Mental illness musical 'Next to Normal' arrives in Los Angeles

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Craig Schwartz

L to R: Curt Hansen, original Broadway star Alice Ripley and Asa Somers, in the national tour of “Next to Normal.”

A rock musical that addresses mental illness may seem an unlikely candidate for Broadway, but “Next to Normal” is just that. It won three Tony Awards last year and this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Its touring company opened the show over the weekend at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Brian Yorkey wrote the words and lyrics.

“Although it seems like a very unlikely topic for a musical, it is about something that’s in a lot of people’s live," says Yorkey.

The show had a modest beginning nearly a decade ago, part of a 10-minute musical workshop. As it developed, Yorkey focused on the failure of the medical industry to treat bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. But when producer David Stone of “Wicked” and “Spelling Bee” fame got involved, Yorkey shifted focus.

“The interesting story isn’t what happens if the medical industry doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do," says Yorkey, "but what happens if the medical industry does do the best job it can do and the disease is still intractable.”

In other words, what happens to the people who live with mental illness? Asa Somers took part in the musical’s early workshops; he portrayed a doctor. He missed the Broadway run because of other obligations, and in the touring company, Somers plays lead actor Alice Ripley’s husband, Dan. Theirs is a modern day family trying to cope with very sophisticated situations.

"And I think the concept of normalcy is such a foreign concept to them," says Somers, "maybe to many of us, that the hope for normalcy is not even in their vocabulary.”

Can a family going through one mental illness crisis after another ever get close to normal? “I think the very question is the thing that the show probably wants to explore: is the question even valid?”

Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt began collaborating during their college days at Columbia University. Kitt believes “Next to Normal” could not, and should not, be performed as a straight play.

“The rule of musicals is that you sing when emotions are so great that you have to," says Kitt, "and a story about a family going through the struggles of mental illness and bipolar disorder, music seemed to be the right way to go in terms of making this story more emotional for people."

Kitt says the subject matter took the duo into uncharted territory. People would suggest that music about mentally ill characters should be off or atonal. "I think that once you write music that stands outside the norm, and you’re trying to be really, really smart in that way, you end up possibly alienating the audience because they don’t get inside the story and they watch something from a distance."

You can get inside the story and the rock-inflected score of “Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through January 2.

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