I had the privilege of seeing “Next to Normal” at the San Jose Repertory Theater a few days ago. The musical had opened on Broadway in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012.
I loved the performance, but admired the content much more. Creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s musical showed the life of a mentally ill woman and the impact the illness had on both the woman and her family. That’s pretty serious content for a musical, but the whole thing worked. I particularly liked the parts where all the family members were singing at the same time. It wasn’t a traditional ensemble, but more of a sing-off as to which family member was suffering most.
At the end of the performance, the cast members assembled on stage to discuss the show. With a representative from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) on-hand to answer questions directly related to mental illness, the cast engaged in a Q&A with the audience. It was obvious from the questions that the “Next to Normal” had provoked thought about its subject. Since when does a musical make us think? Surely, not many other musicals can claim this kind of cerebral impact. Maybe “Rent,” but probably very few others.
As I read through the playbill after getting home, I decided that I was most impressed with the perseverance of the creators. They had originally created “Feeling Electric” as a 10-minute musical for a final project at Columbia University in 1998. After working on other projects after graduation, the pair presented a reading and workshop of the material at the Village Theater in Issaquah, Washington. Encouraged by the feedback of producer of “Wicked,” David Stone, who was sitting in the audience, the team continued to work with the material and returned to the stage at the New York Theater Festival Project in 2005.
Re-working the material yet further, the re-titled “Next to Normal” opened at Second Stage in 2008, but reviews were mixed. With the New York Times review confusing at best, the creators re-worked the material yet again, opening at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 2009, before finally reaching the Booth Theater on Broadway in 2009. The long effort paid off as the show garnered rave reviews and earned eleven Tony nominations.
It’s easy to admire Yorkey and Kitt for their achievement, but their willingness to learn from so many attempts is even more impressive. The playbill states that they “…had logged all the feedback from friends, colleagues, audience members, and critics.” I always knew that plays were put through “workshop,” but I had assumed that it was to correct mistakes such as having an actor walk left-to-right on-stage and then immediately (impossibly) execute a similar left-to-right instruction. Ok, I’ll admit, I don’t know much about play or musical creation, as there’s obviously more to it.
However, I doubt that authors expose their early drafts with the same vulnerability as playwrights. Authors usually have friends and family read their early drafts, and then rely on a content editor to assist in the completion of the final work. But, when does the targeted audience get to make their input? They never seem to get that chance, and as a result, authors can’t improve their work to the same extent as playwrights with the opportunity to workshop their material.
It’s certainly possible, but wouldn’t it be neat if aspiring authors could upload unfinished works for the world to review and provide comment? Maybe something like this already exists, and I simply don’t know about it. If authors had a similar mechanism as the playwright’s workshop and the courage to use it, then the world might gain another masterpiece.