The American playwright and lyricist Brian Yorkey once described musical theatre as “a ridiculous art form”. He kinda wishes he hadn’t.
“That quote sums up the Internet for me because I said it once and it lives on forever,” Yorkey laughs. “But I stand by it. Musicals done wrong – and I include many I have written myself – tend to be ridiculous, because the idea of someone bursting into song is ridiculous. But if you take a risk, songs can validate your storytelling, taking it from a simple kind of naturalism to a heightened kid of emotion that you don’t get in any other form.”
Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt took that risk with a work of musical theatre some would later label irresponsible and others suggest should never have been written in the first place. That show was Next to Normal, and it would break the mould of what constituted “feel-good” musical theatre.
The idea took root in New York in 1998 during a musical theatre workshop in which teams of writers and composers were asked to create a 10-minute musical theatre sketch. Yorkey pitched an idea to Kitt after watching an NBC Dateline report on electroconvulsive therapy. “Tom and I were casting around for something that was a little fresher than the usual fare,” Yorkey says. “Not something about soldiers going off to war, or farmers having hoe-downs, for a change and I had just seen this TV report on electroshock therapy. At that stage, I didn’t know it was still being practised.”
After reading around the subject, Yorkey crafted a short story about a woman suffering severe depression and its effect on her loved ones. “As odd as it sounded as a subject for a musical, Tom jumped right in and we wrote a 10-minute musical called Feeling Electric,” says Yorkey.
The characters were a combination of real and imagined people. “At the time both my mother and my father were convinced that the show was being written about them but that wasn’t the case,” Yorkey says. “Some of the characters are informed by people we’ve known but also a great deal of research went into the condition that the lead character suffers and the ways in which her family is impacted by it.”
It became the idea that would not lie down. Though Yorkey and Kitt were working on other projects, they kept returning to Feeling Electric, and, by 2002, had drafted a full-length version, which was unveiled at the Musical Mondays Theater Lab in New York.
“I was very passionate about it from the beginning,” says Kitt. “For me, the subject matter for what became Next to Normal is up there with those musicals that made me want to write musical theatre – stories that don’t try to sugar-coat life but use music and lyrics to make you feel what characters are going through in a very visceral way. Shows like Cabaret and Into the Woods and Follies, to name a few. Those shows had a powerful effect on my soul and I always wanted to write musicals that were cut from that same cloth.”
After several revisions, Feeling Electric played at the Village Theatre in 2005, which attracted the attention of producer David Stone, who pushed for substantial changes.
Re-written and refocused between 2006 and 2007, the show – now titled Next to Normal – debuted Off-Broadway in 2008 to mixed reviews, including one in which the writer panned the show for its “recklessly misguided message” and claimed he’d “never left a musical so angry”.
After yet more surgery – which included cutting “Feeling Electric”, the show’s original title tune – Next to Normal opened at the Booth Theatre on Broadway in April, 2008. This time around, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times hailed it a “brave, breathtaking musical … much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical.” By the end of its run in January 2011, Next to Normal had grossed over $US31m.
“I liked that ‘feel-everything’ phrase because that’s what we were going for,” says Yorkey. “We wanted the audience to feel the exhilaration that comes with a deeply felt emotional journey. It may not be uplifting in the traditional feel-good, tap-dancing sense, but I think having a very human and thoroughly emotional evening is uplifting in its own right.”
Audiences seemed to experience a strong connection to the material and the characters, recalls Kitt. “They almost had ownership of it. When you consider that there were people who felt it was a story that shouldn’t be written, that was so gratifying for everyone who believed in it from the start.”
That Next to Normal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 was more gratifying still. “The recognition was wonderful,” says Yorkey. “But more important is that a Pulitzer gives people a license to produce it and to get behind a piece of theatre. It’s a stamp of approval that allows more people to see it. If, five years ago, you’d have told us we’d be talking about a production about to go on in Sydney, we would have laughed at you.”
Next to Normal plays at NIDA from October 27 – November 2.