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"Next to Normal" tackles tough subject of mental health with lighthearted song and dance

Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Courtesy 5th Avenue Theatre.
Alice Ripley and Jeremy Kushnier in the national tour of "Next to Normal." The show is written by Brian Yorkey, who together with composer Tom Kitt pulled off a surprizing win last year of the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Bipolar disorder has been the inspiration for many artists and many works of art…from the movie A Beautiful Mind to Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar

Now it's showing up in a musical, called "Next to Normal." 

Ten years ago, the production had its genesis at The Village Theater in Issaquah.  Now, after numerous revisions, it's back in the Seattle area at the 5th Avenue Theatre.  For the latest in our series ARTSCAPE, KPLU's Bellamy Pailthorp caught up with Bryan Yorkey, the writer of the show, who together with the composer, Tom Kitt, was the surprise winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Origin of the story

The show was inspired by Yorkey's viewing of a segment on "Dateline NBC, of all things," Yorkey says.  It was a report about the use of electro shock therapy to heal severe depression. 

I haven't seen that report, but someone I know who has bi-polar disorder once told me this controversial treatment is a real trade off - of memory, for anesthesia.

KPLU's Keith Seinfeld reported on the topic in an award-winning series about brain science that aired on KPLU in 2007.


Bittersweet Balance of Humor and Pain

As far as I can tell without having seen (full disclosure here, only heard) "Next to Normal," the show displays many perspectives on the origins of mental health disorders -- not just of a suburban mom, but also of her husband, children and the doctors who are all trying as best the can to heal her and keep her from hurting herself or others. 

I don't want to spoil the show by revealing the plot, but suffice it to say that, with over ten years of revisions of the show, deep research and workshops all over the country, I believe the authors have come to understand the root-causes of this particular kind of patient's pain. That's probably the reason it won a Pulitzer.

Alice Ripley originated the leading role and the author says she became kind of a litmus test for their material - "if Ripley could do it," Yorkey says, "it stayed in the show."

From listening, I know a lot of deep research went into the project and I've heard this creative team managed to create something that is both funny and heartbreaking, a balance that's not easy to strike.  I'm looking forward to seeing it. 

I first heard about it when I profiled the Village Theatre a couple of years ago. 


A Surprise Pulitzer Win

There's an interesting back story about Yorkey and Kitt's surprise win of the Pulitzer for Drama.  As I recall reading, the show was not nominated, but seen by the committee the night before they made their decision.

It's also kind of funny to note that the marketing team pulled off a very interesting publicity stunt using newfangled Twitter technology.  You have to hear it to believe it:


Creative team

The show is directed by the same person who brought the musical "Rent" to wide audiences on Broadway, Michael Greif.   There's more on the entire cast of the traveling show here.


Yorkey's Future Plans

Yorkey says right now he's working on a show with the musician Sting based on the hit album, The Soul Cages.

And he will be soon back at the Village Theatre in Issaquah and Everett with a new production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."  He says when he's working in the general Seattle area, he gets to direct for the stage, which is a passion of his, along with writing. 

In New York, where he now lives most of the time,  he says he's pigeonholed as a writer only.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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