Off-Broadway Musical 'Next to Normal' Being Reworked at Washington's Arena Stage
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The producers, composers and actors of "Next to Normal" are shouting it, in the cause of this musical tale of a suburban mom's total mental collapse. And if they do manage to find success in the unorthodox effort to give it a Washington retooling -- after it was already unveiled and reviewed in New York -- then an intriguing new model might be in the offing for how an American musical becomes its finished self.
Traditionally in the musical theater, a new show starts somewhere in the provinces and -- as its authors tweak the script, substitute songs and rework the dance numbers -- it takes geographic baby steps, with New York as the ultimate goal, and last word. But with the move of this musical's set, director and much of its original cast from off-Broadway to Arena Stage, "Next to Normal" is breaking a hard-and-fast theater mold.
No one involved in the project -- from Michael Greif (who directed "Rent") to the accomplished musical actress Alice Ripley to the composing team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey -- wants to say out loud that the long-range aim is another crack at the Big Apple. Or, more to the point, the holy grail also known as (shhhhhhhh!) Broadway.
For now, the creators of "Next to Normal," which began previews Friday -- and in another unusual step for Washington theater, is holding off on inviting the critics until mid-December -- are simply looking at the Arena run as a fresh new chapter. "Here we have this incredible opportunity to try it again," says Kitt, the show's composer. "We're just going to see what happens."
"The way in which it was received critically said, 'Keep working on this,' " Greif explains, sitting recently in the Manhattan rehearsal space where the musical was being put back on its feet before shifting to Arena's temporary home in Crystal City. "We all felt close enough to want to get at it again."
And so begins the second life of "Next to Normal." Set in the precincts of a "normal" suburb, the musical takes on, with great sensitivity, the impact of mental illness on an American family. The mother, Diana -- played by Ripley, reprising the role she originated last winter at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre -- is depicted in various phases of her disease, from an initial breakdown, through sessions with a psychiatrist, to the intimations of healing. In the original version, Act 1 concluded with the show's biggest production number, "Feeling Electric," a glitzy interlude in which Ripley's Diana was strapped to a gurney and, to the thwang of electric guitars, underwent electroshock therapy.
Along the way, we were introduced to Diana's family, her children and husband, Dan, whose stories are also told, mostly from the perspective of how they reacted to Diana's patience-trying "episodes." The point of "Next to Normal" has been the attempt at some clinical verisimilitude as well as a diagnosis of the emotional extremes to which the family is driven, of how complexly each person is affected when a loved one is afflicted.
Although the Second Stage engagement was a popular success (the show's run was extended because of ticket demand), the critical reception was mixed. There were whispers in the press of a Broadway transfer, as "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," another musical that started at Second Stage, had done. But the fact remained that for a show with such a serious topic, the notices, particularly the one in the New York Times, were not sufficiently supportive to ensure that ticket-buyers would fill a large Broadway house. As its chief critic Ben Brantley observed, "One minute you're rolling your eyes; the next, you're wiping them."
Other critics also found its content erratic -- it was appropriating showbiz cliches even as it tried to apply psychological texture to an unlikely subject for a musical. Within the theater world, the show had many admirers, but its creators were willing to believe that the reviewers had a point, that the Second Stage incarnation might not have been the optimal version.
"We were really proud of what we had done," says Yorkey, the book writer and lyricist. "But we still felt there was work to be done."
Most of the time, that would have been that. The director, the actors, the writers would have moved on to the next thing. "Next to Normal" might have continued to live, in revivals across the country. In this case, though, a twist occurred: Nearly everyone wanted to stick with it.