What Makes You Think...

The reviews for New Line Theatre's Next to Normal have been extraordinary.

But one of our reviews really bothered me because it revealed the big plot surprise that happens about halfway through Act I, right after "It's Gonna Be Good."

Don't worry. No spoilers here.

If you've seen the show, you know what I'm talking about; if you haven't, I don't want to spoil it for you, because it's a huge surprise. It completely changes everything you've already seen happen. What you thought you were witnessing turns out to be really different from what you actually were witnessing, and as a result, the story you thought you were watching is actually a fairly different story after the big reveal. The stakes are now much higher, the story becomes more complicated, and the emotion gets dialed up to eleven.

It's really carefully set up and the big reveal is pretty powerful, often eliciting gasps from the audience.

When I emailed this reviewer about his spoiler, he pretended at first not to know what I meant. He wrote back to me, "The only thing I mentioned that occurs after the first 20-30 minutes of the first act..." Notice that "after the first 20-30 minutes" -- that's his dodge. Obviously nothing in the first 20-30 minutes could matter, right? Why do we even bother performing that first part...? So I wrote back and clarified which surprise I meant, and he then responded that it was actually okay for him to reveal that plot twist because it doesn't come at the end of the show. And that apparently means it's not important.

But at the same time, he also argued that it's impossible to write about the show without revealing that surprise, because everything else is built on that moment. He's right that the surprise in question is the show's "obligatory moment," toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it results. It's the one moment the story can't do without. But doesn't that negate his other argument, that it can't be all that important since it happens midway through Act I...? And after making the argument that this surprise is so central to the story, he then wrote in another email that when he first saw Next to Normal, he didn't really think this surprise was a big deal.

So let's review... it's not important because it happens early, it's vitally important because everything else comes out of it, and it's also not a big deal at all.

Okay...  Pardon me while my head explodes.

Of course, our other reviews talked about the show without ruining the big surprise, as did the New York reviews, so it's clearly not that hard to do. I asked this guy why it matters where in the show the surprise falls. Whether it occurs early or late in the story, why take that surprise away from audiences...? Why not let them experience the first part of the show the way the authors obviously wanted...? As our other reviews prove, it's not necessary to rob the audience of that. Doesn't it matter that the authors want to surprise the audience with that moment? Why does this reviewer get to decide which surprises matter and which don't...?

We know from talking to people after performances, that most of the folks coming to see us have not seen the show before. They don't know the plot twists ahead of time. Unless they see his review, of course.

As if all this isn't enough, he also said in his review that the story is not very dramatic because Diana's struggle is entirely internal, and "that's hard to dramatize on a stage." I asked him if he'd ever seen Hamlet. And I reminded him that Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Just sayin'.

Hero Myth stories can be internal, external, or both. In High Fidelity, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Nine, Love Kills, Grease, The Wild Party, Cabaret, and thousands of other stories, the hero's journey is entirely psychological. After all, the Hero Myth story is just a human life in miniature; most of us take internal hero's journeys over and over throughout our lives.

When a story tells of a physical journey, the Hero Myth acts more as a metaphor for a human life; Dorothy Gale and Luke Skywalker's journeys aren't actually like anything most of us go through, but they do reveal our real human journeys through their symbols and metaphors. And because storytelling is such an integral part of human existence, we're all really good at reading those symbols and translating them, even  if only subconsciously. On the other hand, when the Hero Myth is presented as a psychological or emotional journey, as in Next to Normal, it actually becomes a more concrete representation of the journeys we all take.

I suggested this reviewer check out Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth and Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.

I guess what's so frustrating about all this is the reviewer's refusal to think much about this show he's reviewing. There are many more reviewers in St. Louis now than there were even a few years ago. It's really terrific that as our theatre community grows and evolves, a robust critical community is evolving around it, to have an ever larger and more interesting conversation. We now get 8-10 reviews for every show, occasionally more, and it's very cool to get so many perspectives, to get so many responses from people of differing tastes and backgrounds. And this expanded pool of reviewers means the actual reviewing keeps getting richer and more thoughtful and more sophisticated. This larger conversation is enriching everybody, including our audiences -- some of whom write their own reviews of our shows on their personal blogs.

As a result, theatre in St. Louis is being afforded more respect today than ever before.

Which is part of why the Spoiler Reviewer bugged me so much. His dogged insistence that there's no harm in ruining a big plot twist speaks volumes. He shows a lack of respect for this show and its authors, for our audiences, and for us. We produce very complex, challenging work, and many of the other reviewers in town write really thoughtful, intelligent reviews of our shows; but this guy rarely takes our work seriously or looks beneath the surface. He dismisses much of what we do, often by bemoaning  the superficiality or blandness of shows when he himself has failed to look under the surface and see what's really there.

After all, they're only musicals...

Usually I don't worry much over what reviewers write (which is admittedly easy for me to say since 90% of our reviews are pretty much raves), but in this case, anyone who saw this guy's review before they saw the show had a lesser experience in the theatre, and that's a shame.

All I ask is that reviewers give us and our audience the same respect we give the work. After twenty-two years of doing serious, challenging, adult theatre, surely we're owed at least that, aren't we...?

You bet your ass we are.

Long Live the Musical!