The Impact of Next to Normal

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In life, I feel that most people eventually come across a piece of art – a musical or otherwise – that they can say definitively changed their life. It can change their world outlook or inspire them to make a change in themselves. In my case it did all of the above and more. I discovered that piece of art when I was thirteen years old: the 2009 rock musical Next to Normal.

In short, Next to Normal, created by composing team Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, focuses on the character of Diana Goodman (originated by Alice Ripley), a mother with worsening bipolar disorder due to the loss of her infant son many years ago, and how her family is affected by her actions, her disorder, and their attempts to alleviate it through the help Diana’s doctor (originated by Louis Hobson). Moreover, Dan, her husband (originated by J. Robert Spencer), their teenage daughter, Natalie (originated by Jennifer Damiano), and her boyfriend, Henry (originated by Adam Chanler-Berat) must struggle and comes to terms with their situation all while dealing with their own underlying anxiety and depression, manifested in Diana’s hallucination of her and Dan’s son – now a teenager as well – Gabe (originated by Aaron Tveit).

To say Next to Normal is the first musical to deal with a topic like mental illness is an exaggeration. It’s simply not true; musicals like A Light In The Piazza and Spring Awakening have done it before. But I’d argue that Next to Normal has done it best, leaving audiences with a real, raw, and honest portrayal of what it’s like to be dealing with an illness that is all too often not taken seriously in media, despite the fact it affects so many seemingly “normal” families in real life – about 2.6% of the U.S.

Along with mental illness, dysfunctional families in media akin to the Goodmans in Next to Normal are typically pigeonholed into some kind of stereotype, i.e. “the crazies”. But in Next to Normal, this isn’t the case. Instead of a stereotypical portrayal, it’s a truthful one. Anyone who’s ever experienced a tough family situation – not necessarily in the dysfunctional sense – can relate to the Goodmans way of life, with already teen angst-riddled Natalie feeling like she’s been cast out into the background by her parents who are more focused on Diana’s disorder, and Dan attempting to keep his family together when things are certainly not as they should be.

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Jennifer Damiano (left) as “Natalie” and Alice Ripley as “Diana” in the original Broadway production.

Moreover, the show’s Tony performance in 2009 was introduced by none other than the late actress and writer, Carrie Fisher – who was an active mental health advocate and bipolar disorder sufferer herself. The show has also spawned many, many international productions after its Broadway closing in 2011. The most well known of which is Casi Normales (directly translates to “Almost Normal”), the Argentinian production, which ran from January 2012 to April 2015. The show is so popular in Argentina that original cast members from Casi Normales and Broadway came together in Buenos Aires in 2015 and 2016 to perform songs from the show in both English and Spanish.

At the Tony Awards, Next to Normal walked away with awards for three of its eleven nominations – it’s the opinion of many that it was robbed of the Best Musical award by Billy Elliot. In 2010, Next to Normal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – a high honor that’s rarely given to musicals, the last of which at the time was in 1996 for Jonathan Larson’s Rent, a show dealing with similar heavy subject matter.

During a lighter moment in the show, Henry asks Natalie to a spring formal dance that’s set for March 1st in the song “Hey #1“. She eventually agrees, showing up late to the dance. Henry claims she looks “like a star, a vision in blue” in the song “Hey #3/ Perfect For You (Reprise)“. The date in real life has become somewhat of a symbol for Next to Normal fans, as many take to wearing blue to signify their connection to the show. And although the fans often remember each year, two original Next to Normal cast members – who have since moved on to bigger and better projects – only acknowledge the date on Twitter. Without fail, every year on March 1st Adam Chanler-Berat (original Henry) tweets Jennifer Damiano (original Natalie) the word “hey”, and within minutes, Jennifer tweets back “hey”, just as things were said in the show.

When viewed at a first glance, Next to Normal is a Broadway show who’s impact might seem insignificant, but in reality is greater than one could ever imagine. To me, the impact of Next to Normal hits you when you truly accept its message: someday, things will be okay. Maybe not now, but someday – with time and support. The March 1st tweets are a sweet, yet subtle reminder of how Next to Normal and its message of mental health awareness have held strong throughout the years, bringing each new listener – and myself – the same words of hope sung in the show’s powerful finale – there will be light.


Do you have a special connection with Next to Normal or another musical or play? Share it with me in the comments!

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Spotlight On: Movie Musicals

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The 89th annual Academy Awards are this weekend, and with La La Land – an original musical – being one of the nominated films gaining a whole lot of traction, I figured we should take a look back at movie musicals of the recent past and how they came to be. Some of these films have also been accepted into the Oscar nominated club, and some haven’t. Opinions on these movie musicals vary, from being beloved by people of all ages to being the center of extreme dislike by those who are sticklers for a faithful adaptation. But the truth is, a movie can’t fit the entire two hour or so plot of a musical into its allotted time frame. Film audiences are completely different than theatre audiences in terms of want they want out of their respective medium and the gratification they get from watching it. While we’re on that subject, let me say now that this is a theatre blog, not a film blog. I don’t claim to be incredibly knowledgeable on the craft of film. So let’s dive into some contemporary movie musicals and how they are adapted from their source material.

Les Misérables (2012)

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This beloved musical originating from the West End was already adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, so the 2012 film adaptation had quite a lot to live up to. Despite the story’s sprawling history, this adaptation, featuring acclaimed actors like Hugh Jackman (Jean ValJean) and Anne Hathaway (Fantine), went over well relatively well with fans and critics alike. The film contains almost every song from the stage production, save for some lyric changes and shorted songs here and there. Director Tom Hooper was commended for his decision to let the cast sing live on set, instead of lip syncing and recording over the take later. This allowed for more emotional and real moments that the audience could connect to. And these efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the Academy, either. The film was nominated for eight Oscar awards in 2013 and ended up taking home four. Musical or not, this goes to show the true testament of Les Misérables‘s cathartic take on hope and the human spirit.

Rent (2005)

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First premiering Off Broadway in 1996, Rent was a musical that changed the game. It is credited for making the pop/rock style musical popular, a sub genre that is certainly no shortage of in musical theatre today. It was provocative enough for people to pay attention to it and its subject matter that dealt with LGBT characters, drugs abuse, and AIDS/HIV. The 2005 film adaptation was able to satiate its legions of fans by bring back almost the entire original Broadway cast to play their same roles. Despite quite a few songs being cut or shortened – such as “Goodbye Love” and “Halloween” – long time “Rentheads” still keep coming back to this one.

The Last Five Years (2015)

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Based on his personal life, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years chronicles five years of the relationship of a young couple: Cathy (played by Anna Kendrick in the film), an aspiring actress, and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an aspiring writer. In the musical, Cathy’s songs start from the end of her and Jamie’s relationship, and Jamie’s songs are vice versa, allowing for a brief moment in the middle where the two’s respective paths truly cross. This interesting way of storytelling was kept intact for the 2015 film adapation, and it definitely adds another layer of depth to the interactions Cathy and Jamie have. With gorgeous shots and costumes, I’d say this movie musical adaptation is worth a watch.


What are your thoughts on movie musicals? Was there anything I missed? Let me know if I should do a part two on movie musicals in the comments!

Review and Thoughts: War Paint (Pre Broadway Engagement)

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The highly anticipated new musical War Paint, starring Tony award winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, is set to begin Broadway previews in March. But patrons of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre got to see it first, beginning in June 2016 in a limited pre-Broadway engagement. I was lucky enough to be one of those who were able to see the show a bit later in its run at the Goodman, so let’s take a look at what you can expect from the Broadway production based on the first run of the show.

War Paint is a musical rooted in history. It tells the tale of the intense rivalry between two pioneers in the cosmetology business – Helena Rubinstein (Patti Lupone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole). Spanning over 50 years, the rivalry between the two women is showcased through a myriad of songs – composed by Scott Frankel – mainly to show off the immense talents of its two leading players. The style of music is definitely what I’d call traditional musical theatre, with many ballads right off the bat. I personally enjoyed the more upbeat numbers, such as “Fire And Ice”, “War Paint”, and “Step On Out”. LuPone and Ebersole are one hundred percent worth the price of admission to this show. In fact, these two theatre icons are what give the show its heart and depth in terms of acting level. Without them, this show would certainly not be creating the buzz that it is this season.

However, the two stars aren’t the only reason for high praise. The set of the show, primarily designed by David Korins (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen) is stunning. Akin to shows like Next to Normal, the set and lighting change with the character who is being featured in the scene. A great example of how Korins interprets this direction comes throughout the entire show, as Helena and Elizabeth share the stage together each of them have their own “side”, where all the action of their respective lives is contained.

With direction from Michael Greif (Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, If/Then), the design, score, and story fall perfectly into place to create a wonderfully charming masterpiece of theatre. While the plot may not be for everyone, the real life women who are the basis for it are incredibly fascinating to research. If anything, I hope War Paint will bring awareness to how influential women in business can be to impressionable audience members looking to be inspired. Encompassing true theatrical magic and talent in every capacity, War Paint is a long time theatre fan’s dream.


War Paint begins previews at the Nederlander Theatre on March 7th. For more information visit warpaintmusical.com.

The Art of Playbill Collecting and Trading

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You know those yellow-topped, purse-sized magazines you get when you see a play or a musical that give you some insight into who the cast and creatives are? Those are Playbills. In my experience, there are two kinds of theatergoers when it comes to Playbills: those who read the Playbills just as something to do before the show, then just leave them on the floor when they leave, and those who are the exact opposite and cherish every Playbill they own, even going as far to a bit after the show to pick up dropped ones. The latter kind of person is most likely a Playbill collector. Today, we’re going to dive deep into the intricate art of Playbill collecting, trading, and selling – and why people are so addicted to it.

Something about the idea of having a free keepsake from a 2 hour theatre piece is what draws people in to Playbill collecting. Like most collections, it starts small, with just one Playbill. In my personal experience, I just saved every Playbill from the few shows I had seen from the start. Then the rest of my family who had brought their Playbills home pawned them off on me, and from there I made a choice to work on growing my collection. So, if you want to start a Playbill collection just by seeing shows, give it time! Remember that even the largest collections started somewhere.

If waiting isn’t your style, it’s time to do some research into the vast world of Playbill trading and selling. Want a Playbill for a certain show that features a specific cast? Chances are, you can get one by trading one of your Playbills with another Playbill seller. Through negotiation, you can work out which one of your Playbills is of “equal value” to what one you want, payment, and shipment. If you’re looking to trade, make sure you do it through a reputable platform, such as Tumblr, BroadwayWorld Forums, or the Broadway subreddit. On the other hand, if you’re looking to just get of a Playbill or snag a couple extra dollars, you can sell you playbills instead. Ebay is the most common place for this.

Despite all the fun, having a large Playbill collection comes with a literal price: storage. Most hardcore Playbill collectors have one or more official Playbill binders – which are priced from a range of $15-$40 based on Playbill capacity – to keep them safe if they plan on displaying, trading, or selling them. But if you don’t have a large collection or the funds to practically secure your Playbills in a maximum security fortress, fear not! One storage option I used when I first started out Playbill collecting is an item everyone might have laying around the house: a shoe box. It sounds odd, but a regular old shoe box is the perfect size for at least 20 or so Playbills. If you store the box in a dry, room temperature climate, it should work out just fine. Make sure to upgrade your storage once your collection gets bigger, or you decide to sell or trade. Keeping your Playbills in the best condition possible is crucial to making a successful trade.

Whether you’re brand new to Playbill collecting and trading or you’re a seasoned pro, the most important thing to remember is don’t be intimidated. You’ll learn as you go. Have fun and get collecting!


And that’s it! Those are basics when it comes to maintaining a Playbill collection, and trading and selling. Was there anything I missed? What’s your favorite Playbill in your collection? Let me know in the comments!

The Best Musical Couples

It’s that day of the year… Valentine’s Day. Most people either love it or hate it. Personally, I’m a bit indifferent to the whole thing. The discounted chocolate the day after is the best part. But for many, it’s a celebration of love for their significant other and others they care about. And on Broadway, there’s no shortage of couples, romantic or platonic. The “love song” has been staple of musicals since the beginning. In celebration of the holiday, today I’ll be showcasing just a few of my favorite couples from musicals, hailing just from Broadway for now. Perhaps I’ll make a part two to this post sometime in the future! Also, this list is purely subjective and these are just my personal opinions, so please feel free to share your favorites in the comments!

Henry and Natalie (Next to Normal)

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Adam Chanler-Berat (left) as “Henry” and Jennifer Damiano as “Natalie”.

This couple from the 2009 three time Tony winning musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey has become somewhat well recognizable over the years. With their three duets -“Hey #1“, “Hey #2“, and “Hey #3/Perfect For You (Reprise)” – ranging from casual to emotional, Henry and Natalie’s high school relationship, although turbulent at times, is a bit of relief departure from the rest of Next to Normal’s heavy subject matter. In the aforementioned “Hey #3/Perfect For You (Reprise)”, Henry and Natalie reconcile after some fighting to vow that they’ll always be there for each other, no matter what happens. Although couples prefer to dress in pink on V-Day, these two are just fine with blue.

Alison and Joan (Fun Home)

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Karen Eilbacher (left) as “Joan” and Abby Corrigan as “Medium Alison”.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a huge amount of lesbian couples in musicals. As I mentioned in my Fun Home review, it’s incredibly refreshing to see any sort of diversity in musicals. This relationship is crucial to Alison in terms of her coming to terms with herself and her family life. Joan is encouraging and rational towards Alison’s more frazzled and anxious persona. As with any relationship, communication is key, and these two certainly take that advice to heart throughout Fun Home. If you’re looking for some relationship goals, you should definitely change your major to Alison and Joan.

Evan and Zoe (Dear Evan Hansen)

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Laura Dreyfuss (left) as “Zoe” and Ben Platt as “Evan”.

These two are one of the newest couples to grace the Broadway stage. Their gorgeous duet “Only Us” is a great set up to what their relationship will be throughout the rest of the show: open, caring, and supportive. On top of this, their chemistry in general feels very natural, and that’s because it is. The actors who play Evan and Zoe – Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss, respectively – are good friends in real life and active supporters of their show relationship, affectionately hashtagging it as #evanandzoeforever. These two complete each other, and this Valentine’s Day I bet they’ll be watching the whole world disappear together.


Who are some of your favorite musical couples? Share them with me in the comments!

Spotlight On: Fansens

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Earlier this week, I reviewed the highly anticipated Dear Evan Hansen cast album. In that post, I briefly mentioned that Dear Evan Hansen has a decently sized and devoted fanbase. They’re called “Fansens”, and I’m definitely a member. So for today’s post, let’s dive into who Fansens are and why they love Dear Evan Hansen.

Fansens are an incredibly unique and fascinating fan group to interact with and be apart of. Hailing from every walk of life imaginable, Fansens come in varying degrees of obsession – some have just discovered the show, while others have seen it in every iteration multiple times. Some make fanart, have tattoos of lyrics from the show that have meaning to them, and some make memes on Twitter. Due to the show’s high school protagonists, many Fansens are also teenagers and young adults. Fansens of this age are the ones who can truly relate to what goes on in Dear Evan Hansen, and even more so thanks to the accessibility of Dear Evan Hansen through all its social media platforms. But it’s not just the official Dear Evan Hansen social media that has people talking. A slew of Tumblr fan accounts, a Facebook group, and a newly created subreddit are just a fraction of the groups of fans who are taking to the internet to share their love of the musical.

I spoke with my friend from Utah, Abram Berry, about what makes Dear Evan Hansen so appealing to teenagers: “I love Dear Evan Hansen because it paints mental illness in a realistic way,” Berry explained. “It’s not treated as a joke, but instead as a real struggle in these characters’ lives”.

Despite the majority of the fanbase being young people, that’s not stopping adults from loving the show too. The mother characters of “Heidi” (played by Rachel Bay Jones) and “Cynthia” (played by Jennifer Laura Thompson) in the show, affectionately referred to as the “Moms of Dear Evan Hansen” by their actresses have deeply resonated with parents who take their kids to see the show. In fact, the show’s subject matter has inspired some parents to forge a deeper connection with their children after seeing the show.

Since the cast album was just released last week, I assume that the Fansens will only grow from here on out. With all the buzz Dear Evan Hansen has been created just two months into its Broadway run, don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the Fansen community sometime soon. As for Abram’s reasoning to become a Fansen, he had one last thing to add: “Ben Platt is a frickin’ adorable puppy”.


Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing on Broadway. For more information visit dearevanhansen.com.

 

 

Review and Thoughts: Dear Evan Hansen Cast Album

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It’s finally here. The show everyone’s talking about this season, Dear Evan Hansen, just released their cast album this past Friday and I’m here to give my thoughts. I’ve got to be honest, I’m pretty biased towards this show – when the cast album was announced I pre-ordered it immediately. I first came across Dear Evan Hansen last spring when it was running Off Broadway at Second Stage Theatre through a few people on social media. The plot holds incredible similarities to something I experienced my freshman year of high school, and the use of social media and Ben Platt in the title role really drew me in. Despite my excitement, I’m going to try my best to take a neutral stance for this review. So, does the cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen truly live up to the hype of the show itself? Let’s find out.

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Ben Platt as the titular character, “Evan Hansen”.

In Dear Evan Hansen, high school senior Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) gets unexpectedly wrapped up in a complicated lie surrounding the suicide of fellow student Connor Murphy (Mike Faist). As the lie spreads through social media, the socially anxious Evan begins to connect with Connor’s sister and his crush, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss), and their parents, Larry (Michael Park) and Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson). Eventually, tensions start to grow between Evan’s mother, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) and his friends, Jared (Will Roland) and Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd), causing Evan to wonder if he did the right thing for a chance to fit in.

One thing that is apparent the moment you hit play on the cast album, is that every cast member has a moment to shine. Interestingly, the first song of the album, “Anybody Have a Map?” features Heidi and Cynthia and their struggles in parenting in a digital age. The decision to feature the mothers of Dear Evan Hansen versus the titular character in the first song of the show really sets the tone for the rest of the musical and shows the listener that no character will be pushed to the side without getting at least some development.

The most notable performance on the album is Ben Platt (best known for his role as “Benji” in the Pitch Perfect films) in the title role. His breakout song in the musical is “Waving Through a Window“, in which Evan expresses his desire to fit in with his peers and be apart of something bigger. The aforementioned song has been quite popular with listeners even before the cast album release, thanks to its incredibly relatable lyrics (written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and to the Dear Evan Hansen marketing team releasing it as a free download to those whole pre-ordered the cast album. Platt’s impressive tenor vocals that feature a strong belt also take center stage in “For Forever” and “Words Fail” – the latter of which many say is the most emotional song in album thanks to Platt’s talents. Rachel Bay Jones as Heidi has a few similar moments as well – “So Big / So Small” is a number so emotionally draining on Jones that after she comes off stage, one of the stage managers tells her a different joke after every live performance. Her, along with Kristolyn Lloyd as Alana and Will Roland as Jared also give a commendable performance in the intense Act 2 number “Good For You“, in which Evan’s lie is exposed and his friends and family become upset with his choices.

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Ben Platt as Evan, Will Roland as Jared (center), and Mike Faist as Connor in Dear Evan Hansen.

A more comedic song and arguably the most catchy out of the whole track list, is “Sincerely, Me“, which features Platt, Faist, and Roland’s characters trying to write backdated emails to back up Evan’s claim that him and Connor were in fact friends and wrote candid emails to each other. With a toe-tapping, bouncing piano melody, a catchy refrain that’s been stuck in my head all weekend, and lyrics that are just plain absurd when taken out of context such as “You’ll be obsessed with all my forest expertise!”, this song is my personal favorite.

But perhaps the true selling point of the Dear Evan Hansen cast album (at the time of writing this, it currently sits at the number one spot on the iTunes top albums chart), despite its stellar cast, is what its message provides listeners of all ages with – a sense of belonging.  This comes in the form of the show’s powerful Act 1 finale, “You Will Be Found“, where Evan attempts to convince those at a school assembly that there will always be someone there for them. The song’s building chorus comes to fruition with a simple refrain of the phrase “You are not alone.” that practically bursts with hope. The titular mantra of the song has become so popular among fans that the official Dear Evan Hansen social media have taken to using it as a marketing hashtag, which many fans use to share their personal stories, photos, covers, fanart, and more to show what the musical means to them. If you must listen to only one song from Dear Evan Hansen, I’m begging you – make it this one.

The message that “You Will Be Found” and Dear Evan Hansen itself tries to leave its listeners, I feel, is the beauty of Dear Evan Hansen‘s cast album release: everyone – no matter how old you are, where you come from, or the circumstances – can relate to feeling alone, feeling like a burden, feeling like nobody would notice if you just disappeared one day.  What’s difficult to grasp about that feeling – if you’ve ever felt it in any magnitude – is that you can’t really understand the immense weight of that feeling and how so many people are affected by it until you see it manifest in such a large way. Until you truly see it’s not just you. And seeing a entire real, tangible community of people who have once experienced similar struggles and come out the other side intact makes it true that, yes, you are not alone in what you feel. And yes – you will be found, no matter how broken you might be.


Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing on Broadway, and the cast album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube. For more information visit dearevanhansen.com.