“I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!” sings the character I call “Emotional Pain” in Next To Normal, a rock musical that won three Tony awards after opening on Broadway in 2009 and a 2010 Pulitizer prize for drama. It’s in Toronto now, and really worth seeing.
The family in Next To Normal is very aware that Emotional Pain lives with them, has been living with them for years, and wields enormous influence over their lives. They are desperate. The drama unfolds around the escape strategies that the family and their doctors undertake. First, try losing Emotional Pain. Call it Bipolar Disorder, numb it out. No feelings, no Emotional Pain. Except, . . . oh, no feelings, . . . that doesn’t feel so good. Second, try putting Emotional Pain in the past. It’s been years since Emotional Pain was new. Just let go, move on, think of the future. But banishing Emotional Pain proves too painful to bear. Third, forget, I mean really forget, that Emotional Pain ever existed. Except, then, . . . who am I? Who are you? What does exist?
The doctor is a commanding presence in each of the escape strategies. Family members are left to comply or rebel, with little to say that counts for much as compared to the doctor’s definitive “Overcoming Mental Illness” story. Emotional Pain is of course alive, and creative when faced with annihilation.
As each escape strategy spectacularly backfires, some in the family come to know that they also want to be alive and creative. And the deal is that to be alive like Emotional Pain, means to accept Emotional Pain, to meet it honestly, if grudgingly, collect its pieces, rework the story to include it. Some characters chose to take responsibility for creating their own stories in relation to Emotional Pain. And in this final scenario, the doctor is a supportive, but not definitive presence, cherishing of feeling alive, respective of each character’s initiatives and creativity, and willing to accept uncertainty. The story is about healing and relationships. Well, that’s not normal. But maybe next to normal, human, . . . ok.
Next To Normal, perhaps because the dialogue is mostly song, powerfully conveys the fear, uncertainty and terrible decisions that we face when emotional pain makes a sustained appearance in our lives. It rings true emotionally and is a moving commentary on so many matters of importance: The possibilities for naming and responding to emotional pain, the doctor/patient relationship, recovery, the nature of healing.
You can hear a couple of the songs from Next To Normal performed for the 2009 Tony Awards ceremony. YouTube also offers full-length versions of the musical if you can’t make it to the present Toronto production.