A Light in the Dark

I saw Next to Normal on Broadway with the original cast, and I loved it.

But now that I'm working on it, thinking about it, writing about it, I realize I want to come at this story in a slightly different way. The original production and the tour were fairly conventionally staged and the scenic design was very cool but was a relatively concrete representation of Diana and Dan's house. I think we're gonna go in a slightly different direction.

I've already blocked Act I, and as I worked on it, I realized that this show is a lot more surrealistic than the original production suggests. The story's narrative is so fractured, sometimes linear, but often detouring into fantasy, delusion, flashback, lots of time telescoping. Following Sondheim's rule that Content Dictates Form, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have written a show as fragmented and deconstructed as Diana's world. It seems to me their intention is to make the audience understand Diana's mental state by making them literally experience her broken perception of reality. Scott Schoonover's very cool set for New Line's production will suggest a house, but will not represent one in any concrete way. Here's a rendering...

I'm working on letting scenes overflow into each, cross each other, become background for each other. Rather than just watch a story, I want the audience to feel Diana's disorientation, her inability to reliably hold on to reality, her confusion when her delusions take over.

When I wrote my last show, Johnny Appleweed, a very strange stoner political satire, I realized as we worked on it, that I had written a show that made the audience feel stoned, even if they had never smoked pot. The show repeatedly veered off into stoner surrealism, into fucked-up flashbacks, even a piece of slam poetry, not to mention a Jesus puppet. It wasn't a show for everyone, but my experiment worked. The audience felt stoned.

When we did High Fidelity, we realized that the show places us squarely inside Rob's head. He narrates his own story and we hear everyone in his life in the musical vocabulary of Rob's favorite recording artists. We get the story only from Rob's point of view, which is totally organic to the novel the show was based on. Content Dictates Form.

With Next to Normal, we're not really inside Diana's head, since we see parts of the story that Diana is not present for. But we are inside her world, a world where things don't make sense as often as they do. When Diana suddenly hallucinates her new doctor singing like a rock star, we share that hallucination. When Diana slips into delusion, we experience that delusion with her.

One of the show's central points -- at least what I think it is, at this early moment in our process -- is that mental illness affects not just the person suffering from the illness, but also everyone around them. The paired songs, "You Don't Know" and "I Am the One," halfway through Act I, get at that point most directly. And the story's other central point, an existential view that it shares with Passing Strange, is that everyone has his own road and his own destination -- or as Passing Strange puts it, his own Real. You can't follow someone else's path, because their Real is different from your Real.

Diana has to find her path, but throughout much of the show, everyone else is telling her what that path should be. It's only at the end when she takes control of her own life, that we think she may find her Real. Of course, like Company, the end of Next to Normal is ambiguous. Diana is taking action, but we have no idea what the results of that action will be. Will she be better? Worse? Those answers aren't the point of this story. The point is that Diana finds her path. Just like Bobby in Company.

Like many of our shows, Next to Normal is a Hero Myth. Actually, it's a double Hero Myth, because Natalie travels through her own Hero Myth as well. Each of them are forced into their journey, encounter obstacles, pick up companions along the way, do battle with the Evil Wizard (in this case, themselves -- just like Luke on Dagobah), and they each find new wisdom to point them forward. The title song near the end of the show points up the parallels between Diana and Natalie, but we see as the show ends that their paths are different. As it should be.

This is a complicated, adult story. It's not adult because the characters say fuck a lot, but because this is a story about things usually only adults experience -- a disintegrating marriage, regret, emotional scars, weariness, big existential questions...

Like most of the shows New Line produces, Next to Normal is endlessly rich and complex and brutally honest. As I've argued many time, people don't go to the theatre (or movies) for escape, despite what the shallow types will tell you; they go for connection. To make sense of the world around them and their own lives, to be reminded that we all go through essentially the same trials, that we are not alone.

We don't all have bipolar disorder, but we do all deal, in one way or another, with the same challenges and questions Diana faces. 

It's the same reason humans told stories around the camp fires in our earliest days. As the show reminds us,
Day after day...
We'll find the will
To find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done,
There will be light.

Sondheim says the point of art is to make order out of the chaos of our world. I couldn't agree more. Art selects from life, focuses, juxtaposes, reveals, magnifies, all in the service of telling a meaningful story that helps us navigate the rough terrain of being human in the 21st century.

You don't have to be bipolar to see your own daily struggles in Diana's more extreme struggles. And that's why storytelling is important to the culture. And why I make theatre. And why people are going to find Next to Normal genuinely powerful and incisive.

Last night we had our read-through-sing-through, and tonight we start blocking the show. It's been a great ride so far and it's just going to get better. The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!