This past weekend I had the opportunity to see Next to Normal on Broadway with some dear friends. It was long overdue — one of the producers of the show is a friend of ours, and we had planned to see the show in Washington, D.C. back in January, but discovered the weekend we had in mind was inauguration weekend and quickly squashed that idea. Still, it turned out to be worth the wait.
The show was phenomenal.
I’d listened to some of the music from the original cast recording, and to be honest, I wasn’t necessarily enraptured by it. I only managed to listen to a few songs, agreed that it was nice, and then never got around to listening to the rest. Having now seen the performance and listened to the music together in the proper context, I can’t get some of the songs out of my head.
In the usual candor of my blogs, though, I’ll confess that this isn’t a musical whose strength lies in the music. Sure, the vocals were in all cases good and in a couple of cases absolutely extraordinary, but it’s the overall performance combined (both acting and singing together) that really makes this powerful. For me, the strongest music was unquestionably in the first act — and each of the memorable songs in Act Two is a reprise of Act One.
The story itself is engaging once you’re about fifteen minutes into it (I won’t spoil an important element that surprised me) but it revolves around a family’s struggle with grief and mental illness. As with the music, the acting in the first half was by far the more powerful. As an audience member I was utterly compelled, watching the family struggle with themselves and one another, and when the lights came up at the end of the scene I was energized and hooked.
The second act was a bit more restrained, observing the aftermath of the previous intensity and admiring each character’s tenacity as his or her world fell apart. Seeing them try to pick up the pieces and reassembling them into something, well, next to normal made it an intriguing and emotional experience for me, if not quite as entertaining as the unfolding chaos before. I found myself walking quietly out of the theatre and wondering how I would react, were I in the position of any character on the stage.
I’m still wondering.
Absolutely check out Next to Normal if you’re given the chance… and if you’re not given it, take it. You’ll be glad you did.