The cover story of bp Magazine's new fall issue takes readers behind the scenes of the Tony Award-winning show Next to Normal. With charm, compassion and a rocking beat, Next to Normal presents a suburban mom with bipolar and her family's journey toward hope and healing—and in the process, becomes a powerful ally in educating audiences.
Tackling stigma from the stage
by Nancy Tobin
Editor's note: The original Broadway musical Next to Normal opened in April at New York City's famed Booth Theatre to rave reviews and excited audiences. With its theme of family dysfunction and a suburban mother with bipolar disorder as the main character, Next to Normal seemed an unlikely vehicle to become a smash hit. The show received 11 Tony nominations for the 2009 season and won three Tonys at the June 7 awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. The Tonys recognize achievement for live American performances on Broadway and have been awarded annually in New York for 63 years.
A crowd of perhaps 150 theatre patrons gathers expectantly outside New York's Booth Theatre stage door, waiting for members of the six-person cast of Next to Normal to emerge. Shifting weight, chatting excitedly, the diverse group holds programs, cell phones, T-shirts, and cameras, ready to gather autographs and photos. They will not be disappointed.
When a beaming Alice Ripley steps outside, a roar of applause greets the actor who, just 20 minutes earlier, took her bows onstage in the musical's central role of Diana Goodman. Ripley graciously meets and speaks to every person who has waited, as she does after each of eight weekly performances.
How can it be that a rock opera—about a suburban mom whose bipolar disorder roils her family's life—can win Broadway's buzz, enjoy critical success, and boast booming ticket sales at the same time?
"We tried to write a musical that goes to the heart of the human condition… one that is about healing, that shows a family trying to improve," says composer Tom Kitt during a telephone interview. "There is a lot of hope in this show. That's the way life is," he says.
Next to Normal's trip to Broadway had an inconspicuous start and followed an indirect path. The production that opened in New York has a different name, shape, and format from the 10-minute musical sketch that Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey wrote as the final project for a workshop more than 11 years ago.
"We picked the subject of bipolar disorder for the project because it was different and challenging and very compelling to us," says Yorkey, who with Kitt won the Tony for Best Original Score. "We thought people would hate it, but they responded to it positively from the very first. Really, at every step along the way, we kept hearing that same strong response and that's what kept
it and us moving."
The two collaborators have been writing music and lyrics together since they met as undergraduates at Columbia University 15 years ago. They describe their working system as "seamless" and, quite literally, speak with a single voice. They agree that Hair, Tommy, and more recently, Rent—another rock opera built around a contemporary slice of life—are the Broadway forbears of Next to Normal. Kitt, with Michael Starobin, also won a Tony for Best Orchestrations.
"Exposing the stigma of mental illness is one of the reasons we wrote the show, why we pursued telling this story," says Yorkey. "We both feel that an awful lot of people try to live up to a standard of what they consider 'normal' and that actually can be as destructive as anything."
Kitt and Yorkey say that they worked hard to ensure that Diana's bipolar symptoms were both comprehensible to audiences and accurately portrayed. "What she has, as her doctor says during the show, is a collection of symptoms," Yorkey adds. "Oftentimes, the best a doctor can do is to put a name to those symptoms and try to treat it, as he does."
A pair of psychiatrists introduced into the script as influential characters are convincingly played by a single actor (Louis Hobson). In these well-researched roles, each physician proposes a different treatment strategy for the frayed Alice. Meanwhile, her long-suffering and caring husband Dan (played by J. Robert Spencer) loves his wife's vibrancy and energy, but longs for a peaceful household and, once in a while, a calm dinner table for the family. Dan is steadfast in promoting treatment—any treatment—that will calm his wife's mania…
Read the full article, "Tackling stigma from the stage" from bp Magazine.