Next to Normal

By Monica Prendergast, September 2016

Hard-hitting Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about mental health and family opens the season at Langham Court Theatre.

Next to NormalWHEN NEW SEASON announcements came out this spring, I was delighted to see that Langham Court Theatre had programmed the contemporary American musical Next to Normal as its 2016-2017 season opener. A rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, it’s a somewhat surprising and risky choice for Langham. 

That said, over past years I’ve admired a number of the more out-of-the-box shows our local and longstanding community theatre company has offered Victoria audiences. A couple of examples are 2011’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh or last year’s August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, both of which were dark and daunting dramas (albeit with plenty of black comedic elements) that Langham tackled very well. 

I would have considered Next to Normal to have been of interest to the Belfry Theatre, our resident professional company in town. Or I might have had to travel to Vancouver, Seattle or elsewhere to catch a road tour production. It is exciting that Langham has taken it on and we have a chance to see it right here.

Next to Normal is a 2009 Broadway musical about a “normal” suburban middle class family trying to navigate through the challenges of both grief and mental illness. Mother Diana is trying to cope with bipolar disorder with its manic highs and depressive lows. Husband Dan has been supporting her for many years but is beyond weary with the role of caregiver. Daughter Natalie is an ambitious and talented young musician who worries about her parents whilst navigating through a new romantic relationship with fellow student Henry. 

When Diana suffers a breakdown and an attempted suicide, she is offered electro-shock treatment and the family has to deal with her consequent loss of memory. Hovering over all of this is their son, Gabriel, in a kind of absent presence. Finally, Diana has to make a difficult choice in order to move her life forward, letting go of some painful memories and relationships in order to do so.

The musical won a number of New York theatre awards, including Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Leading Actress for Alice Ripley as Diana. But the musical also won a Pulitzer Prize, the first one awarded to a musical since Rent in 1996. Only a handful of musicals have been given Pulitzer Prizes which are more usually bestowed on dramatic plays. This speaks very well to the dramatic content of the book of Next to Normal as it sits alongside other Pulitzer musical winners South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George and A Chorus Line. This year saw yet another Pulitzer musical win, the hugely popular Hamilton: An American Musical. All of these well-regarded shows have a psychological depth of characterization and significant themes blended into their musical structure. 

The historical development of the American Broadway musical is a fascinating one. The song and dance revue style performances of the early 20th century have morphed over time into a more hybrid form. At its best the Broadway musical can transcend its own crowd-pleasing limits and be as transformative for audiences as the greatest dramas, or even operas. Think of Gershwin, Sondheim and a few others, perhaps including the red-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton in this regard.

So this is clearly not your usual romantic or otherwise lighter musical plot. Next to Normal sits alongside contemporary musicals such as Rent (addressing AIDS), Spring Awakening (sexual awakening) and Fun Home (based on an autobiography by a gay daughter discovering her father’s closeted homosexuality). These rock musicals offer audiences a mash-up of dramatic characters struggling with life-and-death issues and delivered in popular musical styles. 

I was curious how and why this season’s production co-chairs Roger Carr and Keith Digby had selected this demanding but very moving musical. Keith Digby (on his and Carr’s behalf) responded to my email interview questions by letting me know his thoughts on the appeal of the show: “It’s a high energy, let’s-get-this-season-really-going-gangbusters, rock musical. It’s also a compellingly told, highly accessible story of a family in crisis with words and lyrics with heart and depth. Hence the 2010 Pulitzer to go with its 12 Tony nominations and 4 wins. Previous productions have shown that it transcends age and gender divides.”

The production’s director Gregg Perry echoes Digby’s thoughts, telling me, “The show has a constant flow of engaging music and emotion. It succeeds as a musical that draws the audience inside the experience of the family, shares the pathos and the hope. It feels real, leaving us neither deflated nor triumphant. Instead, we have shared a genuine human experience that many of us can identify with.”

When asked what their previous experience of the musical had been, Digby relayed that he had listened to the soundtrack (as have I, and composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey have crafted many effective and memorable songs) as well as seen YouTube clips of the Broadway production. Perry tells me, “I happened to see the [Nanaimo-based] Schmooze Productions presentation of the show in November last year. Jennifer Kelly played Diana and her voice was a treat to hear and she knew the play inside out.” 

Successful casting of this musical, with its high level of drama and emotional intensity, will be key. Digby commented on this aspect of the production by saying, “Casting this musical, granted all in it can sing well, actually takes the same talent and sensitivity as any other play that deals with a major human theme. I expect that director Gregg Perry will agree with this thought: You cast people who can play the roles believably and who will engage audience members and move them. The text deals with the theme and situation. Each actor plays the urgent needs of his or her character, moment by moment. This is also a text one can trust, so just do it.”

Indeed Perry does agree and tells me, “We all have to be crazy to tackle this one! The music is quite challenging with a variety of odd time signatures. And there is no break in the action during each act. It is quite intense all the way through.”

I also wanted to know what Digby and Perry hoped their audience at Langham Court Theatre might take away from seeing Next to Normal. Digby replied, “I hope and believe that the audience will love it and engage with its characters and story as much as I do. I believe that, in terms of numbers, it will be a big hit for us as well.” Perry said simply yet directly, “They can’t help but be moved by the emotional pain and courage.”

We will all have the opportunity to meet this “normal” family as they struggle with the universal dramatic themes of love and loss, and sing their hearts out to boot.

Next to Normal opens September 30 and runs until October 15 with tickets available at www.langhamtheatre.ca or 250-384-2142.

Monica Prendergast teaches and researches drama/theatre education at the University of Victoria. The second edition of her award-winning textbook, Applied Theatre (with Juliana Saxton), is available now from Intellect Books.