I know that a lot of you have been waiting for my re-review of Next to Normal. As you may know, after I posted my review of the Off-Broadway production at the Second Stage Theater, librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey contacted me in a series of emails that started out vitriolic but eventually took on a more collegial tone.
I had some problems with the Off-Broadway version, some having to do with the execution of the show, but mostly because of the apparent anti-psychiatry bias that the Next to Normal reflected, at least in my estimation. The show's plot involves the troubles of one family as it copes with the mother's bipolar disorder.
Well, now that Next to Normal has moved to the Booth Theater on Broadway, after an engagement at the Arena Stage, I felt honor bound to revisit the show, partly to see whether it had evolved as a show qua show, but also to see if the apparent bias remained. In short, Next to Normal has greatly improved in terms of quality musical theater. In fact, it's genuinely stirring, heart-breaking at times. But although Yorkey seems to have toned down the show's anti-psychiatry tone -- considerably in fact -- I still saw numerous examples of an admittedly far more subtle bias.
Yorkey, in collaboration with composer Tom Kitt and director Michael Greif, has succeeded in making the relationships among the characters more complex, the emotions less pat. The show exhibits far better exposition and character development. There's also less forced humor: the number in which the mother character, Diana, has a would-be comic manic episode in Costco is thankfully gone, replaced by a far more moving and effective sequence in which she manically makes dozens of sandwiches. Gone too is the questionable act I finale "Feeling Electric," in which Diana has a hallucinatory episode portraying her psychiatrist as a rock star during an ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) session.
As I said, I still perceive an anti-psychiatry message in the show. It's a lot more subtle, but, in a way, that makes it more insidious. There are numerous examples throughout the show that support my contention, for instance a song in which the cast satirically sings the names of various psychoactive drugs to a tune reminiscent of "My Favorite Things." In the song "I Miss the Mountains," the mother character romanticizes the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. But the truth is the "highs" are not refreshing, they're debilitating. And the "lows" are characterized not by wistful melancholy but by active self-loathing and destruction.
But the thing that really solidified the show's bias in my mind was the audience reaction. When Diana's psychiatrist suggests ECT as a treatment, I heard audible gasps from the people around me. When doctor explained that ECT isn't the nightmare people think it is, I heard a number of people snort and tsk. Many of them seemed to me more on the side of the son character in the show, who responds to the doctor's recommendation by exclaiming "It causes brain damage!" In Yorkey's defense, the son character seems to represent a personified version of her disorder. In other words, it's the disease talking. But whether Yorkey intends it or not, the show seems to reinforce the ill-informed prejudices that people have about mental illness and its treatment.
The show's denouement still comes off as an endorsement of Diana's reckless decision to discontinue all forms of treatment. The scene in which Diana confronts her psychiatrist has a self-righteous tone that had the people around me audibly approving of her decision. "Give me pain," one character in the show says. "It's the price we pay to feel." Yes, pain is part of life, but what's wrong with taking advantage of the treatments available to ameliorate that pain? As the psychiatrist states in the show, "medicine may not be perfect, but it's all we have." There are certainly gray areas in this topic, but going it alone is a dangerous option to advocate.
All that said, I still think Next to Normal is an eminently worthy show, one that I encourage anyone who cares about the future of musical theater to see. There were quite a few times during the show when I was moved to tears, including during the numbers "He's Not Here" and "How Could I Ever Forget." The show received 11 Tony nominations this morning, and deservedly so. It's the most artistically ambitious of all the nominees for best musical. (The other nominees are Billy Elliot, Rock of Ages, and surprisingly Shrek, which beat out 9 to 5 for the fourth slot.) Will N2N stop the juggernaut that is Billy Elliot from scooping up every last award? We'll have to wait until June 7th to see.