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Summertime...Took a little vacation! Three reviews coming soon! Amazing Grace, Hand to God and Mamma Mia!

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Jeff

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Best of the Decade: The Best New Musicals #1

If you have followed this blog at all since I started it almost a year ago, the musical I selected as the best new musical of the first decade of the 21st Century should come as absolutely no surprise. I have been raving about/obsessing over it for at least that long.

At Second Stage and at Arena Stage

What is perhaps the sweetest part of all of this is that I was kind of, but not too, interested in the show when it debuted (in this version at least) Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre, but then took it off my radar after the reviews mentioned the self-aware, ironic, funny tone the show had taken. At that point, I was sick of  so many shows like that. But then, in a daring move, the show got re-worked and was given another full production at Washington, DC's Arena Stage. A couple of cast changes, a re-worked tone and rave reviews got it moved to the big time.

On Broadway

I still didn't know all that much about the show beyond the fact that I had loved the show's star since I saw her debut as Mrs. Walker in The Who's Tommy, and later in Side Show. And, frankly, I was still smarting over the Booth Theatre's previous tenant's (The Story of My Life) short run and critical dismissal. Still, as many of you know, I try very hard to see all of the new musicals, and so this show got on the list, even as I went into it with no expectations or much knowledge. What I came out with is one of the top five lifetime experiences in my more than 25 years of theatre-going. And even more amazing, that gift just gets better and better!  At one point, the show was known as Feeling Electric, and that is exactly how I feel after every performance of it I see!

1.  next to normal
Book by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Musical Staging by Sergio Trujillo
Direction by Michael Greif
 
Statistically Speaking:
First Preview: March 27, 2009
Opening Night: April 15, 2009
Closing Night: Still running
21 previews, 568 performances as of August 26, 2009 at the Booth Theatre
 
  • The Original Broadway Cast consisted of: Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry), Jennifer Damiano (Natalie), Louis Hobson (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden), Alice Ripley (Diana), J. Robert Spencer (Dan) and Aaron Tveit (Gabe)Understudies were Michael Berry, Meghann Fahy, Jessica Phillips and Tim Young.


Brian D'Arcy James as Dan Goodman

  • The Original Off-Broadway Cast was pretty much the same, except Asa Somers played the roles now played by Louis Hobson, and Brian D'Arcy James played the role now played by J. Robert Spencer.  Interestingly, Mr. Somers rejoined the company as an understudy for a time, and Mr. James replaced Mr. Spencer.  Mr. Berry's wife, Sarah Uriarte Berry also joined the company as an understudy for the role of Diana while Ms. Ripley took vacation and Ms. Phillips took the role.

The New Cast Takes a Bow

The New Cast Gets "the Door Treatment"

  • Recently, there was a significant cast change, big enough to garner re-reviews by the major media.  Again they were raves for the most part.  The current cast consists of : Mr. Chanler-Berat, Jason Danieley (Dan), Meghann Fahy (Natalie), Mr. Hobson, Kyle Dean Massey (Gabe - he also took over for Mr. Tveit during the latter's leave to do Catch Me If You Can), and Marin Mazzie (Diana).  The understudies are: Mr. Berry, Brian Crumb, MacKenzie Mauzey, and Ms. Phillips.
  • The 6 member band also at one point included Ms. Ripley's husband, Shannon Ford.
 
next to normal was honored with 11 2009 Tony Award nominations.  It won 3.
 
  • The Tony winners were: Alice Ripley - Best Actress in a Musical, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey - Best Original Score, and Tom Kitt and Michael Starobin - Best Orchestrations.  The nominees included: J. Robert Spencer - Best Actor in a Musical; Jennifer Damiano - Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Michael Greif - Best Direction of a Musical; Mark Wendland - Best Scenic Design of a Musical; Kevin Adams - Best Lighting Design of a Musical; and Brian Ronan - Best Sound Design of a Musical.
  • Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt were awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making next to normal only the 9th musical so honored.  The most recent, RENT, was also directed by Michael Greif.


next to normal at the 2009 Tonys:
Aaron sings, Alice, Tom and Brian win!
 
My Favorite "normal" Moments:
  • The "mini - Overture":  There is something thrilling about the soft tinkling of the first notes as the lights begin to dim, and then that electric guitar boom of a note as we rock out and are plunged into complete darkness, only to get soft musically again...



  • "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I":  Sure it sets up the tone of comedy-drama, and it really establishes the Dan/Diana relationship as it currently stands.  But I love the song - the swing, that catchy beat, the great counterpoint/round, and especially the vocal arrangements that make the 4 "voices" sound like so much more.
  • "I Miss the Mountains":  Our first "alone time" with Diana, and it really defines how we will feel and how much/comfort/discomfort we'll have in later, similar moments.


  • "You Don't Know/I Am the One": I could always tell this sequence was meant to be one of those big moments in the show, but I never felt fully satisfied until I saw Marin, Jason and Kyle Dean do it.  Perfection on all levels.


  • "Superboy and the Invisible Girl": Catchy, lyrically interesting, meaningful way beyond the words.  Probably one of my all-time favorite single Broadway show tunes.  All-time.
  • "I'm Alive":  OK, I'll be blunt.  Both actors who have played Gabe are hot to look at.  Bad boys who do dangerous things are appealing.  Belt + danger + cute = great theatre moment! 

The New Cast

  • "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling":  I love this number in the same way that I love "Psychopharmacologist", only not funny.  At all.
  • The End of Act One:  After all of the cacophony, it is the quiet moments that really stick.


  • "Wish I Were Here":  A great rock moment to start the second half...
  • "How Could I Ever Forget?/"It's Gonna Be Good (Reprise)": Let the tears begin.  When the final pieces of the Gabe puzzle come frighteningly clear, there isn't a dry eye in the place, and the argument here has always been gut-wrenching and brilliantly played.
  • "Why Stay?/A Promise": The "there's no turning back" moment, wonderfully executed and nicely low key even when you least expect it.
  • "Maybe (Next to Normal)": Is it because we finally know for sure what the title of the show means?  Or is it because it is nice to see an un-crazy moment so full of truth - making up without either side giving in?


  • "Hey #3/Perfect for You (Reprise)":  Happy tears and I get them every time.  The vastly underrated Adam Chanler-Berat, turns and sees Natalie at the dance, and his smile/relief/love comes pouring out in one look.  I live to have someone look at me with that much love.


  • "Light": A rousing, tidying up of loose ends, without being too tidy or too final.  The staging is simple, but huge.  Remember, there are only 6 cast members, but there is an epic feel to the exact moment they are all over the set, then run down the steps and join in a line and advance on the audience.  We are one, despite differences, issues, individual needs; family is the light.

The Original Broadway Cast

Since the Opening:
  • The Original Broadway Cast Recording has become a best seller.
  • next to normal became the first musical to do a Twitter performance.
  • The show has its own YouTube page where fans submit video of themselves singing their favorite n2n songs, and they are put together in "mash ups" hosted by the show's writers.
  • Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey held a contest for ideas about a song that isn't in the show that depicts a moment or relationship mentioned but not portrayed in the actual show.  It is called "Something I Can't See" and it is a song for Gabe and Dr. Madden.
  • Alice Ripley continues to do her solo act in NYC.  She will also headline the National Tour of next to normal.
  • J. Robert Spencer tours with his Jersey Boys buddies in concerts around the country.
  • Louis Hobson became a father during the run - of twins!
  • Aaron Tveit is co-starring in the upcoming Broadway musical, Catch Me If You Can.


  • Jennifer Damiano and Adam Chanler-Berat developed an act and performed at Joe's Pub.
  • The entire company has performed at various charity events.
  • Tom Kitt orchestrated and arranged Green Day's American Idiot, which is currently playing at the St. James Theatre.
  • Both Kitt and Brian Yorkey continue to work on several projects, both together and apart.  Yorkey directs shows on the West Coast, and is working on the book to Catch Me If You Can, with Terrence McNally.
  • Jessica Phillips will be leaving the show shortly to take on her next project, co-starring in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.  I can't wait to see her!
  • Meghann Fahy continues to do double duty.  During the day, she has a recurring role on One Life to Live.


  • Kyle Dean Massey was in the Broadway photo shoot for the Broadway Issue of Out magazine.
  • No word on a film version yet, but I suggest Betty Buckley as Diana's mother in a cameo.

Final Thoughts... 
There are so many reasons to love next to normal.  The songs are catchy, perfect for each moment and rich in texture and meaning.  The lyrics are thoughtful, clever and most of all, honest.  It is a show that perfectly blends all of the technical aspects of theatre - the set, lights and costumes all contribute to the meaning.  The staging is tight, focused and endlessly interesting.  It is the best in years because it doesn't back down, it makes you think, it makes you feel.  It is easy to relate to, even if you have no one in your life like these people.  And it is fat-free - there is not a single note, lyric, word, pause, lighting cue, movement that is wasted.  Every single part contributes to the whole.  And while it may make you uncomfortable or take you to a dark place, you come out of it moved and alive.  Not a bad thing, at all.

2 comments:

  1. Well, you know I share your Next to Normal love. Last week I went to this very cool event at the NY Times Center- there was a sort of panel interview/discussion with the new cast, questions from the audience, and some performances interspersed. I'm still not totally sold on the new leads' voices vis a vis this score (ie. gorgeous voices but to my mind not the best fit with this rock score), but I was curious enough to get a ticket for Labor Day weekend.
    I love how the music starts as the lights go down- that BOOM gets me every time. It's like notice that something amazing is about to happen, so sit up, get ready, and hold on tight. And amazing really doesn't begin to describe it. I'm still searching for the right words. I had never imagined that I could see a show and see so many shades of myself, my family, my life reflected back at me from the stage- not *exactly* me, or *only* me, but something fundamentally of me, of my story. It was the theatrical equivalent of "where have you been all my life?" It's had, and continues to have, a very real, positive impact on my life and my relationship with my mom, by providing a channel, a vehicle, to talk about a lot of things that we didn't or couldn't before and by providing her insight into my experience, my perspective as well as into her own.
    How on earth could something so special, so astoundingly spectacular on every level, lose the best musical Tony to Billy Eliott?

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    Replies
    1. I will tell you why (in speculation)- because the voters love little dancing boys. However, you know that the next to normal billy elliot issue was big enough when you see what happened in 2013 and 2012. The 4 matildas were disqualified (rightfully, i might add) and given a special tony, and even though I thought Matilda had the better score and was possibly the better musical -compared to kinky boots, that is- kinky boots took them both. Why? because the voters were over correcting. look to 2012 with the newsies vs once debate. The voters went for the more mature, atrsy musical, as opposed to the defiant kids musical because of the backlash.
      in conclusion, it all came down to politics. Additionally, next to normal lost out on book to billy elliot which is just so wrong. but much of it, i suspect, came down to the dancing boys who didnt really sing that much, as the leads of a musical and elton john.
      side note- tom kitt and brian yorkey deserve all the awards for that show. J robert spencer was also robbbed by the dancing boys. not to mention next to normal was for six people, and was essentially a rock opera so you need so much more talent than little dancing children. to continue on with the snubs- i re did who should have won which tony -taking only into consideration the nominations that they shared and were not won by another musical, ie karen olivo in west side story, and next to normal should have won 8, with billy elliot at 5.

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