Next to Normal is a musical for the moment.
The show takes a look at a family that seems like a typical American sort — a mom, dad and two children.
Close up, though, the Goodmans are wracked with dysfunction. The culprit is mental illness. Diana Goodman, the mother of the suburban crew in the story, has manic depression. The effects of her illness ripple out to her husband and children. Dan, Diana’s husband, tries to keep the Goodman household in motion while Diana spins out. Daughter Natalie tries to fill in the gaps through a serious overachieving complex, while her brother, Gabe, plays the wild card. Two doctors treat Diana, leading her through a maze of the better-living-through-chemistry sort. The maze leads Diana to the prospect of electroconvulsive therapy.
Co-director Sienna Riehle said she pitched the musical to Music Theatre of Denton two years ago. It didn’t fit into the last season, but then the company asked Riehle if she’d lead the project for this season.
“They asked me if I’d consider doing the show in the Black Box,” Riehle said. “I’d originally pitched it to be performed in the Campus Theatre, but I liked the idea.”
Co-director Benjamin Brown said the DCT/NCTC Black Box Theatre presented the directorial team with opportunities.
“It’s great to be able to tell an intimate story in an intimate space,” Brown said. “Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of the big stage with all the lights. But it makes sense to stage this show in an intimate space.”
Audiences will sit on either side of the action, facing each other with the stage running between them. The directors have taken to calling the stage “the catwalk,” and the seating arrangement puts the players on display, and metaphorically, the arrangement echoes how family crises barrel through the middle of their shared lives, and how they can literally divide families.
Riehle said she wanted to direct the play because it broaches things that Americans are dealing with now.
“It’s a contemporary musical about real issues,” Riehle said. “It’s easy to say this is a musical about mental illness, because it is. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the connections between the family members.”
“The same way Rent is not about AIDS, this musical is not about mental illness,” Brown said.
Brown is also the music director of the show, leading a typical rock band — guitar and bass, piano and drums — to perform the score, which Brown and Riehle describe as a rock score with some piano ballads. The vocals are demanding, Brown said, and the show is packed with music. Most of the plot unfolds in song.
“When we first started rehearsing the music, I knew I wanted to do more than notes and pitches,” Brown said. “We really talked about why the writers used the words they used where they used them, and why the music sounds the way it does.”
Brown and Riehle, who are a couple, said they plumbed the script to prepare for the first rehearsals. They connected with Linda Rubin, a Texas Woman’s University professor of psychology, to understand everything from the symptoms of bipolar disorder to the typical treatments.
Riehle and Brown credit Rubin for breaking down the treatments and medicines referenced in the script.
“Early on in the rehearsals, we spent several hours with the cast and Dr. Rubin,” Riehle said. “The cast and we spent hours talking about mental illness. We had a chance to ask questions like ‘how do you pronounce ‘risperdal.’”
Brown said the cast and directors got to take advantage of Rubin’s expertise.
“We got to ask: What is this mental illness, and what does this look like? And how do we work with this?” he said.
Riehle said the musical paints a sympathetic picture of the characters.
None of the characters is the protagonist or the antagonist, Brown said. Each character shoulders responsibility and deals tiny flashes of heroism to each other. Even Diana’s mental illness isn’t sketched out as a hungry animal trying to devour the Goodmans. Instead, it’s a companion to each character as the plot unwinds.
“The challenge for us since day one has been making this story as accessible for as many people as we can,” Riehle said. “If you don’t see yourself in this show — and it’s not the kind of show that will hit everyone the same way — you might understand what a friend or someone you know is living with.”