I think what I love about it is its honesty. It's a fable and its characters are types, so instead of trying to disguise that fact, Marc Blitzstein openly admits it in the way he names them. I did the same thing with a few characters in my 2006 musical Johnny Appleweed, naming the White House characters President John J. Birch (invoking both Dubya and the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society) and his chief of staff Carla Roe (invoking both Karl Rove and Roe v. Wade). The main character was a closeted gay man named Mark Dodger. And then there was Johnny Appleweed himself. Use your imagination.
There are several plays and musicals that do this, but not many. And of those that do, some make it very subtle and others outright announce it. There's the Christ figure Jason and his companion Peter in bare, but there's also Orphan, Angel, and Edgar Allen Rich in Celebration. I think my favorite is Gitlow in Purlie.
Next to Normal does it more subtly.
Now before I proceed, I don't know that the writers did any of this on purpose. But I believe that writers often use very sophisticated storytelling devices even without being conscious of their use, just because it feels right, because it feels like good storytelling to them. That said, in this case, I think it's intentional.
In Next to Normal, the bipolar woman at the center of the story is Diana Goodman. Right away, her last name sounds like a label-name to me, as if to suggest that these are decent, normal people -- and by extension, that mental illness plays no favorites. Bad things happen to good people. Her first name references the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and birthing, who was also associated with wild animals and the woods (often the dark place of self-discovery in storytelling). Diana was widely known as "the virgin goddess of childbirth and women." But her first name takes on more serious resonance once we start hearing Dan refer to her as "Di," which he does throughout the script. It's pretty potent for this damaged woman on the edge of sanity to be called a name that sounds like die. And that nickname takes on even deeper resonance once we get to "There's a World."
And then there's Gabe, named for one of the most famous angels in Christian culture, the archangel who serves as a messenger to humans from heaven, who announced the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. With that in mind, Gabe's first lyric takes on even more meaning:
For just another day,
For another stolen hour,
When the world will feel my power
It's just another day,
Feeling like I'll live forever...
Gabriel appears to various people throughout the Bible, and in the Old Testament, he appears to the prophet Daniel, delivering explanations of Daniel's visions; though, according to Wikipedia, "Daniel does not explicitly identify Gabriel as an angel: he is a visionary figure whom Daniel calls 'the man Gabriel'." Daniel is a Hebrew name, literally meaning "God is my judge."
Is that a hint about Dan's feelings of guilt? And does that reshape our response to that last conversation between Dan and Gabe before the finale? And really, Goodman is Dan's name -- Diana just married into it -- so maybe this label name is more about him. She refers to him in the song "Why Stay?" as "steadfast and stolid and stoic and solid." And not in a good way. Maybe the point here is that being a good man isn't enough in this situation. Maybe nothing's enough.
Earlier in Act II, Gabe says, "Until you name me, you can't tame me," and it's not until then that we realize no one has mentioned Gabe's name yet. The moment when someone finally does is all the more potent because of that. All this seems to argue that these carefully chosen names are supposed to have meaning within the story.
But wait, there's more... Where does the name Natalie come from? It's the English form of Natalia, which is derived from the Italian natale, meaning birthday. It specifically refers to the birth of Christ -- the Italian phrase for Merry Christmas! is buon natale! (literally "good birthday!").
Then there are the two doctors. The less empathetic, more drug-enthusiastic Dr. Fine has only one goal -- stability. He wants Diana to just be fine, nothing more. Dr. Madden seems to care about Diana more, but his treatment arguably maddens Diana even further.
Henry is a name shared by British, French, and German kings, and one Catholic saint. It comes from a Germanic name which combines the words for home and ruler or power. I'm not sure why, but this one seems less intentional and/or meaningful to me. Henry as "master of the house"? Or maybe it's more about Henry representing home to Natalie, a safe place. In terms of Natalie's Hero Myth story, she finds her magic amulet in Henry's love. She finds real human connection after a lifetime of being denied it. Maybe the reference to all those kings means nothing more than that Henry will be a strong man -- different from Dan.
And maybe all of this is accidental.
But that seems hard to believe, when the names' meanings fit so perfectly to their characters. Then again, maybe it was just a gut feeling that led the writers to each name. Whatever the impetus, it's cool. (If you haven't seen the show yet, some of this may seem a bit puzzling. The show's story has a couple really big plot surprises, and I don't want to ruin those for anyone who hasn't seen it, so I'm consciously leaving out some pieces of information. Sorry about that.)
Since Next to Normal won a Pulitzer Prize, I guess I don't have to argue (as I often do) for the show's bona fides. But thinking about stuff like this is my second favorite pastime. My first favorite is actually putting stuff like this onstage and sharing it with an audience. Lucky me, I get to do both most of the time...
Tickets are already selling even better than usual, so it looks like we'll have packed houses for this one. This astonishingly hard-working and artful cast of actors deserves no less. You'll be amazed at the rich, textured, layered characters they're creating. We're really going to do this beautiful piece of theatre proud.
Long Live the Musical!