“If you knew someone with cancer, you wouldn’t run the other way if you saw them coming, so tell me, why is that what people do when they’re confronted with, say, schizophrenia?” says Bill Osetek, who is directing the Tony-winning “Next to Normal” at Drury Lane. “Mental illness, the attitudes surrounding it are still rooted in shame and terror. You don’t talk about it. To build a show that deals with mental illness as its predominant theme — that really takes guts.”
If it takes guts to create a musical centering around manic depression, suicide, shock treatments and drug addiction, it takes equal fortitude to put that musical on a suburban stage for an audience accustomed to Rodgers and Hammerstein classics and light comedies. “Next to Normal” is a risk, says Osetek, and one that led Drury Lane to take the unprecedented step of sending out a letter to all subscribers outlining the strong themes the show addresses and explaining to audiences precisely why the theater chose to include it in its 2013 season.
“It’s a tough sell,” says Osetek. “There’s no big dance numbers, the subject is sensitive. You describe it to people and sometimes they immediately think they don’t want to see it.”
Those who think that might want to think twice. “Next to Normal” is one of only eight musicals in the entire history of musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. That puts it in the company of shows including “Sunday in the Park With George,” “A Chorus Line” and “South Pacific.” The score (music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey) is inarguably sublime, and includes styles ranging from aching ballads (“I Miss the Mountains”) to hauntingly up-tempo (“I’m Alive”).
The show’s plot swirls around the Goodmans, a group that from the outside looks like a happy, typical all-American suburban family. Behind closed doors, they are struggling mightily. Diana Goodman (Susie McMonagle) suffers from manic depression and hallucinations. In tracing the impact of Diana’s disease on her husband and daughter, “Next to Normal” paints a portrait of a family in crisis.
For Osetek, the musical resonates on multiple levels. First and foremost, it’s enthralling — and often extremely funny — he asserts.
“When I first saw this show I sat in the balcony and just wept. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so moved. That never happens to me,” he says. “Look,” he adds, “I know that sounds like hyperbole. And obviously, you have to praise the show you’re working on. But I’m not being hyperbolic. ‘Next to Normal’ is very simply the best show I know. You’d think with such dark subject material that it would be grim throughout, but the humor in it is amazing. You’re crying one minute, laughing out loud the next.”
The piece’s sheer entertainment value is matched by the importance of the issues it so candidly deals with, Osetek says.
“I feel a sense of responsibility in helping to take the stigma away from mental illness. It’s not something people should run from and be ashamed of, any more than they’d be ashamed of breaking an arm. For me, the show hits close to home because we dealt with this in my family a few years ago. It was an incredibly painful time, partially because there was so much shame involved. That’s sad and wrong and it shouldn’t be that way.”
As Diana Goodman, Broadway veteran McMonagle faces the tough prospect of portraying a woman who goes from the throes of mental illness through a labyrinth of medications, side effects and therapies — including electroshock therapy.
“It can get pretty dark, but there’s also humor throughout,” says McMonagle. “And I think it’s ultimately a hopeful show. Life is not perfect. We all have our ghosts, but we all still go on. Every day you have to take a step forward.”