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Xanax, Prozac, depression chatrooms, and electroshock therapy aren’t topics traditionally associated with musical theater; but “Next to Normal,” a new musical from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, addresses these ignored psychiatric struggles that hide behind upper-middle class’ suburban addresses.
Diana, a middle-aged mother of two, gets ready for “Just Another Day”: she unenthusiastically sleeps with her husband, neglects her ambitious and angsty daughter, and pulls out two loaves of bread to make sandwiches for lunches. As the opening song builds to a crescendo, she puts several slices of bread on the table. Then on the chair. Then the floor. The trail of bread stretches from the wooden table to her worried husband’s feet. The singing stops and the music clunks into a cacophony, as if the musicians themselves weren’t expecting this episode. It’s clear this story will not be a slice of normal life.
The power of “Next to Normal,” and part of why it earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is that its music follows the story. A traditional verse-chorus song structure isn’t imposed on a topic of choice; instead, the mother’s mental illness disrupts the very flow of the songs. Like the characters within it, the musical is not normal: Diana’s doctors, played by Jeremy Kushnier (the original Ren in Footloose and Roger in Rent), slip into fantasy sequences where they belt out rock ballads; her son, who died as an infant, is given a teenage body, skillfully swinging about the stage like a demonic sprite; her home, a scaffold-like set, shifts like an unsolved Rubik’s cube to demonstrate the ordered chaos of her busy, mentally-ill life. This perfect marriage of content with form – the only marriage that works in the story – makes “Next to Normal” an iconoclastic work that will (hopefully) serve as a model for future Broadway musicals.
Alice Rippley, who earned a Tony for her performance, whole-heartedly attacks the role of Diana, but eight shows a week for almost two years has done considerable damage her voice. One could argue her raspy, untraditional approach sets her character apart, demonstrating the struggle of living in the aftermath of a trauma. One could also argue her voice distracts from that story when she strains to hold a note. Her next-to-normal voice becomes even more apparent against the backdrop of talented performers: Emma Hunton (the driven Natalie), Preston Sadlier (the dweeby Henry), and Jeremy Kushnier (the dynamic Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine).
The Great White Way has traditionally been a bit too white, and to be honest, I went into “Next to Normal” expecting “White People’s Problems: The Musical.” While it doesn’t make any advances regarding racial representation, the musical does push a medium toward tackling darker issues using a traditionally light-hearted medium. Musical theater is no longer just care-free romps like “Seventy-six Trombones” and “Oklahoma;” it can be harnessed to address the internal, existential, twenty-first century problems of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. Now, the tiny daily troubles hidden in your home just might be discussed at a different address: the Bank of America Theater, 18 West Monroe.