You Find Some Way to Survive

I was watching a documentary about Woody Allen and the term "agent of chaos" came up in one of the interviews. That really stuck with me, and it's been swimming around in my head for a few days. Now I'm working through how this relates to Next to Normal. And I keep seeing Heath Ledger...

And I realize how often an agent of chaos has shown up in the musicals I've directed, sometimes as a side character, sometimes as the protagonist. Think of Barry (or even Rob!) in High Fidelity, both Cry-Baby Walker and Lenora in Cry-Baby, Jackson himself in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, pretty much every character in Assassins, Matt and Jason both in bare, Queenie in The Wild Party, Dr. Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet, Edgar in Bat Boy, Mr. Bungee in A New Brain. Even Harold Hill in The Music Man, Joey Evans in Pal Joey, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Anna in The King and I, and Maria in The Sound of Music.

And of course, Diana in Next to Normal.

Now that I'm more aware of this, I see it everywhere. Think of Richard in Richard III or Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Or Jack on Will & Grace.

The agent of chaos is often a misfit. In Next to Normal, Diana is a misfit, but only psychologically. On the outside, she's an average suburban wife and mother, and yet on the inside she is broken. And that brokenness makes it very hard -- impossible? -- for her to fit in the world. In Act II, as the family surveys old photos, we catch references to multiple embarrassing incidents in Diana's past. This has been going on a long time. But in Diana's case, she's not an agent of chaos because she is Id run wild, as with many agents of chaos, but because Ego and Superego are largely dysfunctional. She is an unwilling, "accidental" agent of chaos.

I saw a cool interview recently with the Next to Normal creative team, composer Tom Kitt, lyricist and bookwriter Brian Yorkey, director Michael Greif, and producer David Stone. They talked about how the show was originally called Feeling Electric, partly because the original impetus for writing the show was the issue of ETC (shock therapy), and partly because the show originally had a snarkier, more smartass tone. But one of the lessons the writing team learned as they developed the show over several years, was that they had to write about a person, not an idea (a mistake I made to some extent with my own show Johnny Appleweed). Musicals are the most emotional form of storytelling, so the reason to tell a story as a stage musical is because that story is primarily about emotion -- often love, but not always.

As they rewrote the show, it became more personal and more sincere. In its earlier versions, it was about ETC. Now it's about a woman and her family grappling with mental illness. Big difference. And the new title, apparently chosen more by gut instinct than by reason, reflected this new tone. Interestingly, they chose this title before the title song had been written, so they built that song around their new title.

"Next to Normal" is an unusual phrase that grabs your attention, and though we're all so used to it now, if you think about it even for a second, you see that it packs a lot of meaning. In most shows, the misfit doesn't end up fitting comfortably into the community. Once a misfit, always a misfit. (Two exceptions are Harold Hill and Maria Von Trapp, although you might argue that Meredith Willson's River City is a whole town full of misfits.) So in Next to Normal, instead of taking Diana on a journey from misfit to normal, the writers gave her a more modest, more honest, more nuanced goal, of finding a place next to normal. In the show's finale, Diana sings:
You find some way to survive,
And you find out you don't have to be happy at all
To be happy you're alive.

This is not a Rodgers and Hammerstein bromide like "You'll never walk alone." This is real life. Here, Diana chooses to walk alone. And notice that Diana's lyric is in the second person -- you find some way to survive -- as a reminder that this is not just her journey, but all our journeys. This song is sort of a companion piece to the equally ambiguous finale of Sondheim's Company. There is no happy ending here because there are no happy endings in real life; there's always a next chapter (so we all learned from Into the Woods). What's fucked up today may be fixed tomorrow, but it's equally true that what's fine today may be fucked up tomorrow. We know at the end of Next to Normal that Diana has made a decision, but we have no idea how it will turn out. As the song says, they will go on...

The show's secondary story (and parallel Hero Myth journey) between Natalie and Henry, both mirrors and intersects with the primary story. Like Diana, Natalie is also a misfit, but lucky for her, so is Henry. Structurally, Natalie and Henry are more serious, more integrated versions of Ado Annie and Will Parker. Throughout Next to Normal, there is an underlying tension as we slowly realize the friction between Natalie and Diana comes from Natalie's fear that she will grow up to be ├╝ber-misfit Diana, that she is as broken as her mother. This fear permeates and shapes Natalie's relationship with Henry. Yorkey underlines this by setting these two couples together at one moment in Act I, when they actually say lines together in unison.

And while Diana takes her own Hero Myth journey, Natalie takes one too. Natalie's goal throughout the show is to find normality. But by the end, she has learned that she has the wrong goal. Instead of trying to be normal -- in other words, like everybody else -- Natalie finally understands that her real goal should be to figure out who she is and what her road is, just like the Youth in Passing Strange. We know Natalie has grown up -- or is growing up -- near the end of the show when she sings to Diana:
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...

She's freeing Diana of guilt and expectations, and in the process, she's letting go of her own neuroses as well. Maybe Natalie has finally realized, with the help of Stoner Zen Master Henry, that normal is artificial, that it is a construct. They're not like other families because everyone's road is different. There is no such thing as normal in the real world, just as there is no such thing as average. Those labels are are about statistics, but our story is about complicated, ever-changing individuals. Normal has no meaning here.

And if there is no such thing as normal, can someone really be a misfit? Or are all of us misfits? Also, isn't life itself fundamentally chaotic? And if it is, doesn't that make all of us agents of chaos?

Probably depends on the shit you're smokin'. As the kids in Spelling Bee remind us, "Life is random and unfair." Neither good or bad, wrong or right. Just chaos. You can be scared by that or you can embrace the adventure. Diana and Natalie have been scared by that and must both learn to embrace the adventure.

The show's title even seems to invoke (though probably unintentionally) the new American musical, in which love stories and Hero Myths are as complicated as real life, in which there are no easy answers or endings, in which we can see ourselves and our own lives much more clearly than we can see them in simplistic shows like The Sound of Music or Brigadoon. This isn't a "normal" musical (if there is such a thing anymore), but it does use devices from both the R&H model and classic musical comedy (as in "It's Gonna Be Good"), so it's fair to say that Next to Normal is "next to normal"...

This story is not neat, tidy or easily wrapped up in a nice little narrative package, the way many musicals did in the old days. I think that's part of what some people hate about the New Golden Age of Musical Theatre that we're in now, but it's what I love most about it. And it's what I love most about Next to Normal.

Normal is boring.

Long Live the Musical!