Two hours after telling myself I’d go back to being productive, I was still sitting on the couch, staring at my laptop. I was also crying- in the dark. It must’ve been “a sorry sight,” to quote Next to Normal’s heart-wrenching anthem and final number, Light. Because, of course, I’d been putting off an essay to watch the entirety of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical on YouTube, as one does.
Previous to this emotional experience, I’d been on the lookout for a favourite musical. I definitely loved and appreciated the classics, from Grease to Rocky Horror to Les Miserables (the last of which I was able to see on Broadway in 2014). Yet, I hadn’t found one that really, deeply impacted me. I was still fairly new to the world of musical theatre at the time so on a friend’s suggestion, I watched Next to Normal.
It was nothing like any musical I’d ever seen before. The characters were incredibly well-realized, with personalities that shone despite the less-than-great quality of the less-than-legal recording. As a rock opera, the music was unconventional in comparison to the more classic orchestral numbers I associated with Broadway. Its sound reminded me most of that other famous rock opera, Rent (which was also directed by Michael Greif, but I’ll get to that later).
Next to Normal centres around Diana Goodman, a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the struggles that she and her family face as she undergoes treatment. Each member reacts to Diana’s illness in a different way; her everyman husband, Dan, veers from helplessness to forced optimism, her Type-A daughter, Natalie, spirals as she attempts to keep her distance, and her son, Gabe, is the charismatic bringer of chaos.
Diana herself is both a selfish and sympathetic character; a complex role originated by the multi-talented Alice Ripley. Ripley is arguably a better actress than a singer (you may find it difficult to adjust to her wailing vibrato), but she gave it her all to navigate Diana’s manic energy and depressive moods, earning a Tony in the process.
Part of what garnered Next to Normal such critical acclaim and recognition, including eleven Tony nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was its unflinching focus on mental illness. No other musical had put such a direct spotlight on the subject before, and certainly not with such honesty. Nothing about Diana’s disorder is trivialized or glossed over, and while a few of the numbers are imbued with dark humour- think a list of drugs sung to the tune of The Sound of Music’s “My Favourite Things”- it’s not to be taken lightly. The musical also criticizes conceptions of mental health, even within the public health system. One of the most chilling moments occurs when Diana, after a series of adjustments to her prescriptions, explains that she doesn’t feel anything at all; her doctor contentedly notes her condition as “stable.”
Next to Normal is about much more than the suffering associated with mental illness. In fact, a central tenet of the musical is the balance between light and dark, and the things that hurt and heal us. Diana’s trajectory is full of grief for both her and her loved ones, hence the whole crying-on-the-couch situation, but her story is ultimately one of hope.
It’s a theme that’s returned to Broadway with the success of Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony winner for Best Musical that addresses social anxiety, depression, and teen suicide (but still manages to be a complete delight). Maybe at this point, it should be no surprise that Michael Greif directed this smash hit as well.
Besides sharing the same director (and appearing on my list of favourite musicals), what links Rent, Next to Normal, and Dear Evan Hansen is their ability to tackle such serious subject matter with both precision and care. The result is a heartfelt, relatable, and wildly successful show that encourages and even demands conversation and reflection.
To some degree, Next to Normal is a little dated. Classifications of bipolar disorder have changed, and the conversation about mental health is constantly shifting. But, the musical is timeless in its exploration of the everyday workings of a “typical” family (including one of the most unique sibling rivalries in Broadway history).
I love Next to Normal for all the things it isn’t. It’s not a succession of relentlessly cheery, upbeat songs (although they’re still catchy—favourites include “You Don’t Know”, “Alive”, and “I Am the One”). It’s profane, irreverent, and ambiguous. Dan and Diana’s personal relationship is openly discussed multiple times, there are hallucinations involving a crazy rock-star, and a leading love interest is a self-described stoner. It’s real life, but with a more perfected balance of cynicism and compassion.
It’s anything but normal, but that’s the whole point.
By Ryanne Kap