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No Punches Pulled

Rock musical at ETC transformed an unlikely topic into a prize winner

By Rick Pender · September 7th, 2011 · Onstage
1arts_1_photo_ryan_kurtzRyan Kurtz
It’s a rare for a musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. You probably know some of those shows: South Pacific, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George. 

After Rent won in 1996, it was 14 years before another musical was honored: In 2010, Next to Normal by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, was named. Now one of the first productions of the hard-hitting Rock musical is opening a three-week run at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC). It’s one of the first productions of the show after a successful two-year Broadway run and a well-received national tour.

I use the term “hard-hitting” with serious intention. Next to Normal is not your typical musical with humor and dancing. Diana, its central character, is afflicted with bipolar disorder. Without pulling its punches, the show portrays how her condition affects her life and her family. ETC’s Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers fought hard for the rights to produce this show because it’s the kind of play her theater strives to present.

Meyers recently told me, “It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s an extraordinary play wrapped in extraordinary music. Just as a dog goes after a bone, I went after this play! It’s a play for our times.”

She adds, “Next to Normal is that it works as a play. The music is terrific; it’s a fabulous Rock score. But when you read it out loud, it’s a play unto itself. At its core, it’s the story of this family. The play has many happy moments when people let loose and enjoy themselves. But it’s a very sad story about a woman who’s trying to come to grips with her own mind. What does that do to the people around her?”

Meyers, who typically fills her seasons with engaging, off-Broadway-style plays, says she has approached Next to Normal as a drama working “from the story out.” At her first rehearsal with the cast of local professional actors, Meyers had them read everything through — “all the lines, all the lyrics, all the dialogue, putting it together the same way we do a play.”

Next to Normal’s lyricist Brian Yorkey likes that approach. 

“We tried for the words to be conversational and human and things people would say,” Yorkey says by phone. “Except in a few places, we tried not to be overtly poetic with musical scenes and musical soliloquies. Starting with the words is a great way to start. Then layering the music will open up more possibilities.”

Meyers explains, “The old rule about musicals is that you sing because something is too important to say — so they have to sing it.

Next to Normal is a good example of that. The issues are just a little elevated beyond what we all deal with on a daily basis. So the music elevates the stakes and the emotion.” 

She’ll be assisted by Music Director Scot Woolley, another ETC veteran.

Next to Normal took nearly a decade to develop, and college classmates Yorkey and Kitt endured many questions about whether it made sense to tell the story as a musical.

“That play has already been written by people like (Eugene) O’Neill and (Edward) Albee,” Yorkey says. “But it’s never been done as a musical. I’d rather do something that hasn’t been done than something that has been. Most important, music has a dimension to tell stories that simple words can’t. It works on your subconscious in ways and at levels that words alone can’t. For me it was always a musical.”

Where did the idea for a show about bipolar disorder come from? Yorkey and Kitt needed a topic for a musical theater workshop in 1998, when Yorkey saw a segment on Dateline NBC about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). 

“Tom and I both come from ‘interesting family dynamics,’ ” Yorkey says, without much elaboration. “We were both the youngest children of ‘vivid’ families.” 

The show is not, he says, autobiographical in any way but, “The journey was very personal to Tom and me. That’s why it became something that we were more and more interested in.”

They did a lot of research as the show evolved from a 10-minute piece called Feeling Electric to an off-Broadway production in 2008 that received mixed reviews. Their next step was unusual: They took Next to Normal to a regional theater, Arena Stage, in Washington, D.C., in 2008 to polish it some more. When it came back to New York for a production in a Broadway theater it was a much stronger work. 

Meyers thinks that’s the key to Next to Normal’s success. 

“I have such respect for Brian and Tom that they did not compromise,” she says. “Many people tried to persuade them to make it more salable. The remarkable thing is that writing from the core of what they wanted to write about, they ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. When you don’t compromise, you end up with something extraordinary rather than something watered down.”

Yorkey recalls a moment during previews for the Broadway production when he and Kitt were standing in the back of the theater. 

“This red-headed, freckle-faced kid, not more than 15 years old, came to thank us for writing the show,” Yorkey says. “He said he had been diagnosed bipolar three months earlier and had not been able to explain to his friends what that meant. Now he was able to point to our show and say, ‘That’s what it’s like.’ I turned to Tom and said, ‘I don’t care what happens from here. If we can write something that has that effect, we’ve done something worth doing.’ There is nothing easy about Next to Normal. At ETC, the role of Diana is being played by Jessica Hendy, a graduate of the musical theater program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, who worked in New York for a decade. 

“Courage is the foremost quality Diana has to have,” Yorkey says of the role. “It’s a great part, but not easy. It requires tremendous courage and stamina. It requires the ability to rip your heart out and show it to the audience without flinching. She goes to some very dark places, and she takes the audience along on the journey. Anyone who does this part does it without a net.” 

Meyers is convinced that Hendy can make that journey.

Next to Normal was staged for Broadway by Michael Greif, the same director who staged Rent, the previous musical to win a Pulitzer. In his liner notes for the show’s cast recording he wrote, “To me, Next to Normal is like an independent film. I love the honesty of its characters and the richness of its concerns. I love how one family’s crisis becomes every family’s crisis and how all the dirty laundry is left out for everyone to see. I love the specificity and originality of the lyrics — which make directing and acting the play so vigorous and joyous, and so painful and rewarding. And mostly I love the extraordinary music that expresses every idea and every emotion so perfectly and so profoundly.”

NEXT TO NORMAL, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 25.



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