All in the Family

With Next to Normal, the ETC takes on a musical that matters—again.
There is, I am reliably told, a cache of YouTube videos of workshops for the musical Next to Normal—actresses breathing life into crazy-ass Diana Goodman by singing and acting out her bipolar disorder and its effects on her middle-class family. I am told this, like a clue for a treasure hunt, by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers during an early July conversation at the very same long lunch table in ETC’s inner office where we’d sat when finalizing production details of my own play about a year before.

I knew Meyers to be the best kind of gambler—a high-stakes one—so I settled in for all manner of melodramatic backstory on how The Little Ensemble Theatre That Could snagged the musical. After all, the odds were long: A winner of three Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations) in 2009 and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize making its regional premiere in a 191-seat theater?

In classic Meyers form, she started considering the show in 2008, before its Broadway debut, but did not get the rights for it until two days before she officially announced ETC’s 2011–12 season—which Next to Normal opens this month.

“A lot of people would’ve thought we’d never get Next to Normal, but I kept on it. ETC is one of the first and one of the few to get the rights to do this,” Meyers says in her breathlessly serious way. “I think that’s predicated on our history of doing contemporary and important work. The people I dealt with were wonderful and they knew us. They knew we did I Am My Own Wife. They knew we did Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

“This show is not Oklahoma,” Meyers adds. What she means is, yes, Next to Normal is a musical, but actors won’t be extemporaneously spelling out “P-A-X-I-L!” or doing a big dance number entitled “Electro Shock Therapy (EST).” (“Growing Up Unstable” and “My Psychopharmacologist and I” are, however, actual songs in the show.)

I infer from talking to Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, and to Jessica Hendy, the Cincinnati actress who’ll play lead Diana Goodman, that the show is a perfect storm of domestic drama, complicated love story, and rock musical that grapples with not only the Goodman family’s responses to mom’s mental illness but also the American medical establishment’s treatment and doping of the mentally ill. It even touches on medical misogyny.

“It’s not a pretty show,” Meyers says. “The National Alliance for Mental Illness has been setting up, with the show, tables of information so people can pick up information anonymously. One of the great things about the show is that it says mental illness is misunderstood.”

I never did watch those YouTube videos, so this is not a review or sneak peek. However, I have noticed a dual leitmotif at work among the show’s affiliates: Theater is an antidote to things that are taboo, and it’s pleasantly surprising when the dramatization of the taboo is accepted and rewarded.

Yorkey says he expected Next to Normal would receive a collective cold shoulder in workshops. In fact, not everyone warmed to it, but those who did were moved because they’d been affected by mental illness in their own families. Makes sense. Yorkey literally ripped the subject matter from the headlines.

“[Composer] Tom Kitt and I were in a workshop,” Yorkey says. “It’s run by BMI. You get to study the craft with masters of the craft. Everyone does the jazz musical, or the flappers or soldiers coming home from war. We wanted to do something different. I was watching Dateline: NBC with Jane Pauley, and they did a story on a woman [who got] shock therapy. I called up Tom and said, ‘Why don’t we do a story on a woman with shock therapy and how she deals with it her whole life?’ ”

Despite the seeming incongruity of a story about mental illness told against a modern rock backbeat, Yorkey says the show is first and foremost entertaining.

“It really is an entertaining evening of theater,” he says. “People think it’s going to be a real downer. Music has the ability to take you places words can’t. When musicals work, it’s because the music can make you feel things the words can’t alone.”

Yorkey says only a visionary theater director and her willing audience could take on a show like Next to Normal. He knew ETC was a good match because of its previous choices. “Hedwig is a big reference point for Tom and I,” he says. “I think you have to be a bit of a gambler. It’s what changes theater and makes it better.”

As for the challenging lead role, Yorkey says he had no idea Hendy, a 1993 musical theater graduate from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, had tried out for the show unsuccessfully on four separate occasions before, during, and after its Broadway ascent.

“Good for her,” he says. “It’s a part that requires a lot of courage. I admire those women who do it—because I couldn’t.”

Just as Yorkey was inspired to write the story based on authentic pain and confusion, Hendy wanted desperately to land the role for similar reasons.

“It’s not based on a movie; it’s not based on a cartoon character. That within itself is a draw,” says the Northside single mother. “As soon as I read the material I felt a connection to the character. It’s a dream role. There’s so much meat inside and to be able to sing is a dream. It just spoke to me as soon as I read it.”

Like others who’ve come into contact with the show, Hendy has seen firsthand how mental illness breaks families apart. She’ll bring that experience and her own as a mother to bear each time she takes the stage. Hopefully, she says, audiences will leave hope-filled.

“This isn’t a show where everybody dies at the end. There is hope. I honestly think this is going to start a dialogue, which is step one. The people I’ve talked to, I’ve told them, This is heavy. Get ready. It’s not heavy like Les Mis heavy; this is heavy like Streetcar heavy,” Hendy says, speaking in theater shorthand. “I think Lynn Meyers thinks very highly of her audience and of her city, as do I.”

Good Company
Next to Normal joins that rare air of musicals—A Chorus Line and Rent among them—that have won the Pulitzer Prize.

Midas Touch
During its Broadway run, Next to Normal was directed by Michael Greif, who also directed Rent. Yorkey lovingly calls Greif “The Pulitzer Maker.”

Silver Screen
Yorkey is developing a movie musical for Warner Bros. in which Robert Downey Jr. will star and produce.

Crisis Averted
Jessica Hendy answered questions for this article by telephone while traveling cross-country to Denver with her mother and son. Her mother was pulled over for speeding during the interview but talked her way out of a ticket.

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