The ground–‐breaking, powerhouse rock musical, Next To Normal, debuts at Chapel Off Chapel later this month, challenging audiences with the question of “what is normal” and drawing attention to the increasingly common but rarely discussed topic of mental illness.
Next To Normal is a multi award winning show with three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize to its name. It was also a runway smash hit on Broadway. Director Mark Taylor first became aware of the play about three years ago. Says Taylor: "My girlfriend at the time made me a mix tape of some of her favourite songs- ok, it was a mix cd, but come on, mix CD?! It just doesn’t have the same ring to it does it?! Precariously nestled between Elliot Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and her questionable taste in whimsical, ambient pop was a song I had never heard before called Perfect for You. The sentiment and in particular the splendid simplicity of the lyric "you square all the corners, I straighten the curves" really stuck with me so I sought out the origin of the song and subsequently discovered a little musical called Next to Normal."
Taylor describes his first encounter with Next to Normal as a mind altering experience. "Here was an honestly told, incredibly relevant, wildly funny, insightful and intelligent piece of theatre – musical theatre no less – that actually had something new and important to say about a very universal but intricately complex issue," Taylor says.
Taylor feels that the strength of this show lies in the richness of the story, the complexity of the characters, the humour, the electricity pulsating through the score and the genius of the lyrics. "I find it extremely rare in a musical to be able to tick all those boxes, often overcompensated with jawbrato and jazz hands," posits Taylor. " Yet Next to Normal possesses that rarest and most sought after quality in the arts; originality."
Next To Normal has been scheduled to arrive for Mental Health Awareness Month and Taylor and the production team have been very aware of the importance of telling this story as honestly as they can. "It would be easy to squander a show like Next to Normal with a heavy hand and play the 'idea' of a mental illness instead of exploring the complicated truth of the issue," says Taylor.
Taylor concedes that casting was always going to be a challenging undertaking. Not only were they looking for six accomplished actors, but six actors possessing the maturity and emotional intelligence to tackle such a sensitive subject matter, who just happened to be able to sing like 'angels possessed.' Taylor speaks of striking gold in the audition room. "Each person we cast brought such honesty, openness and vocal strength to the auditions which has naturally carried through to the rehearsal process," explains Taylor. " It was also important to us to bring into the rehearsals, both medical professionals and bipolar suffers to help us avoid playing the 'idea'."
Taylor, like many others, was introduced to the show via the soundtrack featuring the original Broadway cast. "A soundtrack that I'm all too aware is featured on high rotation on many an iPhone and widely adored by its listeners. The issue with this and many other shows that are so instantly recognisable by their Broadway soundtracks is that it has the potential to lead to copycat performances," Taylor posits. "Often those who attempt to emulate the vocals of someone like Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Lea Salonga or Aaron Tveit are so focused on mimicking their Broadway counterparts that they fail to find their own voice and their own motivations within the song. No one wants to see Emma Gordon-Smith playing Alice Ripley playing Diana Goodman. It makes far more sense to cut out the middle man, right?!"
Taylor knew this could be a danger for Next to Normal so he encouraged the cast to avoid listening to or viewing any other recordings of the show which would enable the cast to put their own stamp on the characters. Taylor realizes this was a bit of a struggle in the beginning, but once the cast let go of that safety blanket, they began to play, to experiment and take risks and, Taylor says, its made for some seriously magical moments on stage and we have a far better show because of it.
Taylor comes from a family that has seen first hand the devastating effects that accompany a chronic mental illness like bipolar. "I've witnessed those oft spoken of highs and lows, the frustration, the misunderstanding, the guilt and ultimately the loss. In this age of instantaneousness and disposability. Where we are given such an abundance of choice in our lives, but no solid tools to decipher that choice. In this age of Face book, twitter and Instagram, of constantly trying to project an unrealistic, and unachievable perception of perfection; a perfect career, perfect marriage, perfect everything…is it any wonder that 10% of Australians will encounter a mental illness at some point in their lives?!"
Taylor views Next to Normal as an opportunity for to tell those people affected by mental illness that they are not alone. "It's important for us to help bring the issue of mental illness and its various treatments out of the textbooks and councillors offices and into the forefront of everyday conversation, where it deserves to be," says Taylor. "I've always seen Next to Normal as an exploration of, not only someone battling a mental illness, but the inner workings of a modern day family and the relationships within it."
Next To Normal explores what happens to a marriage as soon as two people stop communicating honestly. We see the heavy burden that is then placed upon a child's shoulders as they try, undeservingly, to navigate their way through their parents shortcomings.
Taylor is working with his little sister on the project and describes this experience. "I'm both blessed and perhaps a little encumbered by the fact that one of the producers of Next to Normal is my little sister, Tash Milton – she's the one who got all the brains and knows, rightly so, when to pull her ambitious director brother in line."
Next To Normal is being presented by a bright young company known as Pursued by Bear which was formed by a group of theatre-makers who are excited about bringing relevant, surprising and original theatre to the Melbourne stage, including new and rarely seen works.
Tash Milton (Vice President) and Kyle Smith (President), as well as the Pursued by Bear team, began talking about staging the show about 18 months ago. It was then that Taylor begin to cement the deal to direct the show.
"I knew, three years ago that I wanted to direct Next to Normal, and here was my chance, accompanied by my sister and some of my favourite people in the world no less," says Taylor. " It all came together quite serendipitously, though maybe I had to force their hand…just a little."
Taylor and the team invite you to come along to see Next to Normal because, Taylor says, it really is one of those rarest of beasts. "It's smart, funny, devastating, captivating, electric, surprising and weird. It truly is a perfect musical…well, perfect for you. And who knows, you might want to add it to your next mix tape too."
NEXT TO NORMAL:
Shirley Burke Theatre (Oct 17 – 20)
Thurs – Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm + Sat Matinee 2pm
Bookings: www.kingstonarts.com.au 0395564440
Chapel off Chapel (Oct 24 – 27)
Thurs – Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm + Sat Matinee 2pm
Bookings: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au 0382907000