It's Time for Me to Fly

Having worked on Next to Normal for several weeks, and now being able to watch the whole show at every rehearsal, it's almost overwhelming to fully appreciate the incredible complexity and craft in the writing. Every rehearsal reveals even more evidence for why this show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Tom Kitt's music is extraordinary. Not just great pop music -- driving pop anthems, muscular guitar rock, gorgeous ballads -- but structurally very much an opera score, with arias, duets, quartets, sextets, recitative. The vocal arrangements are spectacular. But beyond that, this is a bipolar score, following the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form. Music primarily brings emotion to a story, and this story requires a special kind of emotion. So Kitt has expressed Diana's bipolar mood swings through his music. But not just Diana's. As much as they talk about Diana's mood, notice how erratic Dan is, from his weirdly manic "It's Gonna Be Good," to the conflicting emotions -- and musical styles -- of Dan's big solo, "I've Been." And notice the several musical fights in the show; the darker the emotions get, the more rock and roll the music becomes. As he did with High Fidelity, Kitt does as much storytelling here with his music as his collaborators do with words.

Kitt and Brian Yorkey have written musical dialogue scenes that both sound entirely naturalistic and also boast really economical, well-crafted lyrics with wonderful, original, surprising rhymes, including tons of interior rhymes, some almost hidden. Yorkey's lyrics are among the best I've ever had the pleasure of working on, and I've worked on almost all the modern masterpieces. Several times in each song, Yorkey reimagines a cliche, turns a phrase, or left-turns a sentence in an unexpected way that keeps us engaged and provides important foreshadowing or the development of textual themes. And sometimes a dark laugh too.
'Cause what doesn't kill me doesn't kill me,
So fill me
Up for just another day...

Or get a load of this amazing alliteration in the same song:
In the hustle and the hurry,
You want to wipe your worry
Clean away.
For just another day,
I will keep the plates all spinning
With a smile so white and winning
All the way.

And notice that in those last three lines, his sets of alteration overlap each other. We get the Ps of keep, plates,, and spinning; then the Ss of spinning, smile, and so; then the Ws of with, white, winning, and way. And those Ws link back to the Ws of the previous three lines, and want, wipe,, worry, and away. The audience doesn't consciously recognize all this, but it works on them, creating energy, momentum, in this context, maybe even a kind of frantic desperation. This kind of writing has to come from instinct -- who could plan all that and still make a coherent sentence that reveals character?

This is really skillful, powerful writing. And beyond the remarkable craft here, these few lines tell us almost everything we need to know about this family, even if we don't consciously realize we've taken in all this information. Later on, we may think back to Dan's desire to "wipe your worry...away" and realize how ironically it foreshadowed the dark choices he makes.

Dramatically, the show is just as extraordinary. It uses interior monologues for all the main characters, a device most people today think of as a Rodgers and Hammerstein staple, but it really goes back to Shakespeare. Diana's "I Miss the Mountains" is a close cousin to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Both are deeply felt, desperately complicated, wrapped around metaphors, and focused on a choice to be made. Diana's song has companion pieces in Dan's soulful wail "I've Been," Gabe's defiant "I'm Alive," and Natalie's existential "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." In old-school musicals, they called these the "I Want" songs, though like I said, the device goes back a lot further than Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter..

But Kitt and Yorkey are at their dramatic best in the fight scenes -- real, visceral, knock-down-drag-out fights. The double number, "You Don't Know" and "I Am the One" is just one example among many of a powerful book scene quite artfully set to music and rhymed lyrics.

The show is also very cinematic. (I wonder how much that may be the influence of the original director Michael Greif.) Almost every scene dissolves into the next, sometimes even interrupting each other. Throughout the show there are moments when an actor in one scene simply turns around and now he's in another scene, in another time and place. There are often two scenes going on onstage at once, juxtaposing the action in really interesting, revealing ways. As just one example of many, Natalie fucks up her piano recital on one side of the stage, while at the same time, Diana's telling her doctor about not being able to hold Natalie as a baby. The two scenes slam up against each other in a powerful, emotional way, but only implying the connection that we in the audience then complete, delivering more character and relationship information than a much longer dialogue scene could. And this happens throughout the show, often in a cinematic split-screen effect.

This is an evolution of the form. All these things are also true of Rent, barePassing Strange, American Idiot, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. These new rock shows demand a very minimalist physical approach -- there's no time or place for traditional set changes -- and a less naturalistic, more fluid, more expressionistic, more cinematic kind of staging. Michael Bennett taught us, in Dreamgirls, how to use film devices on stage, close-ups, pans, focus pulls, dissolves, split-screens; and today's audience accept those devices on stage as easily as they accept them on the screen. No one today goes to a musical expecting the old Rodgers and Hammerstein faux naturalism.

Next to Normal lives in a metaphorical world as much as in the physical world. Many of the devices Yorkey and Kitt use are designed to keep the audience off kilter, to disorient them, to hold them in suspense, to not allow them time to think about and judge the things they're witnessing, to force them to experience these events rather than thinking about them. The audience is on this roller coaster ride with Diana, strapped in right beside her.

And that ties into the central point of the story, that a person's illness affects not just them, but everyone in their orbit. And because of the way Kitt and Yorkey have told this story, we the audience are among those in Diana's orbit. We have to live with her in her illness, her delusions, her twisted world, for two hours. When she sees the doctor as a metal rocker, we see that too. When she finds herself inside a delusion, we're there with her. That both binds the audience to Diana and gives them a more profound empathy than lesser writers could have allowed.

It's always interesting for me to work on a show when I love the original production, which was the case with Next to Normal. It used to worry me, not wanting to copy but wanting to be faithful. But over the last several years, I've come to think about my work very differently. I used to decide on the final product, then work toward it. Now, I figure out the road we need to follow, and then we all take the journey together, my job being to keep us all on the road and moving forward. After all these years, I'm really good at figuring out the right road to take; though sometimes I even doubt myself during the process. But it always turns out to be the right road in the end.

Because of all this, sometimes I know what the end product will be and sometimes the end product surprises me. This time, it's surprising me. I can see now that our production will be more surrealistic, more expressionistic, more Brechtian, more fluid, more cinematic, more of a perpetual motion machine, and a bit more presentational than the Broadway production.

This show reminds me a lot of Lippa's Wild Party. Minus the sexual debauchery. It's highly stylistic, very original storytelling. Following the Sondheim Commandment, that Content Dictates Form, Kitt and Yorkey have written Next to Normal in a storytelling style that mirrors Diana's world. The music itself, even without the lyrics, could not be set to any other story. Kitt uses the 7/8 time signature (essentially dropping half a beat out of each measure of music) frequently throughout the score. He sometimes plays two key signatures against each other. He almost always refuses to give numbers clear "buttons" at the end, which holds back the audience from the release of applause, and amps up the show's ever increasing tension. In many ways Kitt's music works like a horror film score, and like Sweeney Todd, which was consciously built on the horror movie music of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo).

It's been so wonderful and so soul-nourishing to live inside this score for a few months. It's so cool to sit in the audience and watch our run-throughs, amazed time after time at some new subtle reference I catch that advances character or foreshadows things the audience never even imagines that are coming. We New Liners have been so lucky for the past twenty-two years to work on some genuine masterpieces of our art form. None of us get paid all that well, but we get to do something almost nobody else does. We get to make amazing, beautiful, meaningful art and we get to share it with an enthusiastic, intelligent, adventurous audience.

I don't care how much they pay me -- where could I ever find a better job than this?

We open next week and the show is in such great shape, with really just tiny little things to fix now. I am so grateful that we found these six actors. I can't wait to share this.

Long Live the Musical!