The set is onstage, nearing its final stages of completion. The lights are in the air, to be focused tonight. The cast has arrived, and they and the band are rocking their sitzprobe (that’s a fancy term for “playing and singing all the music while seated”) in the Fielding Nextstage (which is directly under my office, so I speak with authority on this…). This production of Next to Normal, which opens at Geva next week, is a co-production with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia (more on that soon, I promise). I’ve asked Kathy Janich for permission to share her great article about the creation of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, which appeared in the Alliance’s playbill. She graciously agreed, so without further ado…
How ‘Next to Normal’ came of age
By Kathy Janich
Next to Normal’s creators were in Broadway’s Booth Theater one night while their new musical was in previews. A teenaged boy stopped them.
“Are you Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt?” he asked.
They told him they were.
He told them he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder three months earlier, adding: “Now I have something to point to, to explain what I’ve been going through. I wanted to say thank you.”
Those kinds of moments are what make Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt, now 38 and the father of three, want to write musicals.
“At the end of the day, I want people to leave the theater with new feelings or a new understanding in some way,” he says. He doesn’t care so much if the change is trivial or profound, whether he provokes a laugh or inspires and comforts, as long as audience members are moved.
That moment in the Booth came some 11 years after Yorkey and Kitt first poked at the idea of a musical about mental illness.
They’d been accepted to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a New York testing ground for lyricists, composers and new shows. At the end of the first year, all participants were tasked with writing a 10-minute musical.
Yorkey, the lyricist, had seen a TV news report about electroconvulsive therapy and suggested they do a piece about a woman who struggled with depression and had to turn to ECT for help. Kitt agreed.
They called the piece Feeling Electric.
It was, Kitt says, a bit campy and satirical. But the general plot and story arc were in place as were several songs — including the heartbreaking waltz “I Dreamed a Dance” and the angry “Aftershocks.”
Reaction was mixed. Some who saw it were moved. Others questioned whether a musical could really come from that subject matter.
“If you’re getting a reaction like that,” Kitt says, “you’re really onto something.”
The team spent the next nine years researching, writing and rewriting. They talked to doctors, including Yorkey’s father-in-law, a psychiatrist. They read Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman. They worked to find the right tone.
“We got away from the camp and the satire,” Kitt recalls, “and to a truthful story of a family dealing with [mental health] issues.”
Then came readings, a concert version and another reading.
Kitt and Yorkey wanted to keep writing but also wondered if they could pull it off. Practical issues, like families and bills, tugged at them. Then, as luck would have it, a couple of producers stepped in. David Stone and Carole Rothman, artistic director of New York’s Second Stage Theatre, took the show and its creators “under their wing,” Kitt says.
The show, now called Next to Normal, was produced at New York’s Second Stage in 2008. A run at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., followed and then, finally, Broadway, where it opened on April 15, 2009, at the Booth Theater on 45th Street. Although Next to Normal lost the best musical Tony Award to Billy Elliot, Yorkey and Kitt won Tonys for their score — and the show collected the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the eighth musical so honored in the award’s 95-year history.
Next to Normal is now being produced in places like Israel, Norway, Australia and South Korea.
The show has been described as a rock musical, or a rock opera. Kitt, who grew up as a classically trained pianist, favors neither. He calls it “theatrical music,” with elements of jazz, classical, a number of waltzes and some driving rock.
“I tried to write songs that support the dramatic purpose of the moment,” he says.
He and Yorkey are working on a new original musical, i.e., not from a movie, with the Normal team. It may or may not involve Wicked‘s Idina Menzel. And that’s all Kitt will say about it.
Maybe that show, too, will reach Broadway and, like Next to Normal, play around the world. The composer would like that.
“Hearing your songs sung in different languages and seeing audiences around the world respond to your show, there’s no feeling like it.”Kathy Janich, an Atlanta writer and theater artist, wrote this piece for the performing arts publication Encore Atlanta, where she is managing editor. She has been seeing, covering or working in the performing arts for most of her life. This piece first appeared in the program for the Alliance Theatre’s fall staging of Next to Normal.