Last night I attended opening night of Next to Normal at the Ahmanson Theatre here in Los Angeles. I went with my mother-in-law, which is something we enjoy doing together several times a year.
Next to Normal is a musical about mental illness and how it plays out in this family’s dynamics. Diana’s (played by Tony Award Winning, Alice Ripley) mental outbreaks, manic episodes, delusions, pill-popping, and wrist-slitting consume both her long-suffering husband Dan (played by the the soulful and earnest, Asa Somers) and her “invisible” daughter Natalie (the amazingly talented, Emma Hunton) for more than sixteen years.
Natalie refers to herself as the “Invisible Girl” because her parents lost their first child, Gabe, (the chilling, Curt Hansen) when he was eight months old. However, Gabe has never left Diana. He has grown up in her mind for the past eighteen years, leaving Natalie feeling invisible. It is heavy subject matter, that, as you watch it, can only be described as a labor of love, though producer, David Stone, describes it as “only love.” The score is a contemporary rock opera by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. The six-person ensemble cast rounds out with the incredible talents of Preston Sadleir (playing Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry) and Jeremy Kushneir (Dr. Madden).
“Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough,” Diana tells her shrink, Dr. Madden, “Most people who think they’re happy are actually just stupid.” This line got a huge laugh from the audience, including me. It was scenes like this one, where we could all look in and see a little bit of our own life, bringing out the universal appeal of Next to Normal despite the crazy. There are moments where we can all relate to it, if only tangentially.
Most of us are not living with someone who has a debilitating mental illness, but I am quite certain I could poll a sampling of people and very few would say, “Yes, I grew up in a normal house.” Most would say, “What do you mean by normal?” and laugh as if they had an inside joke in their head. They do. Their own family. When two or more people inhabit a confined, shared space for decades, they’re all going to see sides of each other that are certainly not normal, just ask my husband. As human beings we need a place to let go, for most of us, that place is our home. Normal is all relative when it comes to family. Natalie longs for this as she tells Diana in their final scene together:
I don’t need a life that’s normal
That’s way too far away
But something next to normal
Would be okay
Yeah, something next to normal
That’s the thing I’d like to try
Close enough to normal
To get by
Most of us, certainly not all, grew up in “something next to normal,” next to normal is the stuff of great universal comedy. Where would we all be without our “crazy family” stories at parties and on our blogs? After sitting through Next to Normal, you’ll be grateful you were next to it and not longing for it.
When we drove home last night, as always, my mother-in-law asked me what I thought? Would people go see it? Despite the fact that I have a BFA in Musical Theater from the Boston Conservatory, I have no idea. I am continually amazed at what people will flock to go and see and often what I think is wonderful passes without a blip.
My hunch is it will have a great run here in Los Angeles, and on the tour. If you live in one of the cities where it is playing, I highly recommend it. The audience at the opening in Los Angeles last night gave the cast a standing ovation.
I came home and bought the album off of itunes. Some great new belting songs for my shower singing. Is that normal?