Last week I saw the Broadway musical Next To Normal – with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. As a big fan of Broadway, I was anxious to see this rock musical that has become quite a sensation and has won two Tony awards – for Best Original Score and for Best Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley). I was particularly interested because Next To Normal tells the story of a family grappling with Bipolar Disorder.
Diana, the mother in this family, has been diagnosed with BP, and the show follows her, her husband, and her children through a period in which her symptoms return and escalate. They embark on a journey to find the best possible treatment and to bring the family back to Normal – or Next To Normal – as one character sings toward the end of the show. In the course of the production, fragments of Diana’s history are revealed and allusions are made to prior episodes that Diana experienced and the pain they caused her and her family.
From the first piercing guitar note to the final moments, I was gripped by the powerful story and the generous, life-giving performers who inhabited the characters with such truth and energy. Particularly striking was the fine line the creators drew between tragedy and humor as captured in one of the early songs, “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” and throughout the performance as the family finds humor in the stories of Diana’s manic antics. The decision to stage the story as a musical adds another layer of discordant reality, digging into difficult topics like ECT, suicide, drug abuse, grief, and loss with explosive music and song.
The writers did not shy away from the complexity of the illness, its diagnosis, or its treatment and have, for the most part, presented bipolar with medical accuracy. Neither the family nor the treatment providers are presented in caricature or with condescension or disdain. Various treatments are introduced without prejudice – benefits and side effects co-exist, and difficult decisions about treatment frequently drive the plot. All involved try to make the best decisions they can, during unbearable times and with unclear outcomes. The effects on the family are shown with some lightness but clearly portray the depths of despair that patients and family members may live with everyday. Even the diagnosis is not treated as simplistic or black and white, and the doctor struggles along with the family.
Much of the audience, including me, was quietly sniffling by the end of the show but managed to rise and deliver a resounding standing ovation. I was moved by the show itself and by the capacity of performing arts – music and acting and storytelling – to open hearts and minds to something so baffling and difficult to comprehend as mental illness. I appreciated the storytellers who took a risk in embracing a topic that is usually treated with only seriousness and fear to present a story that includes dark humor and song without in any way backing away from the pain and sorrow.
When the show was first produced Off Broadway, critics and audiences panned it – the show seemed to back away from emotional cliffs with humor or irony that seemed out of place and didn’t ring true. When it moved to Broadway, the writers shifted into fearless mode and jumped into the emotional abyss without apology or hesitation. With this approach, the work has become an unprecedented hit.
When we first were writing Bipolar Disorder for Dummies, we encountered some concern that the manuscript made light of something serious and that some of the humor might not be appropriate. But people have embraced the book and the idea that it often helps to include humor and humanity in our battles with even the most serious situations – especially life and death – while not avoiding or minimizing the pain and anguish people experience. Theatergoers are similarly embracing and celebrating this phenomenal production that entertains and engages while informing and educating all who experience it.
If you are interested in learning more about the production visit NexttoNormal.com. The Next to Normal (Original Broadway Cast) is available from GhostLight Records. Best of all, if you are in New York and get a chance to see the show, by all means go. Check out some websites like Theatremania.com or Broadway.com to see if you can get discounted pricing.
If you’ve seen Next To Normal, please post your own review or share your thoughts.