remembering when,
Of mem’ries that go unremembered, and then
Sing a song of forgetting again.
That day our child was born,
Our baby girl’s first cry?
That grey and drizzly morn,
I’ve never felt so high.
The day we met...
And we shared two beers...
But that’s nineteen years!
That doctor Mitchell said there might be some memory loss.
Well, see, there you go.
Then Natalie explodes in a hard-driving, irregular rock and roll:
What a lovely cure...
It’s a medical miracle.
With a mind so pure
That she doesn’t know anything.
It’s there I’m sure
‘Cause memories don’t die.
They don’t die.
And then all three of them sing the chorus, but the words mean something different to each of them. Dan’s idealized past is phony. Natalie’s past is all pain. And Diana’s past is gone. From these three conflicting perspectives, these words take on layers of meaning that slam up against each other and foreshadow the emotional collisions to come. Dan, Natalie, and Diana sing:
Sing a song of forgetting...
A song of the way things were not.
Sing of what’s lost to you,
Of times that you never knew.
Sing of not remembering when...
Of memories that go unremembered, and then
Sing a song of forgetting again.
It’s remarkable writing. It functions both as a Brechtian commentary song, but also as a conventional book scene, in that it moves the story forward, and it foreshadows Dan’s desperate decision to try and rewrite their family history.
The song “Better Than Before” uses the same kind of musical dialogue, but minus the Brechtian commentary.
We’ve reached a new level of lyrical sophistication in the musical theatre today. Oscar Hammerstein invented the musical scene almost a century ago, with “Make Believe” in Show Boat, and later with “If I Loved You” in Carousel. Stephen Sondheim developed it further in Sweeney Todd, Passion, and other shows. But in bare and Next to Normal, it’s been developed even further. Hammerstein’s musical dialogue was always a bit stilted, sometimes having to rely on inverted sentences, odd word choices, etc. to make the trick work. Sondheim’s musical dialogue was almost too skillful (look at the stunning lyric for “Weekend in the Country”), often calling too much attention to its own artistry. But Jon Hartmere’s work in bare (just look at the remarkable “Wonderland” number) and Brian Yorkey’s work in Next to Normal have taken us to a whole new level. And that’s very exciting.
We truly are in a new Golden Age of musical theatre, and Next to Normal is a shining example of that.
You Can’t Tame Me
The 1937 agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock uses clever label-names for its characters – Reverend Salvation, Dr. Specialist, Editor Daily, Larry Foreman, and the rich capitalist Mr. Mister, along with his family Mrs. Mister, Junior Mister, and Sister Mister. It’s a fable and its characters are types, so instead of trying to disguise that fact, the show’s writer and composer Marc Blitzstein openly admits it in the way he names them. There are several plays and musicals that do this, but not many. And of those that do, some make it very subtle and others outright announce it. There’s the Christ figure Jason and his companion Peter in bare, but there’s also Orphan, Angel, and Edgar Allen Rich in Celebration. And the slyly satirical Gitlow in Purlie. Next to Normal does it more subtly.
In Next to Normal, the bipolar woman at the center of the story is Diana Goodman. Right away, her last name sounds like a label-name, as if to suggest that these are decent, normal people – and by extension, that mental illness plays no favorites. Bad things happen to good people. Her first name references the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and birthing, who was also associated with wild animals and the woods (often the dark place of self-discovery in storytelling). The goddess Diana was widely known as “the virgin goddess of childbirth and women.” But her first name takes on even more serious resonance once we start hearing Dan refer to her as “Di,” which he does throughout the script. It’s pretty potent for this damaged woman on the edgy of sanity to be called a name that sounds like die. And that nickname takes on even deeper resonance once we get to “There’s a World.”
And then there’s Gabe, named for one of the most famous angels in Christian culture, the archangel who serves as a messenger to humans from heaven, who announced the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. With that in mind, Gabe’s first lyric takes on even more meaning:
For just another day,
For another stolen hour,
When the world will feel my power
It’s just another day,
Feeling like I’ll live forever...
The angel Gabriel appears to various people throughout the Bible, and in the Old Testament, he appears to the prophet Daniel, delivering explanations of Daniel’s visions.
Daniel is a Hebrew name, literally meaning “God is my judge.” Is that a hint about Dan’s feelings of guilt? And does that reshape our response to that last conversation between Dan and Gabe before the finale? And really, Goodman is Dan’s name – Diana just married into it – so maybe this label name is more about him. Diana refers to him in the song “Why Stay?” as “steadfast and stolid and stoic and solid.” And not in a good way. Maybe the point here is that being a good man isn’t enough in this situation. Maybe nothing’s enough.
Earlier in Act II, Gabe says, “Until you name me, you can’t tame me,” and it’s not until then that we realize no one has mentioned Gabe’s name yet. The moment when someone finally does is all the more potent because of that. All this seems to argue that these carefully chosen names are supposed to have meaning within the story.
But wait, there’s more... Where does the name Natalie come from? It’s the English form of Natalia, which is derived from the Italian natale, meaning birthday. It specifically refers to the birth of Christ – the Italian phrase for Merry Christmas! is buon natale! (literally “good birthday!”).
Then there are the two doctors. The less empathetic, more drug-enthusiastic Dr. Fine has only one goal – stability. He wants Diana to be just fine, nothing more. Dr. Madden seems to care about Diana more, but his treatment arguably maddens Diana even further.
Henry is a name shared by British, French, and German kings, and one Catholic saint. It comes from a Germanic name which combines the words for home and ruler or power. Henry as “master of the house”? Maybe it’s more about Henry representing home to Natalie, a safe place. In terms of Natalie’s Hero Myth story, she finds her magic amulet in Henry’s love. She finds real human connection after a lifetime of being denied it. Maybe the reference to all those kings means nothing more than that Henry will be a strong man – different from Dan.
And maybe all of this is accidental. But that seems hard to believe, when the names’ meanings fit so perfectly to their characters. Then again, maybe it was just a gut feeling that led the writers to each name.
The Hope, The Heat, The Fear
Despite its dark subject matter, Next to Normal has a lot of laughs. For example, at the end of “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” after weeks of mixing and matching medications, Diana says to Dr. Fine, “I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything.” Dr. Fine grunts and writes down in his notes, “Patient stable.” The audience laughs, but it’s a muted, ironic laugh. We see the dark humor from the outside, but we also see the horror from the inside. And that recognition from us sets up “I Miss the Mountains,” making it even more resonant.
Likewise, late in Act I, Dan asks Natalie, “Is this Henry a good influence?” Natalie replies, “Like, compared to what?” Dan says, “Okay, that’s fair.” And we get a big laugh from the audience, sometimes even a double laugh on both Natalie’s and Dan’s lines. The audience sees the difficult truth in the humor, and they also desperately need the release of laughter at this point in the story. Next to Normal demands an active audience, one that listens intently, that is engaged. This is not a passive experience.
One of the most potent elements of Next to Normal is the fights. There’s nothing so riveting onstage as a good, knock-down-drag-out fight. A lot of actors and directors are afraid to have a full-out fight, but conflict is the heart of drama, and a great fight is the height of conflict. With scenes like “You Don’t Know” and “I Am the One,” and later, the “Gonna Be Good” reprise and “Why Stay?”, there are fireworks onstage.
Next to Normal is a roller coaster throughout, but Act II is even more so. Though the whole show is mostly music, with only small bits of dialogue here and there, Act II is even more wall-to-wall music. And composer Tom Kitt keeps the tension up by not really finishing most of the songs in Act II, robbing us of the buttons, often overlapping the beginning of one song over the end of another – and more than once, he creates that overlap in two different keys, to evoke in the music the tension and conflicts of the action. He has created the musical equivalent of a roller coaster, and it’s part of the reason Act II is so emotionally draining – there’s no release, no pause, no moment to reflect. Like Diana, we have to just hang on and go for this wild ride. Sondheim used music this way in Sweeney Todd but Kitt pushes it even further here, to extraordinary effect.
And yet for those quiet, more emotional moments, there are these beautiful phrases by the strings between the vocal phrases, that lend such beauty and such fragile emotion to the action. The violin and cello play in harmony a lot, which is gorgeous, but they sometimes play in very dissonant harmony, telling us musically that there is something “wrong” happening in the scene, even if only subtextually. The band arrangements are incredible, and like Kitt’s score for High Fidelity, the music does a lot of the storytelling in Next to Normal.
There Will Be Light
Brian Yorkey’s dialogue and lyrics for Next to Normal use several textual themes. References to light, death, and madness appear throughout the show, but light is at its heart. The word light appears all throughout the text, along with related ideas, like daytime and electricity. Just as the word rent in Rent takes on multiple meanings, all very resonant within the narrative, so the word light takes on multiple meanings in Next to Normal. Sometimes it means literal light, sometimes it means enlightenment or revelation, sometimes it means easy or lighthearted.
But actual physical light is also a theme in the show. The show begins with Diana turning on a light, and the show’s finale, “Light,” begins with Natalie turning on a light. Midway through Act I, Diana even brings on a birthday cake covered with lighted candles. This is story – a Hero Myth – about the quest for light.
When Dr. Madden tries to hypnotize Diana to unlock her past, he asks her to imagine going down a dark staircase, and in her passive-aggressive resistance, she quips, “Should we turn on a light? You know, with the stairs?” It’s funny, but in the context of this action, light takes on a double meaning. Perhaps Yorkey is hinting that Madden might just lead Diana toward real enlightenment at last. The next time we hear the word is in “I Dreamed a Dream,” as Diana slips into fantasy. She begins the song, “I saw you light the ballroom with your sparkling eyes of blue.” Here, light is beautiful, romantic, joyous.
This next time is a conversation late in Act I, in which Madden tells Dan that he recommends Electroconvulsive Therapy – shock treatment.
Madden: ECT is indicated.
Dan: Wow. I mean – they still do that?
Madden: We do, yes. It’s the standard in cases like this. She’s got a long history of drug therapy and resistance, she’s acutely suicidal – it’s really our best option.
Dan: That’s kind of terrifying.
Madden: It’s not. The electricity involved is barely enough to light a hundred-watt bulb.
Dan: (wry) Oh, if it’s just a hundred-watt bulb...
Here light is connected to electricity, danger, risk, and it also takes us back to Diana’s reference to turning on a light in the hypnosis scene, and that opening moment of the show.
The Act I finale, Dan’s plea to Diana to agree to the ECT, is called “A Light in the Dark,” and once again the word light takes on all these different flavors of meaning – illumination, enlightenment, happiness, peace, but also life. Dan sings:
One light shines in the drive –
One single sign that our house is alive.
Our house, our own –
So why do I live there alone?
Tell me why I wait through the night,
And why do I leave on the light?
Though the first images are concrete ones, this song operates in metaphor. They are living in a world of darkness, and Dan desperately wants to find the light. Later in the song, he sings:
Take my hand,
And let me take your heart.
Keep it far
From what keeps us apart –
Let us start
With a light in the dark.
And at the end of the song:
I swear that somewhere in the night
There’s a light...
A light in the dark.
He’s right, but it may not be the light he’s looking for. Dan is desperate to find the light, but Diana fears light, and he doesn’t understand that. Like many of the songs in the show, this one operates on both concrete and metaphorical levels at the same time.
As we begin Act II, we go inside Diana’s head as she undergoes the ECT, in the song “Wish I Were Here,” and her first line is:
In an instant, lightning flashes
And the burst might leave me blind –
When the bolt of lightning crashes
And it burns right through my mind.
Again, light is dangerous, destructive, painful. To Dan, light is salvation; to Diana, it’s the enemy. Later in the song, both Diana and Natalie sing, “I’m the light and heat of every sun…” Light illuminates but it also burns and consumes.
When Diana comes home, Madden suggests to Dan how to jog her memories – “Keep it light at first, that’s best. Careful that she’s not distressed.” Here, light is about lightheartedness. In “How Could I Ever Forget?” one of Diana’s recovering memories is “The lights of the city flew past.” Whether Yorkey intended it consciously or not, the phrase works on two levels, both as a concrete memory, and also as a description of her returning memories – her enlightenment – rushing past her grasping mind.
In “Promise,” Dan’s desperate recommitment to Diana later in the same scene, he sings:
To the girl who was burning so brightly
Like the light from Orion above,
And still I will search for her nightly –
If you see her, please send her my love.
Again, light is about burning. Is Dan the moth drawn to the flame, only to be consumed by it?
When Diana returns to Madden in the “Make Up Your Mind” reprise, he asks her to “Make up your mind there are moments of light.” Light as enlightenment, hope.
In the final scene, Natalie enters in the dark and says “Dad? What the hell? Why are the lights off?” Why is Dan choosing darkness? Now light takes on a final meaning, of facing up to truth, to life, a first step toward enlightenment. The finale, “Light,” is a summing up, a tying together of the themes of the show, and giving each character a moment to reflect on where they’ve been and where they are headed. Each character uses images of light and dark in different ways. Natalie sings:
We need some light.
First of all, we need some light.
You can’t sit here in the dark,
And all alone –
It’s a sorry sight.
It’s just you and me.
We’ll live. You’ll see.
This is the first time Natalie uses light as metaphor, and she also physically turns on the light. She’s growing up and gaining enlightenment of her own. In the next verse, Dan sings:
Night after night,
We’d sit and wait for the morning light.
But we’ve waited far too long
For all that’s wrong
To be made right.
Dan has not found the light yet, but he can see now that he’s been on the wrong path. Later in the song, Gabe sings:
And when the night has fin’ly gone,
And when we see the new day dawn,
We’ll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew –
The light will make it look brand new.
And then they all sing, “So let it shine,” repeating the word shine. Like the finale of Hair, this song recognizes the dark and implores us – all of us – to let the sun shine, to let the light in to vanquish the dark. The “we” they sing about is not just the Goodmans, but all of us. The song and the show end with this incantation, this celebration of the human spirit:
Day after day...
We’ll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done...
There will be light.
There will be light...
When we open up our lives,
Sons and daughters, husbands, wives
And fight that fight...
There will be light.
There will be light.
There will be light.
There will be light!
Despite the darkness of the story, this finale offers some hope, limited and narrow though it might be. The light is out there, the characters are telling us, but we must be open to it and we must fight against the dark. While Hair asked us, begged us, to let the sun shine in, Next to Normal ends on a declarative statement – there will be light. (Notice Yorkey’s exclamation point on the last one!) Diana and Natalie have both found self-awareness and some kind of enlightenment – or at the very least, they’re on their way. Dan has even taken a first tentative step toward his own enlightenment. Will these people be okay? Who knows? That’s not the point. The point is the journey, the ongoing quest for light. Very much like the search for The Real in Passing Strange. These are the questions of a new century.
Textual themes like this don’t always register consciously on an audience, but they do work on us. They create connections and associations. They underline important moments and ideas. And this particular theme of light registers with all of us on such a primal level. We humans are always in search of light. It’s part of why Next to Normal connects so powerfully with audiences. We all need some light.
Copyright 2013. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical
theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR
From Assassins to West Side Story
, and Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.