Rock idiom may have dominated American popular music since Elvis was drafted into the Army, but the musical theater embrace of rock has been fitful and irregular. Jonathan Larson scored a huge hit with Rent (1996), but by dying before the Broadway opening, he could never write a sequel.
With Next to Normal, now playing at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey nudge the genre onto new ground. Rock rhythms, under the guidance of music director Douglas Levine, dominate the score in a show touching on themes of manic depression, madness and despair. But the words sung by six upper-middle-class white people, who casually allude to the works of Edward Albee and Ken Kesey, are cleanly articulated in robust Broadway voices. Lead singer Andrea Burns has sung the works of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, vocally not so far away, only louder.
As in opera, most dialogue is sung, even when the words are brutal or prosy. There is very little spoken dialogue here. The playbill gives no song list, but there are 37, many of them short and appearing to dovetail into one another. For the most part Kitt does not deliver a highly melodic score, where certain passages stay in your head for days. Some of the numbers, such as the intensely felt “Light” at the end of the action, could live on independently in cabaret. Kitt’s score won a Tony Award in 2010.
If Sondheim can write shows about cannibalism and people who shoot presidents, why not manic depression? Actually, putting a singing psychiatrist on stage is hardly revolutionary; Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin did it seven decades ago in Lady in the Dark (1941). In intervening years subjects that were once taboo or rarified have gone mainstream. We now know the pharmacology and the lingo. Give credit to Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Next to Normal never bleaches or trivializes the disruption and personal pain of mental disorders, as TV dramas do. Instead, we have greater empathy. There are no villains in Brian Yorkey’s script, but we are encouraged to pin our emotions on the most damaged character, suburban mother Diana Goodman (Andrea Burns).
From the beginning, Diana sounds candid and abrupt. She’s waiting up for her late-arriving son Gabe (Noah Plomgren) but, in another room, she’s comforting her anxious and overachieving daughter Natalie (Alison McCartan). Diana speaks of having sex with her offstage husband, Dan (Chris Hoch), as an obligation; it doesn’t sound like lovemaking. When we meet Dan he appears to be supportive and smiling, and together they accept routine in “Just Another Day.” That routine leads Diana to prepare school lunches--but she places the slices of bread on the floor.
At school a subplot develops as Mozart-playing Natalie attracts a scruffy-looking admirer, Henry (Adam Fontana), whom she dismisses as a “pretentious stoner.” After a three-beat delay he answers, “Not pretentious.” Henry’s persistence disarms Natalie’s rejections, and they soon have a first kiss within Diana’s view, which reminds the mother of her emotional loss. “I Miss the Mountains,” she sings.
The sandwich-on-the-floor episode cannot be shrugged off, and so Dan drives Diana to meet with psychiatrist Mr. Madden (Nehal Joshi) in musical numbers like “Who’s Crazy/ My Psychopharmacologist and I.” We learn that she has been suffering from bipolar disorder linked to repeated hallucinations for 16 years. “Madden” may be a plausible enough name on the street, but for a psychiatrist it’s not encouraging. He adjusts Diana’s medications until she says she doesn’t feel anything, which leads him to declare her stable. Later, alone with son Gabe, Diana follows his suggestion of flushing all those brightly colored medications away.
Weeks pass, and everyone’s spirits trend upward. Anticipating a happy birthday party, Dan looks forward to the occasion with one of the show’s brightest numbers, Dan’s celebratory, “It’s Gonna Be Good.” Then in a breath-stopping reversal, we realize that we have been party to one of Diana’s hallucinations, seeing things on stage through her eyes that simply are not there, on the testimony of every other character. This device effectively cuts two ways. Not only is it the most startling reversal in more than two hours, but it also shows us why Diana has no reason to question what she thinks she sees though her own eyes.
Everyone else perceives a grave problem, however, which leads to an extensive dialogue with the salubriously named Dr. Fine (Nehal Joshi, again, with a different costume and accent). His prognosis is anything but assuring, however, saying that Diana’s condition is “chronic, like diabetes.” He recommends electric shock therapy, only 100 volts with “some memory loss.” After the song, “Seconds and Years,” he encourages Dan to bring out photos and mementoes to help refresh the damaged brain cells. When Diana balks at sticking with all the treatment, drawing Natalie’s criticism, the mother responds with of the most wrenching numbers of the show, as well as the title song: “Maybe (Next to Normal).”
As a display panel in the Hangar lobby details, Next to Normal was in workshop for 10 years before making an off-Broadway splash in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009. The intensity, including many more plot twists than outlined here, bespeaks continuing creative conferences between collaborators Kitt and Yorkey. This means a lack of the kind of suspense found in the template American musical, including Lady in the Dark. The finale cannot be revealed, of course, but we know by at least the intermission that a pat “happy ending” would be a betrayal of the honesty of the script and cannot be expected.
Audiences, including those in Ithaca, have matured. As if to distance themselves from the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kitt and Yorkey quote a refrain from The Sound of Music’s “Favorite Things” when itemizing favored drugs. It’s a cocky way of saying that there will be no such nostrums here. It’s a step beyond the gutsiness of Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents when they left the audience gasping and speechless at the end of West Side Story. What holds the audience here is the unanticipated lyrical expression of emotions and anxieties that so many of us feel. Next to Normal ran for 21 previews and 733 performances. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first musical to do so since Rent.
Although the Hangar expended much energy on the megamusical Titanic in July, Next to Normal is an artistically more significant show. Director Tracy Brigden has assembled six powerhouse voices, of which Andrea Burns’ is the most compelling. As a dramatic actress, Burns gives us a heartbreaking Diana who never asks for pity. Alison McCartan’s Natalie is almost a second lead, contrasting with her mother in “Everything Else.” Every voice soars to heights in solos: Noah Plomgren’s Gabe in “I’m Alive,” Chris Hoch’s Dan in “He’s Not Here,” and the supporting singers in emotive duets, Adam Fontana’s Henry in “Perfect for You” with Natalie, and Nehal Joshi’s Doctor in “Better than Before” with the family.
Next to Normal is a landmark show. No other company in our region is going to produce it.
This production runs through Sept. 1. See Times Table for information.