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.
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.
Ps– it is never cliche when you tell me that Natalie got you through high school. She did the same for me. 💙
— Jennifer Damiano (@jenndamiano) July 31, 2016
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.
— Adam Chanler-Berat (@ChandelierBeret) March 1, 2016
— Jennifer Damiano (@jenndamiano) March 1, 2016
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!