“Next to Normal,” the bracing American musical about how one family member’s mental illness impacts everyone in the group, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010.
At the time, the nation’s top literary award was controversial but not because of subject matter. The award generally went to serious new plays, not a Broadway musical.
Eight years later, hindsight tells us that the Pulitzer Prize capped a truckload of other awards beginning with the Outer Critics Circle when the show opened Off Broadway in 2008. A year later, the show had 11 Tony nominations and won three categories – score, orchestration and lead role. Subsequently, when the national tour launched, “Normal” has been dubbed the most important American musical of the 21st century.
Judge for yourself when the Durango Arts Center’s production opens Thursday for a three-weekend run. Theresa Carson, the fearless director who has brought relevant, prize-winning musicals to DAC in the past, said in an interview that the time is right. Carson has a long history bringing contemporary musicals to local stages. She’s the former DAC artistic director and now full-time faculty member in drama at Fort Lewis College.
“‘Next to Normal’ is the story of a fragmented family’s search for connection,” Carson said in an interview at a rehearsal last week.
“It’s easy to get swallowed up by suffering and difficult to discern a path forward. This musical is about the search for healing and forgiveness – that’s the heart.”
“Next to Normal,” the award-winning, seven-character, through-sung musical started out as a 10-minute play. At a 1998 short-form workshop, playwright Brian Yorkey developed “Feeling Electric,” a sketch about a woman’s electroshock treatments for bipolar disorder and the impact on her family. Yorkey showed it to a colleague, the composer Tom Kitt. He created music for the short piece. Other projects for both men ensued, and the work sat on the shelf for a while. Eventually, the two returned to the idea and developed a full-length version. The first full musical iteration focused attention on then current, often stigmatizing, treatments for mental illness.
By 2002, the creative team secured readings at Washington State and New York City. At the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005, the long version appeared in production. Over the next two years, the team attracted producers, and the work morphed, shifting its focus from the medical world to a family’s pain.
Despite the tight family focus and the absence of Broadway glitz, dancers, costumes and a big Act I finish, all things we’ve come to expect from conventional shows, “Normal” has won accolades as a significant work in the history of the American theatre.
And now, Carson, DAC and company have secured permissions to bring it to a Durango stage. Carson has a top-notch local cast beginning with the seasoned-actor/singer Jenny Fitts Reynolds in the pivotal role of the mother Diana Goodman. Actor/singer/director Ben Mattson brings humanity and depth to Dan, the husband. Mattson is director of Theatre Troupe 1096 at Durango High School and continues an active career as a performer, most recently in PlayFest.
Luke McCauley, a senior at FLC, performs the role of son Gabe. Siena Widen, a senior at DHS, creates the role of daughter Natalie. And Geoff Johnson, Durango’s own character actor for all seasons, does double duty as the Drs. Madden and Fine.
The cast is ably supported by a band under the musical direction of pianist Paula Millar, with bassists Evan Suiter and Tracy Korb sharing the run plus percussionist Ted Moore on violin and Jeroen van Tyn on synthesizer.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.