Next to Normal is an emotional powerhouse of a musical about a family trying to take care of themselves and each other.
Through the story of the Goodman family, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey explore the effects that mental illness can have on a modern family. Steering clear of stigma and stereotype, this Pulitzer Prize winning musical presents a narrative familiar to many of us, but rarely seen onstage. We have asked 4 national and community leaders to present their thoughts on the play, the themes, and the ultimate question:
What is Normal?
We invite you to read, discuss, and contribute your thoughts.
Our lead contributors will stay the same, and new comments will be added daily.
Michael Hollinger, Playwright
Next to Normal contains many treasures, among them its wonderfully varied musical palette, its compelling narrative, textured characters, complex themes and pointed lyrics. But I’d like to consider just three words within it: the title.
Besides being nicely alliterative (those double “n”s), the title automatically plants a question in the brain; in order to consider what “next” to normal means, you have to consider the definition of “normal.” And the musical is very much concerned with the particular geography of that land called Normal, its boundaries, and the darker terrain outside of those borders.
It’s fitting that the musical takes place within the framework of one American family, a family that, from a little distance, might seem like an archetype of stability and “normality”: a mom and a dad of different genders (he goes off to work, she makes lunches) sharing their own home with a teenage son and high-achieving daughter. For our culture has been inundated with idealized images of the nuclear family, most pervasively through television, where shows like Father Knows Best and The Cosby Show establish an enviable model of domestic affection and orderliness; within these households, conflicts arise and resolve, but the fundamental health and solidity of the family is never really in doubt.
These idealizations work together to create a kind of “tyranny of normal,” where certain behaviors, qualities, relationships and interactions are permitted and others are not: Love your children, but not too much; feel things, but not too deeply. Above all, don’t talk about that thing with the trunk in the living room. Whatever wrinkles there may be in the fabric of family are doubly painful and disorienting because the image of a smooth and seamless fabric is so powerful in our consciousness.
And yet we know that the extraordinary in life is often brought to life through excess – a surplus of feeling, hypersensitivity, ideas, insights and impulses that may not be the province of the well-adjusted or moderate. As the daughter sings in Next to Normal:
Mozart was crazy.
Flat fucking crazy.
Batshit, I hear.
But his music’s not crazy.
It’s balanced, it’s nimble,
It’s crystalline clear.
The field of mental health has a particularly slippery relationship with the concept of normal. Although Western medicine has abandoned purging, bloodletting and whipping as viable treatments for mental illness, many of its modern pharmaceuticals are still concerned with equalization – tempering the emotional life of patients, leveling the mountains and filling in the valleys, “shaving the rough edges off” of personality. There are acceptable limits to anger, sadness, fear and grief; going beyond these limits invites suspicion, concern, and chemical solutions.
I’m not slamming modern pharmacology; my life and those of my loved ones have been improved by advances in the treatment of mental illness. But I believe that undue devotion to the concept of normal – in mental health, in romantic and sexual relationships, in parenting, in art, in virtually all human endeavors – can constrain us in unhelpful and unhealthy ways; and that in the end, next to Normal may prove to be not just the consolation prize but rather the ideal destination.
Michael Hollinger is an award-winning playwright and professor at Villanova University whose plays Ghost-Writer and Opus have been produced by FST.
I remember thinking when I was 19-years old, that all I wanted to be is “normal.”
But if you truly look at the definition of normal:
nor·mal [nawr-muhl] adjective
1.conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.
2. serving to establish a standard.
a. approximately average in any psychological trait, as
intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
b. free from any mental disorder; sane.
I’m very far from being “normal” whether in the true sense of the word or in its meaning in psychology.
For starters, I have depression. My first bout with the disease occurred when I was 19-years old, just when I was wishing for a sense of normalcy in my life. I suffered many relapses with the dark disease during my college years and didn’t really find stability or accept my disease until my mid-20s.
For years, I was ashamed of my diagnosis. That somehow I had failed and was now the exact opposite of what I had wished for. I lost all hope, confidence in myself, interest in my hobbies, friends and isolated myself from my family.
The grips of depression can be very strong and it trickles out to your support system and family as well. And if they aren’t strong enough, managing and coping with depression can be very taxing, trying and exhausting for everyone.
At the end of Brian Yorkey’s play, “Next to Normal,” the family sings this verse:
Day after day …
We’ll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun —
You could say, that’s exactly what happened to me. I saw the sun. And Sunshine from
I came to the realization, with the help of my family, psychiatrist and medication, that in order to stay out of the darkness, I had to take a hold of my own healing and be in charge of my life. I identified the triggers that cause me to relapse and pay close attention to avoid these triggers at all costs.
I’m happy to say that I have been living a very happy, successful and full life off of medication since 2007. Don’t get me wrong, these triggers are still there and still attempt to grab a hold of me, but I know the signs and know when to walk away.
Part of my success has come from knowledge. I immersed myself into an organization, Sunshine from Darkness, founded by Lee and Bob Peterson (who subsequently encouraged me to come out and talk about my illness), that raises funds for research on mental illness in hopes to find better treatments and, one day soon, cures, as well as raising awareness and stopping the stigma.
That’s why I’m proud to say, that I am normal. I’m my version of normal. And that might include a mental disorder, per say. But my “normal” is awesome.
Emily Walsh Parry is the associate publisher of multimedia at The Observer Group and former professional dancer with the Sarasota Ballet. Walsh Parry serves as the chair of Sunshine from Darkness.
Patrick Kennedy, Congressman
In Congress, the most senior and powerful members enjoy the privilege of sponsoring the most popular legislative initiatives. It is telling then that when I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, as the youngest and most junior member from the smallest state in the country, I was given the opportunity to sponsor the mental health parity bill. The seemingly obvious piece of legislation, which requires insurance companies to cover mental health on par with their coverage of “physical” health, was not very popular in Congress. It took over 14 years, countless hearings both in Washington and around the country, and several major grassroots initiatives for this bill to pass. In 2008, President Bush signed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act into law. I sponsored the bill in the House and my father, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was the Senate sponsor. Mental illness is common and treatable. Everyone deserves access to care.
Congressman Patrick Kennedy served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Rhode Island’s First District.
Dr. Elaine Walker, Professor and Writer
There has been significant progress in our understanding of the nature and origins of serious mental illness. Most people are now aware that these illnesses entail abnormalities in brain function and that there are treatments available to reduce the symptoms. As a result, the stigma associated with mental illness has declined. This is a major step forward!
Yet, these advances do not eliminate the burden that mental illness places on the individual and their family members. Over the past 25 years, I have worked with patients and their families as they struggled to negotiate the challenges of finding treatment. I have consoled parents as they waited in the emergency room of an inpatient facility to find out whether their child was intoxicated or suffering from a first psychotic episode. I have tried to console teenagers who were desperately trying to understand why their parent has become despondent and suicidal.
In the musical, Next to Normal, we see a family confronting the erratic behavioral changes that characterize bipolar disorder. The patient is the mother. Her husband is emotionally committed to providing his wife with support and guidance, while at the same time struggling with his own feelings of despair. The teenage daughter fluctuates between compassion for her mother and frustration at the burden it imposes on her teenage years. The experiences of the family depicted in Next to Normal are all too common.
There is no doubt that we are far from understanding the optimal treatment approaches for serious mental disorders. Nonetheless, there is cause for celebration; this musical is yet another example of our progress in the elimination of stigma against the mentally ill and our willingness to examine it in the context of the drama of human life.
Elaine Walker is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Emory University.
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