The Goodmans are an average, middle class family. They live in suburbia, worry over their teenage children and try to make ends meet. To the outsider, the Goodman family is altogether normal. In Red Mountain Theatre Company’s Feb. 18–21 production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, however, the audience will receive an intimate glimpse into the lives of this ordinary family grappling with a tragic loss and the toll of mental illness.
The subject matter is heavier than most musicals dare to approach, but as Next to Normal director and chair of the theater department at Montevallo University David Callaghan explained in an interview with Carolanne Roberts on the RMTC website, “Great theater transcends the subject — and there’s something in [Next to Normal] that everyone can connect to.”
“It’s not just about mental health issues,” Callaghan said. “You’re going to recognize these people, I assure you. It grabs you by the heart and takes you on a ride with compassion, grace and humor.”
The musical is darkly humorous in a “if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane,” way with witty nods to the complications of navigating the healthcare system, the riddle of drug interactions and the basic need suburbanites feel for keeping up with the Joneses. The comic twists and digs about the Goodmans’ sex life (which is a roller coaster of extremes in itself) keep otherwise trauma-filled scenes realistically light.
Next to Normal has been creating discourse in musical theater about mental illness since it opened on Broadway in April 2009. That year, the cast, crew and writers Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) walked away with 11 Tony Award nominations and three wins for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, who portrayed the role of Diana Goodman, the 40-something-year-old wife and mother diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Next to Normal was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only eight musicals to ever receive the honor.
The Pulitzer Board described the show as “a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals,” and Yorkey and Kitt’s Next to Normal joined the ranks of seven other historically significant works: George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing (1932), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1950), Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! (1960), Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962), Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s A Chorus Line (1976), Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) and Jonathan Larson’s Rent (1996).
Kitt and Yorkey began writing what would become Next to Normal as a 10-minute musical theater piece for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. The duo took great care when they began fleshing out the two-act musical, keeping in mind their subject matter and the genre’s tendency toward comedy.
“Musicals that go wrong can be ridiculous because it’s a ridiculous art form,” Yorkey told Popdose in 2009. “People bursting into song can be ridiculous. But musicals that go right can be sublime. … It’s a very fine line between clever and stupid.”
As the audience enters the mind of Diana (played by Birmingham theater veteran Kristi Tingle Higginbotham in RMTC’s production), who is experiencing the emotionally numbing side effects of her medication in Act One, the power of Kitt’s music with Yorkey’s lyrics is evident. The song “I Miss the Mountains” is a haunting ode to her lost emotional manic peaks and deeply depressive valleys. For any audience member unfamiliar with the process of finding a healthy balance of psychiatric medicine, the tone of the song, and others like it, convey the yearning to simply feel anything.
Callaghan believes that the themes in Next to Normal are ripe for Birmingham audiences.
“I fell in love with the incredible score and these complex characters that feel like your family, friends and neighbors,” Callaghan said. “No family is perfect, and we all are dealing with struggles and problems with loved ones, children, spouses, parents. … The play engages these recognizable and very human characters and conflicts with compassion, honesty and humor.”
Even the timing of the Red Mountain Theatre’s production sends a clear message about the lack of mental health care in Alabama. The show is being mounted almost a year to the date after the closing of Alabama Psychiatric Services on Feb. 13, 2015, due to a lack of funding.
The lack of psychiatric services in the area, which leaves an untold number of patients suffering their difficulties without adequate care, and a variety of connected issues and potential issues, not only makes the context of Next to Normal relevant to audiences in Birmingham, but it provides an opportunity for outreach.
Following each performance, Baptist Health System Psychiatry and Brookwood Medical Center psychiatry specialists will be participating in informative talkback sessions with the audience to help broaden their understanding of mental health in relation to the action onstage.
Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness has long been a crusade for advocates, health professionals and those diagnosed with a mental illness. The story of the Goodmans and the powerful music that accompanies it make Next to Normal an ideal vehicle for such a goal. With each lyric the power of the stigma is reduced as the Goodmans’ living room opens up and the audience falls in.
“I will hold it all together,” Diana sings with a wry smile. “We’re the perfect loving family./If they say we’re not, then f— ’em,/The perfect loving family./I will keep the plates all spinning,/ and the world just keeps on spinning.”
Next To Normal runs February 18-21 at the RMTC Cabaret Theatre, located at 301 19th Street N. For tickets, visit the Box Office at redmountaintheatre.org or call (205) 324-2424.