Wandering Through the Wilderness

We are emotional adventurers.

The thing that makes a good story a good musical is emotion. As playwright Tony Kushner wrote, "Musicals can do what Auden praised Yeats for having done: they can 'sing of human unsuccess / in a rapture of distress.' We're immortal birds not born for death, each and every one of us; our souls, the deepest truest human impulses, ideas and actions, truly and fully expressed, must pour forth abroad in ecstasy. Or words to that effect. Know what I mean? And that's why there are musicals."

The thing that makes a production of a musical really wonderful and powerful is the honesty and authenticity of its emotions. That's one of New Line's top priorities -- second only perhaps to clear storytelling -- but unfortunately, it's not a universal priority. There are way too many shallow, phony productions of musicals, which sometimes give audiences the mistaken impression that the shows themselves are empty, when it's really just lazy directors and actors who are more emotional tourists than adventurers.

As I've argued before, people come to see a musical specifically because it's a more emotional kind of storytelling, so if a production delivers phony emotions, they're committing fraud as surely as someone selling glass diamonds.

When young writers ask me how they can know if a story is worth adapting for the musical stage, I tell them it's about whether or not the story is primarily an emotional one. Because its language is music, emotion is the lingua franca of musical theatre. If a story is primarily about action, songs might well get in the way -- which is why there are very few successful musical farces or musical mysteries, because those forms are about intricate plotting, not emotion.

A lot of older musicals follow a similar arc -- we watch as the Hero tries to assimilate into a community, and a "happy ending" is one in which the Hero succeeds in that assimilation, like in The Music Man, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, or Brigadoon. In more serious musicals, the Hero often is unable to assimilate, so he has to be removed, sometimes by death, like in Sweeney Todd or Carousel. In South Pacific there are two Heroes (Cable and Nellie), so we get both outcomes. You might argue the same thing about The King and I and Man of La Mancha.

But in order to have a community to assimilate into, a musical needs a big chorus. And starting in the mid-1960s, choruses starting shrinking on Broadway, mostly for economic reasons. By the 70s, the leads became the chorus, as in Company and A Chorus Line. And if you don't really have a "community" onstage, that assimilation story loses its power. (Bat Boy sort of mocked that problem by creating a community of a couple dozen characters, but all played by five actors.)

For that reason -- and also because of the philosophical underpinnings of the 1960s counter-culture -- musicals began to turn to a different kind of story, the classic Hero Myth, in which our Hero starts out on a journey (sometimes concrete, sometimes psychological), meets a "wise wizard," finds his "magic amulet" (ruby slippers, light saber), picks up companions, navigates various obstacles (sometimes including a trip into "the underworld"), does battle with an "evil wizard," and finally gains new wisdom, often returning home to share it with his community. It's an incredibly powerful form because the Hero Myth is just a stand-in for a human life. We each have our own journey, wise and evil wizards, companions, and magic amulets, so we connect to that story form in a really powerful, personal way.

And the Hero Myth has become progressively more relevant in American culture because more people are living alone today than at any other time in human history -- mostly just because we can, thanks to various technological and economic developments. I'm in the middle of a great book about this trend, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

Just think about how many contemporary musicals follow the Hero Myth model -- Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot (times three!), Shrek, Billy Elliot, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Spring Awakening, Taboo, and lots of others. This trend started in the 70s, with Company, Pippin, Follies, Jesus Christ Superstar, then later Nine and Sunday in the Park with George, among others. But it really exploded in the 1990s, when musical theatre started to decouple itself artistically from New York commercial theatre on and off Broadway.

Because these new American musicals were being written with less thought to commercial potential, they were much more personal works, which generally steered them toward the form of the Hero Myth. In Next to Normal, Diana's arc follows a classic Hero Myth structure, even as far as a journey to the "underworld," in the form of the ECT and her memory loss. As Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment (the book that inspired Into the Woods), "Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our own way to become ourselves, and have entered the wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity." Yorkey and Kitt have used this ancient device but removed its metaphoric cloak. Here, Diana literally journeys into her own unconscious.

Even more relevant to Next to Normal, Bettelheim also writes, "From the earliest versions, fairy tales [and Hero Myths] stress that both desires reside in each of us, and that we cannot survive deprived of either: the wish to stay tied to the past, and the urge to reach out to a new future. Through the unfolding of events, the story most often teaches that entirely cutting oneself off from one's past leads to disaster, but that to exist only beholden to the past is stunting; while it is safe, it provides no life of one's own. Only the thorough integration of these contrary tendencies permits a successful existence."

But Next to Normal is actually a double Hero Myth. Diana follows her Hero Myth and Natalie follows a secondary Hero Myth; and key to Natalie's character, the two journeys are very similar. Natalie's awareness of that is what creates her fear that she will live a life as fucked up and damaged as Diana's, that her relationship with Henry will be as scarred and empty as her parents'.

Diana is also aware of these parallels, and of Natalie's fear of these parallels. At the beginning of "I Miss the Mountains," Diana sings:
There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl running free
Would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me there
To share.
I'm nowhere.
All these blank and tranquil years,
Seems they've dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.

That's quite a jam-packed lyric. It's about missing her manic past, worrying that Natalie will suffer the same fate, her shame for failing as a mother, her inability to feel anything because of her meds, and even a tinge of jealousy of Natalie's youth and freedom. Despite the abundance of rhyme here, the language and sentence structure are completely natural, and the self-awareness Diana expresses moves her character forward and propels her to action. But beneath that, there's such extraordinary lyric-writing craft here. There are wonderful, almost hidden interior rhymes, like blank and the first part of tranquil, a trick Yorkey uses that throughout the score. And there's also a ton of alliteration -- the w's in the first three lines and the last two lines, the f's in the fourth and tenth lines, and the n sounds in lines 4-7, particularly in the fifth line.

This intro works as important self-awareness for Diana, but it also makes sure the audience recognizes these two parallel journeys. Just as Oklahoma! sets up a secondary love triangle to mirror the primary love triangle, here bookwriter and lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt do the same thing with the Hero Myth. But Next to Normal is an incredibly complex piece of writing, so I'm still struggling with identifying all the various Hero Myth elements.

For instance, could Gabe be both magic amulet and evil wizard... and companion...? Could Dr. Madden be both wise wizard and evil wizard?

The one advantage Natalie has in her Hero Myth is self-awareness. While Diana is desperately trying to understand herself and her journey, Natalie is very clear-eyed, though maybe a touch too pessimistic. To Natalie, each disaster for Diana is a future disaster for Natalie. While the end of Diana's story is totally ambiguous -- especially as we see at the end that her journey has been mirrored by a hidden journey Dan has also taken -- the end of Natalie's story is more hopeful. It's still ambiguous, because let's face it, life is ambiguous, but less so...

The one significant difference between Diana's and Natalie's stories is in their partners. In Hero Myth terms, Dan fails as Diana's faithful companion, while Henry succeeds as Natalie's. It seems that Dan may not have known about Diana's problems when he married her, and to some extent he was "forced" into the marriage, if only by his own sense of duty and decency and whatnot. After all, Dan sees himself as the martyred Good Guy (which may be his great tragic flaw). On the other hand, Henry does seem to know exactly how fucked up Natalie is, and he chooses to be with her, without any external pressures, with his eyes fully open. Natalie and Henry have a much more honest relationship than Diana and Dan do, and so the younger couple will probably have a healthier relationship.

It's not important that an audience consciously recognize all this stuff. The Hero Myth works because we instinctively recognize the elements of the story, even if only subconsciously, as elements of our own lives. But it helps the actors and me to recognize these elements so we can tell this story as clearly as possible. Some directors and actors believe all you have to do is say/sing the words and the rest will take care of itself. I think that's really wrong, and it leads to a lot of very shallow, unsatisfying theatre. The more we understand the storytelling, the better we'll tell the story. Just by "underlining" a word, just by adding a pause to let something sink in for a second, we can make the important stuff clearer and help the audience get the most out of the story.

But we have to know what the important stuff is.

I've seen so many productions of Spelling Bee that are nothing more than sketch comedy, because the director and actors have no idea they're working on six Hero Myths. So they speed by all the important moments, they ignore all the character arcs, and they look for any way to get a laugh. They don't try for real honesty or authenticity, because it doesn't even occur to them that what they're doing is great art, that it feeds the audience's souls, that it connects us all on a fundamentally human level, that it explores the complexity of our human emotions.

As Ben Kingsley once said in an interview, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

We're very lucky at New Line because we've always worked in small spaces. Though our current space is a little larger, at 210 seats, it's very intimate because there are only seven rows. And that gives us the luxury of more subtle acting, not as minimalist as film acting, but (depending on the show) still pretty subtle. As I often tell our actors, you don't have to "show" the audience how your character feels; you just have to feel it. We humans are amazingly skilled at reading human faces. It's what we do all day. So even the tiniest, most subtle changes in a face are easy to read, because we all get so much practice at it.

And that will change Next to Normal. After all, despite its three-story set on Broadway, this is a chamber musical, a small, personal, intimate story of five people, and it belongs in a chamber setting. I think this powerful story is going to be even more powerful when you're sitting only eight or ten feet away from Kimi Short singing "I Miss the Mountains."

We are emotional adventurers. In a few weeks, you can join us on our adventure.

Long Live the Musical!


Eric | February 9, 2013 at 3:14 PM

I fully agree with your comments about musicals need emotion and, as some would put it, a larger than life hero. That is what make people come back to watch the shows. They feel emotionally touched and able to connect to the character.

Your comment about musicals needing a large chorus is also interesting. I think it is more than just an economical thing. In my opinion, the large chorus songs started to get a bit cheesy, especially since every pop star started to have a slow rock ballad sing-along 11 o'clock song with lighters-in-the-air song in their shows.