Next to Normal Is Still The Best Musical Of The Last 15 Years

Erin Conley

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.

What is the Definitive Musical of the 21st Century So Far?

Chris Peterson

Interesting question right? This was asked of me the other day by a reader of this blog. It's one of the few times I actually replied with, I Don't Know. 

We're only a decade an a half into the new century, yes we've already seen some of the best pieces of work of all time come out since 2000. 

So if you had to pick one, what would it be? Here are some candidates and the cases for and against them being the definitive musical of the 21st Century so far. 

Wicked

Case For It:  Wicked has been a titan on Broadway since it opened 12 years ago. Financially, it's become one of the most successful musicals in history. The success of the Broadway production has spawned several other productions worldwide, including various North American productions, a long-running Laurence Olivier Award–nominated West End production and a series of international productions. Since its 2003 debut, Wicked has broken box office records around the world, currently holding weekly-gross-takings records in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and London. In the week ending January 2, 2011, the London, Broadway, and both North American touring productions simultaneously broke their respective records for the highest weekly gross.  In the final week of 2013, the Broadway production broke this record again, earning $3.2 million. The West End production and the North American tour have each been seen by over two million patrons.

Beyond the financials, you could argue that no musical since 2000 has had a larger impact on pop culture. Songs like "Defying Gravity" and "For Good" have become anthems and no musical has appealed more young women more than this one.  

Case Against It: The truth is, Wicked isn't a great musical. The score is poppy, inconsistent, hardly compelling and generic. The choreography is borderline non-existent and the book is ironically colorless. Wicked also failed to win many of the big Tony Awards that year, getting dominated by the smaller Avenue Q. here is an argument also that Wicked represents everything wrong with 21st Century musical theatre where shows rely on big budgets and special effects, rather than the content of the material. 

Spring Awakening

ase For It: The original Broadway production won 8 Tony Awards, including Tonys for Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor. The production also garnered 4 Drama Desk Awards while its original cast album received a Grammy Award. The success of the Broadway production has spawned several other productions worldwide, including various US productions, a short West End production that won 4 Laurence Olivier Awards including Best Musical, and a series of international productions.

Its original cast is now a who's who in the entertainment industry with Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, Skylar Astin, John Gallagher, Jr., Jennifer Damiano  and Krysta Rodriguez. 

Since its closing, it has become a staple among colleges, high schools and community groups. A much heralded production from Deaf West Theatre is making the move to Broadway in the fall and talks of a movie adaptation are moving closer to confirmation as well. It's also one of the few pieces ever to tackle the subject of teenage sexuality. 

Case Against It: While the score is overall excellent, you could argue that there isn't a single iconic song in the entire show. It ran on Broadway for less than three years and most importantly, there have been better dramatic musicals than this in the same decade. 

The Producers

Case For It: The first big hit of the 21st Century. After the opening, The Producers broke the record for the largest single day box-office ticket sales in theatre history, taking in more than $3 million. At the 2001 Tony Awards, it won 12 out of its 15 nominations, becoming one of the few musicals to win in every category for which it was nominated. It was also the first comedy to win Best Musical in nearly a decade. 

Case Against It: The Producers' success largely rested on Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick's shoulders. The loss of the original stars had a detrimental effect on the success of the production, prompting the return of Lane and Broderick for a limited run from December 2003 to April 2004. You could also say that its impact has been largely forgotten, especially after a more and lackluster film adaptation. And while its humor certainly opened the door for many more outrageous comedies to come after, its music was more of an homage to golden age of musical theatre rather than showing us anything new. 

In The Heights

ase for It: What musical has done a more effective job of reaching new audiences and introducing hip hop to Broadway? In addition to its popularity among the younger generation, it proved to be a financial hit as well. The producers announced on January 8, 2009 that the show had recouped its $10 million investment after 10 months. 

It would go onto win 4 Tonys including Best Score and Best Musical thus launching composer Lin-Manual Miranda's rise to become a Broadway icon. Will we be talking about Hamilton in the same regard? We shall see. 

Regardless, In The Heights has become one of the most produced shows by colleges, high schools and community theaters. Especially in more urban areas where musical theatre is not often successfully produced.

Cast Against It: If we're being honest, the book of the show is downright terrible. It's a shame Miranda didn't take more a control with that. And while there is certainly a mix of musical styles, the piece relies on its hip hop infused roots, does that make it the defining musical of the past 15 years? 

Next to Normal

Case for It: The most iconic piece of musical theatre to properly address the effects of Bipolar Disorder, Next to Normal has been a culture smash. Reviews for the original Broadway production were more and favorable.  Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that the Broadway production is "A brave, breathtaking musical. It is something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical." Rolling Stone Magazine called it "The best new musical of the season – by a mile." Next to Normal was on the Ten Best of the Year list for 2009 of "Curtain Up". 

Next to Normal was also one of the first shows to utilize Twitter to boost its popularity. n May 2009, about six weeks into the Broadway run, Next to Normal began publishing an adapted version of the script over Twitter, the social media network. Over 35 days, the serialized version of the show was published, a single line from a character at a time. The Twitter promotion ended the morning of June 7, 2009, the morning of the 2009 Tony Awards. The initiative earned the musical the 2009 OMMA Award for Best in Show Situation Interactive.

Since then its become a community theatre staple as well as colleges. 

Case Against It: It didn't run on Broadway that long, clocking in just over 733 performances. It's also one of the only musicals on this list that didn't win Best Musical(inexplicably losing to Billy Elliot). It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama even though it had not been on the list of three candidates submitted to the twenty-member Pulitzer Prize board by the five-member Drama jury which caused a lot of controversy at the time. 

So which do you think is the defining musical of the past 15 years? Is it one not even on this list? What about Hairspray? Thoroughly Modern Millie? Spamalot? American Idiot? 

As you can see, it's a very hard, but fun, question to answer. 

 

It Truly Takes Two: My Top Five Male Broadway Duets

Patrick Connolly

Is there anything better than a powerful duet in musical theatre. In fact, some of the most iconic songs in musical theatre history are duets. From "Anything You Can Do" to "Tonight" to "For Good", these numbers can be the highlight of an entire show. 

Interestingly enough, when thinking about some of the best duets, you usually don't consider duets performed between two men.  So to give songs like these their due today, here are my five favorite. 

“Agony” from Into the Woods

I’m pretty biased when it comes to this song: I was Rapunzel’s Prince in a production of Into the Woods, Jr. in 2005, and I was responsible for singing his part. But even taking the bias out of the picture, this is easily one of the wittiest male duets ever written for the stage. Of course, it is written by Stephen Sondheim, who is arguably one of the greatest musical theater composers of all-time, so I shouldn’t have expected anything less. 

“The Confrontation” from Les Miserables

Again, a little bit of bias considering a.) It’s Les Miserables, and b.) I sing this with one of my best friends—also a musical theater geek—every single time we get the opportunity. I don’t care. Even though this duet lasts for a brief amount of time, the amount of power this song has is astonishing. I’m a huge sucker for voices that overlap each other, and it’s done so well in this song. I could listen to (and perform) it over and over again, ESPECIALLY if it’s performed by Alfie Boe and Norm Lewis. 

“Lily’s Eyes” from The Secret Garden

No, this song is not a duet between Severus Snape and James Potter expressing how much a little girl reminds them of Lily, but I can understand the confusion (Perhaps a parody could be created in A Very Potter Musical: The College Years?). In what is easily one of the very best songs of this musical, this duet is a marvelous expression of the grief presented in two perspectives: one who longs for his wife, and another who longs for an opportunity. It also helps if you listen to the version with Mandy Patinkin and Robert Westenberg first. An absolutely beautiful duet.

“What You Own” from Rent

Whenever I get into a conversation about their favorite songs from RENT, I mostly receive “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Boheme” as answers. While those answers are absolutely valid, one of my favorite songs from the musical seems to get sidelined. It is a duet between Mark Cohen and Roger Davis that appears in Act Two; I don’t know why most people talk about it more. Not only is it unbelievably catchy (as are the majority of the songs in the musical), but by God, listen to those harmonies by Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. Harmonies were practically born for music, and this song is a shining example. Also, there’s an overt reference to “The Twilight Zone” found in this song, and I am totally okay with that. Thank you, Jonathan Larson. 
{THIS LAST CHOICE FROM NEXT TO NORMAL GOES INTO SPOILER TERRITORY. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE BRILLIANCE THAT IS NEXT TO NORMAL, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. CHEERS!}

“I Am The One (Reprise)” from Next to Normal

My favorite male duet in all of musical theater. Despite being oh-so-brief in under two and a half minutes, it contains more raw emotion and power than ANYTHING that’s played on the radio today. The amount of complexity is astonishing: listen, for instance, to the words “I am the one who watched while you died”, and how it is sung by both Dan and Gabe. With both characters singing this line, it means two completely different things to each of them. With Dan singing this line, it represents his grief for when Gabe died as an infant. With Gabe singing this line (or at least, the visual representation of how Dan would see Gabe as a teenager if he continued to live), it represents his perspective of seeing his father grieve for such a long period of time. Both Aaron Tveit and J. Robert Spencer kill it with their incredible vocals, but any great actor/singer can perform this song, and the song’s message would still come across powerfully. It’s that good.  

Comment below what your favorite male duets are in musical theater history!