I genuinely believe Next to Normal is the best overall musical of at least the past decade, perhaps even the past 15 years. I am aware this is a bold statement, but it is one I stand by for a multitude of reasons.
For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Next to Normal is an original rock musical with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey that ran on Broadway from April 2009 to January 2011. It is the story of Diana Goodman, a wife and mother struggling with bipolar disorder, and the effects her illness has on her and her family. It won three 2009 Tony Awards: Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley. While it lost the Best Musical prize to Billy Elliot, a decision still hotly debated in the theater community, it became one of only 8 musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the others: Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and Rent.)
One thing that makes Next to Normal remarkable is that as mentioned, it is wholly original. This is more rare on Broadway than you might think. In 2014, Broadway producer Ken Davenport blogged about how only 18% of musicals from the past 30 years were wholly original, while everything else was an adaptation. To take that further, 83% of Best Musical Tony winners from the past 30 years were adaptations. There are certainly different levels of adaptations: for example, Once is based on and very similar to the musical film of the same name, whereas Kinky Boots and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder are based on a music-less movie and a book, respectively. The Book of Mormon (2011), Memphis (2010), In the Heights (2008), Avenue Q (2004), and Contact (2000) are the only wholly original Best Musical winners of the 21st century thus far.
I have always admired the lengthy development process that went into the making of Next to Normal- it only became a Broadway success after two decades of work. Back in 1998, Kitt and Yorkey first premiered the show as a 10-minute workshop sketch called Feeling Electric. It wasn’t until 2002 that the musical had its first full-length reading, and the show continued to be tweaked over the course of several more workshops spanning the next few years. In 2008, it was produced under the name Next to Normal for the first time Off-Broadway, starring much of the cast that would eventually bring it to Broadway. Believe it or not, the show was not well-received. Critics thought it was too flashy, disagreed with its stance on the treatment of bipolar disorder, and found it to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Kitt and Yorkey listened to these criticisms and largely reworked the show, removing much of the glitz and flash to zero in on the emotional core of the story.
At the end of that year, a new version of Next to Normal premiered regionally at Virginia’s Arena Stage, where it finally received rave reviews. The show only got to that point because its creators were so open to criticism and devoted to making the show the best it could be. They removed the controversial, formerly titular “Feeling Electric” number, which portrayed Diana receiving electroshock therapy in a way critics found to be distasteful. Also ditched was an awkwardly upbeat number where Diana shops at Costco. They also brought back a song from early versions of the show, “I’ve Been,” which allows the character of Dan, Diana’s husband, a much-needed moment to connect with the audience. While it was certainly not an easy journey to Broadway, the development process and the creators’ willingness to step back and reevaluate their work is what made the show into the critically acclaimed success it was.
Next to Normal is also notable for its honest and rare portrayal of mental illness, something that is still not incredibly common in the media. The show does not shy away from looking deep into Diana’s emotional state and addressing the controversial subjects of medication, therapy, suicide, and, perhaps most notably, the effect Diana’s illness has on those around her. In addition to learning about Diana, we also learn about her husband, who feels helpless, and her daughter, who lives in the shadow of a sibling and fears turning into her mother. While the Goodmans’ situation is extreme, the feelings and worries that result from it apply to many situations, enabling audience members to relate to the characters.
In most musicals, I can usually note a scene or a musical number that is the weak link or doesn’t fully make sense. I can honestly say there is not a thing I would change about Next to Normal- likely because, by the time I got to see it on Broadway, it had already been through those changes and growing pains. I have seen the show a half dozen times over the years, and while I have cried every time, I don’t know that it’s ever been at the same moment. NY Times theater critic Ben Brantley famously called the show a “feel-everything musical,” and this could not be more accurate. Does the show occasionally play moments for laughs? Yes, but that is necessary to help balance out the deep heartbreak ingrained in the show’s DNA. Does Act One feature a plot twist that some may argue is heavy-handed or cliche? Yes, but it also drives what I find to be the most perfect 15 minutes of an already near-perfect musical- the stretch from “You Don’t Know” through “I’m Alive” is simply stunning, and the show smartly chose to perform a portion of it on the Tony Awards.
In my opinion, few musicals achieve the emotional wallop of Next to Normal, and when you combine that with a stunningly solid score, book, and characters, it is a show that will go down in history as one of modern musical theater’s greatest achievements.