But actual physical light is also a theme in the show. The show begins with Diana turning on a light, and the show’s finale, “Light,” begins with Natalie turning on a light. Midway through Act I, Diana even brings on a birthday cake covered with lighted candles. This is story – a Hero Myth – about the quest for light.
When Dr. Madden tries to hypnotize Diana to unlock her past, he asks her to imagine going down a dark staircase, and in her passive-aggressive resistance, she quips, “Should we turn on a light? You know, with the stairs?” It's funny, but in the context of this action, light takes on a double meaning. Perhaps Yorkey is hinting that Madden might just lead Diana toward real enlightenment at last.
The next time we hear the word is in “I Dreamed a Dream,” as Diana slips into fantasy. She begins the song, “I saw you light the ballroom with your sparkling eyes of blue.” Here, light is beautiful, romantic, joyous.
This next time is a conversation late in Act I, in which Madden tells Dan that he recommends Electroconvulsive Therapy – shock treatment.
Madden: ECT is indicated.
Dan: Wow. I mean – they still do that?
Madden: We do, yes. It's the standard in cases like this. She's got a long history of drug therapy and resistance, she's acutely suicidal – it's really our best option.
Dan: That's kind of terrifying.
Madden: It's not. The electricity involved is barely enough to light a hundred-watt bulb.
Dan: (wry) Oh, if it's just a hundred-watt bulb...
Here light is connected to electricity, danger, risk, and it also takes us back to Diana’s reference to turning on a light in the hypnosis scene, and that opening moment of the show.
The Act I finale, Dan’s plea to Diana to agree to the ECT, is called “A Light in the Dark,” and once again the word light takes on all these different flavors of meaning – illumination, enlightenment, happiness, peace, but also life. Dan sings:
One light shines in the drive –
One single sign that our house is alive.
Our house, our own –
So why do I live there alone?
Tell me why I wait through the night,
And why do I leave on the light?
Though the first images are concrete ones, this song operates in metaphor. They are living in a world of darkness, and Dan desperately wants to find the light. Later in the song, he sings:
Take my hand,
And let me take your heart.
Keep it far
From what keeps us apart –
Let us start
With a light in the dark.
And at the end of the song:
I swear that somewhere in the night
There's a light...
A light in the dark.
He’s right, but it may not be the light he’s looking for. Dan is desperate to find the light, but Diana fears light, and he doesn't understand that. Like many of the songs in the show, this one operates on both concrete and metaphorical levels at the same time.
As we begin Act II, we go inside Diana’s head as she undergoes the ECT, in the song “Wish I Were Here,” and her first line is:
In an instant, lightning flashes
And the burst might leave me blind –
When the bolt of lightning crashes
And it burns right through my mind.
Again, light is dangerous, destructive, painful. To Dan, light is salvation; to Diana, it’s the enemy. Later in the song, both Diana and Natalie sing, “I’m the light and heat of every sun…” Light illuminates but it also burns and consumes.
When Diana comes home, Madden suggests to Dan how to jog her memories – “Keep it light at first, that's best. Careful that she's not distressed.” Here, light is about lightheartedness.
In “How Could I Ever Forget?” one of Diana’s recovering memories is “The lights of the city flew past.” Whether Yorkey intended it consciously or not, the phrase works on two levels, both as a concrete memory, and also as a description of her returning memories – her enlightenment – rushing past her grasping mind.
In “Promise,” Dan’s desperate recommitment to Diana later in the same scene, he sings:
To the girl who was burning so brightly
Like the light from Orion above,
And still I will search for her nightly –
If you see her, please send her my love.
Again, light is about burning. Is Dan the moth drawn to the flame, only to be consumed by it?
When Diana returns to Madden in the “Make Up Your Mind” reprise, he asks her to “Make up your mind there are moments of light.” Light as enlightenment, hope.
In the final scene, Natalie enters in the dark and says “Dad? What the hell? Why are the lights off?” Why is Dan choosing darkness? Now light takes on a final meaning, of facing up to truth, to life, a first step toward enlightenment. The finale, “Light,” is a summing up, tying together the themes of the show, and giving each character a moment to reflect on where they’ve been and where they are headed. Each character uses images of light and dark in different ways. Natalie sings:
We need some light.
First of all, we need some light.
You can't sit here in the dark,
And all alone –
It's a sorry sight.
It's just you and me.
We'll live. You'll see.
This is the first time Natalie uses light as metaphor, and she also physically turns on the light. She’s growing up and gaining enlightenment of her own. In the next verse, Dan sings:
Night after night,
We'd sit and wait for the morning light.
But we've waited far too long
For all that's wrong
To be made right.
Dan has not found the light yet. Later in the song, Gabe sings:
And when the night has fin'ly gone,
And when we see the new day dawn,
We'll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew –
The light will make it look brand new.
And then they all sing, “So let it shine,” repeating the word shine. Like the finale of Hair, this song recognizes the dark and implores us – all of us – to let the sun shine, to let the light in to vanquish the dark. The "we" they sing about is not just the Goodmans, but all of us. The song and the show end with this incantation, this celebration of the human spirit:
Day after day...
We'll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done...
There will be light.
There will be light...
When we open up our lives,
Sons and daughters, husbands, wives
And fight that fight...
There will be light.
There will be light.
There will be light.
There will be light!
Despite the darkness of the story, this finale offers some hope, limited and narrow though it might be. The light is out there, the characters are telling us, but we must be open to it and we must fight against the dark. While Hair asked us, begged us, to let the sun shine in, Next to Normal ends on a declarative statement – there will be light. (Notice Yorkey's exclamation point on the last one!) Diana and Natalie have both found self-awareness and some kind of enlightenment – or at least, they're on their way. Dan has even taken a first tentative step toward his own enlightenment. Will these people be okay? Who knows? That's not the point. The point is the journey, the ongoing quest for light.
Very much like the search for The Real in Passing Strange.
Textual themes like this don’t always register consciously on an audience, but they do work on us. They create connections and associations. They underline important moments and ideas. And this particular theme of light registers with all of us on such a primal level. We humans are always in search of light.
It's part of why Next to Normal connects so powerfully with audiences. We need light too.
What a run it's been. Just three performances left...
Long Live the Musical!
P.S. Look back over the lyrics I've quoted in this post, and notice the amazing alliteration all over the place. Yorkey does this throughout the show and it's so incredible once you start noticing it...