The Hope, The Heat, The Fear

There are so many things I love about Next to Normal, and it's such fun watching the show now, night after night, as it gets subtly richer and deeper at each performance.

The absolute best is sitting in the back of the house and listening to the audience, hearing the gasps when certain things happen in the story, hearing the crying and sniffling throughout the last twenty minutes (and, to be honest, also in several other places throughout the show), the big tension-releasing laughs, and the dark, low chuckles that spread through the house.

Three examples...

First, at the end of "My Psychopharmacologist and I." After weeks of mixing and matching medications, Diana says to Dr. Fine, "I don't feel like myself. I mean, I don't feel anything." Dr. Fine grunts and writes down in his notes, "Patient stable." The audience laughs, but it's a muted, ironic laugh. We see the dark humor from the outside, but we also see the horror from the inside. And that recognition from us sets up "I Miss the Mountains," making it even more resonant.

Also, late in Act I, Dan asks Natalie, "Is this Henry a good influence?" Natalie replies, "Like, compared to what?" Dan says, "Okay, that's fair." And we get a big laugh from the audience, sometimes even a double laugh on both Natalie's and Dan's lines. The audience sees the difficult truth in the humor, and they also desperately need the release of laughter at this point in the story.

Okay, one more (which you won't understand if you haven't seen the show, but I don't want to give away any surprises here). In Act II, Diana is trying to jog her memories after her shock treatment, and Henry shows up. Diana stares at him and says, "You remind me of someone. How old are you?" And Henry says, "Seventeen. Why?" And everyone in the audience tenses up. You can just feel it. At one performance, one guy actually said out loud, "Oh, shit."

And there's also a different kind of "listening" moment that really delights me every night. Before "I Dreamed a Dance," Diana sits down to go through a box of Gabe's baby stuff. She takes out a stuffed dog and sets it down. Then she takes out a baby blanket, carefully folds it, then holds it up to her face and smells it. It's such a personal, emotionally naked moment. Everyone in the audience both understands the impulse and recognizes the trap Diana's emotions have built for her. What's amazing about this moment is the complete silence in the audience -- no one moves, no one coughs, so one looks at their program. With Kimi's subtle, shaded performance, this moment is utterly mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I always smile when I hear that silence, because I know that means our audiences is 100% engaged in our story and characters.

Maybe my favorite thing, above all, about Next to Normal is the fights. On opening night, one of our Tweeters, created the hashtag #songfight. There's nothing so riveting onstage as a good, knock-down-drag-out fight. For some reason, a lot of actors are afraid to have a full-out fight, but conflict is the heart of drama, and a great fight is the height of conflict. Luckily, New Line actors are generally pretty fearless, so when I ask for a big-ass fight, they always bring it, in bare, High Fidelity, Evita, JC Superstar, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other shows. With scenes in Next to Normal like "You Don't Know" and "I Am the One," and later, the "Gonna Be Good" reprise and "Why Stay?", either there are fireworks onstage or you're not doing it right...

Another thing I love is the roller coaster of Act II. Though the whole show is mostly music, with only small bits of dialogue here and there, Act II is even more wall-to-wall music. And composer Tom Kitt keeps the tension up by not really finishing most of the songs in Act II, robbing us of a button (the final boomp at the end of a song which cues applause), and often overlapping the beginning of one song over the end of another. And more than once, he creates that overlap in two different keys, to evoke in the music the tension and conflicts of the action. He's created the musical equivalent of a roller coaster, and it's part of the reason Act II is so emotionally draining -- there's no release, no pause, no moment to reflect. Like Diana, we have to just hang on and go for this wild ride. Sondheim used music this way in Sweeney Todd but I think Kitt is pushing it even further here, to extraordinary effect.

At New Line we rarely have strings in the band (other than bass), so it's especially cool that we have a violin and cello in the band this time. Sometimes when the whole band is playing, it actually sounds like we have a whole string section, rather than just three string players. And for those quiet, more emotional moments, there are these beautiful phrases by the strings between the vocal phrases, that lend such beauty and such fragile emotion to the action. The violin and cello play in harmony a lot, which is gorgeous, but they sometimes play in very dissonant harmony, telling us musically that there is something "wrong" happening in the scene, even if only subtextually. The band arrangements are incredible, and like Kitt's score for High Fidelity, the music does a lot of the storytelling in Next to Normal.

I'll end with the thing that makes all our work worthwhile. Every night at the final blackout after "Light," this roar of cheering goes up and as the lights come back for curtain call, the entire audience leaps to their feet for a standing ovation. Not just clapping, but cheering. And this show and this cast and this band deserve every bit of it. There's nothing better than an audience who's just had an amazing ride.

Ticket sales are soaring, the reviews are all raves, and I could not be prouder of what we've created. And I could not be more grateful that we get to do work like this, and that there's an audience here in St. Louis who wants to share it with us. What could be better than that?

Long Live the Musical!