Next to Normal is one of the great modern American dramas, fully equal to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Death of a Salesman, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This isn't just a great musical (though it is that) and it's not just a great score (though it is that) -- it's a great work of art.
I'm ridiculously fortunate -- far more so than I probably deserve -- in that I routinely get to work on great art with really talented people. Pieces of theatre so transcendent, so beyond the rest of the art form, that they leave you forever changed. Shows like Sweeney Todd, Company, Assassins, Hair, Floyd Collins, Passing Strange, Jacques Brel, A New Brain, bare, and others. With all due gratitude to the theatre gods who watch over our weird, improbable little company, Next to Normal now takes its place on my list. I am such a lucky fucker.
Almost all the shows New Line produces are extraordinary works of theatre. If they weren't, we wouldn't produce them. And the few not in that category are intensely interesting but flawed works, that are still worth producing because they're just that interesting -- shows like Anyone Can Whistle, I Love My Wife, The Nervous Set, and Reefer Madness.
So what does a director do with a great work of art? Get out of its way. Or as doctors, put it, first do no harm. Don't add schtick, don't subvert, don't impose a "vision," just get out of the way.
Sometimes actors ask me at the first rehearsal, "What's your vision for the show?" I hate that question. There's only one right answer. To tell this story as clearly as possible. Anything beyond that is masturbation.
Looking back, I realize I've never had to direct a mediocre show in my life. Ever. I've never had to make up for the deficiencies in a so-so script or score. A lot of directors have to do that from time to time, but I never have. I'm very lucky. And it makes my job different from someone directing The Pajama Game or Annie Get Your Gun, both shows with a few decent elements but not nearly enough of them. I never have to shape or mold a show. My job is to reveal it. I remember reading that Michelangelo believed he just had to look inside the stone to find the figure he was seeking, then chip away everything else. He even created a series of sculptures, known as the Captives, that are in the process of being released by the artist from the stone that is imprisoning them.
With the expressionistic Next to Normal, the sculpture metaphor is really potent for me. We started with just Form -- script and score. And we've spent the last few weeks chipping away at this rock, revealing the emotion and subtext, excavating these rich, complex characters. And I've seen over the last week that we have now fully revealed this beautiful piece of art. And it's a stunner. Knowing what the set or the staging will look like ahead of time -- the show's physical incarnation -- doesn't tell you what the show's heart looks like. That you have to discover.
It must sound weird, maybe even pretentious, to people outside the theatre to hear me talk in such abstract, metaphorical terms about the work we do. But it's the only way to really get at the essence of what is essentially very abstract, instinctive work. We are storytellers, which means we are the makers of experiences. Subjective, individual, non-repeatable experiences. Because everyone's past colors each new experience, we artists have no control over the experience each audience member has in the theatre, watching our show. All we can do is tell the clearest, most resonant, most truthful story we can, and the audience provides the other half of it. Audiences don't want to be passive; they want to be engaged. It's so much more exciting and more fun.
All we have to do is ask it of them.
It's pretty heady stuff, being in the presence of such great art, living inside these lyrics and music, and these rich, soulful characters. I used to feel this crushing responsibility when we were working on pieces this good. Now I just feel lucky and grateful and I do my work. I know why I'm this lucky, why I get all the chances I get -- because I put the work first, because I am devoted heart and soul to making art, not making a lot of money, not getting famous, not making connections, just doing really good work. An artist always gets rewarded for that. Not always in money, but there are other kinds of reward -- like getting to resurrect and redeem High Fidelity and Cry-Baby, and getting to bring shows like Love Kills into the world.
And getting to work on bare, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and now Next to Normal, all in a row, without a single King and I or Nunsense anywhere to be found. That's the reward.
And it's plenty.
We got to sing through the entire Next to Normal score with the band for the first time today. It was thriling. That's the reward.
Long Live the Musical!