A rock musical about a family chronically destabilized by the mother’s severe bipolar disorder and psychiatric treatments? It’s hard to imagine developing a lyrical stage success from such a scenario. But playwright/lyricist Brian Yorkey and musician Tom Kitt did exactly that.
The Broadway production of Next to Normal drew rave reviews from critics as gimlet-eyed as Ben Brantley of the New York Times and was nominated for 11 Tony awards, including Best Musical of 2009.
The play, which opens this week at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The judges called it "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."
Years ago, Issaquah’s Village Theatre introduced the boy Yorkey to the world of drama. In their summer program called Kidstage, he wrote, staged, and directed his first play. “From a young age I knew you could write something and people would come perform it — an amazing thing!” he said over the phone from New York.
In 2002, Village Theatre did a reading of Yorkey’s and Kitt’s musical about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), called Feeling Electric, which developed into Next to Normal. Yorkey had seen a TV report on ECT, he told me, and was surprised it was still an important treatment in certain cases. Learning that ECT is prescribed mainly for women, mainly by doctors who are men, gave him the germ of an idea for a play: “What about a woman who suffered from mental illness all her life, and all the men in well-meaning ways tried to make her better and failed?”
Yorkey is hardly out to reform the mental health system through musical messages. “Tom and I write entertainment for the commercial stage, so I don’t want to get high and mighty about it," he said. But as the play developed, "every time we did a concert or brief reading, people came up and told us their stories. We had a responsibility to get the story right, and do right by the many, many people in the world who struggle with mental illness every day.”
The play follows one woman’s experience with psychiatric care, and her family’s experience with her responses. “It’s complicated,” said Yorkey. “Needing medication to keep yourself stable — there’s an upside and a downside (to taking antipsychotics). There’s side-sides.”
But the most important thing, he said, is “the human story. We didn’t want it to be about our half-informed, snarky views of mental health treatment, but a challenging play that people will want to talk about.” For instance, “It’s easy to tell a story of a doctor who screwed up, but it’s not interesting. What if doctors do the best they can but the disease is intractable?”
I asked about the role of music in Next to Normal. “The great thing about music is it adds more layers of meaning than you can articulate in words,” Yorkey replied. “Music let us really communicate the psychological experience, the depths of feeling and confusion in these people.” At the same time, he said, music “contains the contradictions” by giving the confusion an aesthetic form.
Critics love the play's alchemy of rock music transmuting psychological pain and truth into song. Brantley called Next to Normal "a brave, breathtaking musical. It is something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical." For Rolling Stone Magazine it was "the best new musical of the season — by a mile."
Besides a Tony for Best Original Score awarded to Yorkey and Kitt, Alice Ripley's portrayal of the mother won a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. During the 5th Avenue Theatre run, Ms. Ripley will play her original role in Next to Normal.
“I’m excited about my hometown seeing it!” Yorkey said.