Next to Normal

I like roller coasters. When I was in college (in Orlando) I frequented Islands of Adventure so I could ride in the front row of Ice and channel my inner Bruce Banner while blasting through The Hulk. I like having that excitement – bursts at a time – preceded by climbing anticipation and followed by relieved recovery. I like my theatre like I like roller coasters which is why, to bring it around, I love Next to Normal.

Next to Normal is an original American musical, over ten years in the making and well worth the wait. I was first exposed to the dramatic musical in February 2008 when it was produced off-Broadway by
Second Stage Theatre. I didn’t know what to expect – didn’t even have a clue as to what the show was about – and was thoroughly entertained and moved by the show and completely blown away by (most) of the cast. (Two cast members have changed since that iteration; one is equally as good as his predecessor and one is miles better.) The emotion in Alice Ripley’s voice; the electricity in Aaron Tveit’s every move; the nuanced fragility of Jennifer Damiano’s performance – all these elements plus a truly compelling book with even more affecting lyrics and music make for the best original musical in ages.

To put it simply, Next to Normal is about a family dealing with a mother who is bipolar. There’s nothing schticky or trite about the depictions. Everything comes from a place of earnestness and honesty. Yes, the test for the teenage couple is still a school dance (a paragon of teenage rom-coms) but the show is so well executed that this minor dalliance into stock territory is fully forgivable.

I would say that watching Next to Normal is like sitting in on a master class in musical theatre except that everything is so good, you don’t see the work – or, more accurately, you don’t see the effort.
Brian Yorkey wrote raw, revealing and revelatory lyrics (and he wrote the show’s book) which were then set to the music of one of American Musical Theatre’s greatest modern musicians, Tom Kitt. Kitt has a knack for beautifully expressing moments through music and, unlike other musicals currently on the boards, his score sounds original rather than a derivative of something I’ve heard twenty times before (I’m looking at you, Billy Elliot.) With most of the show being sung-through, the music is the lynch-pin that holds the show together. No wonder Next to Normal took home the Tony for both Best Orchestrations and Best Score. (Alice Ripley rightfully won the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.)

Also exemplary is how wonderfully many of the songs stand on their own. Yes, some of the songs, when taken out of context, are not exactly shower songs. But the ones that are are nothing short of breathtaking. "I Miss the Mountains" is a testament to the virtue of feeling life rather than numbing yourself to the highs in an effort to escape the lows. "Super Boy and the Invisible Girl" is, arguably, every younger sibling’s anthem. "I’m Alive" is, well, alive. It’s sinister and exhilarating at once and the memory of watching Aaron Tveit bound around on stage during the number is truly unforgettable. (I’ll take a moment here to lament the Tony nominating committee’s malfeasance in not even nominating Tveit for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. The actor who won was not, in my opinion, even the best of those nominated, but the fact that Tveit was not a nominee is appalling.) And the final number, "Light," is, without giving anything away, simply the perfect ending to this thrilling ride.