One of Broadway’s most celebrated contemporary musicals is set to impress Ōtautahi Christchurch audiences when Next to Normal, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, opens at The Court Theatre on 17 June.
Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and nominated for 11 TONY awards (winning three, including Best Original Score), Next to Normal stands out in the musical theatre canon, not only for its virtuosic score, but for the layered depiction of mental illness which is at the centre of this family drama.
Described as a “feel everything musical” (New York Times), Next to Normal focusses on one family whose members are each struggling to deal with past and present griefs. Diana, the mother and wife in the family, is bipolar. As she and her family endeavour to find that elusive ‘cure’, her struggle to be ‘normal’ profoundly affects all those around her.
Next to Normal is directed by Broadway and West-End star, Hayden Tee (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Takatāpui), with musical direction by Richard Marrett. Tee saw the original production in New York in 2008 and “fell in love with it.” The show is complex and challenging, containing moments that are in turn poignant and humorous, and Tee is relishing the opportunity to finally bring this story and its music to Christchurch audiences (Next to Normal was originally planned for 2022 but rescheduled due to Covid).
Next to Normal has been praised both for its nuanced depiction and destigmatisation of neurodiversity, and for the way it brings to life the feelings and internal life of its characters. It also contains a lot of humour amidst the serious subject matter. This has ensured its continued to resonance for countless audiences all over the world. The focus on family is what makes the show relatable, says Tee. “Really, this is a story about people and family, and absolutely everyone can relate to that.”
The emotional complexity of the family’s struggles is conveyed through a modern rock music score that Tee describes as “exceptional” and Musical Director Richard Marrett describes as “stunning.” It is “achingly beautiful. Sad, incredibly complex and hopeful” Marrett says, adding that “musically, Next to Normal would rate amongst the top shows written in the last 15 years. It’s front and centre of musical theatre lovers’ favourites.”
Tee notes that a story centred on a female protagonist who is a mother of two teenagers is also a relatively untold perspective. “That’s not a person we often get in musical theatre” he says. Playing the pivotal role of Diana is Juliet Reynolds-Midgley, an actress and singer of jazz, classical, pop and music theatre who is well-known to Christchurch audiences. Juliet was last onstage in Flagons and Foxtrots at The Court Theatre in 2022. Playing her husband Dan is Darryl Lovegrove, an original cast member of the Australian seasons of Les Miserables and Chess, and perhaps best known for his portrayal of Jesus in the Australian and New Zealand tours of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Many of the other members of the cast are also local, and all, says Tee, are “extraordinary” performers. Collectively they have been involved in national, Australasian and international productions. They include Juan Jackson (international productions of RENT, Miss Saigon and The Rocky Horror Show (as Frank 'N' Furter)); Joel Granger (McKinley in the recent Book of Mormon tour of New Zealand); Laurel Gregory (currently in Appropriate at The Court Theatre) and George Hiku (Madagascar the Musical New Zealand tour 2021).
For those who might have seen Next to Normal before, Tee promises that his approach will be fresh, amazing and - in the right places - just a little bit sexy. Unusually for a musical, Marrett and his fellow musicians - “a rock band, with strings” - will also be located on different parts of the stage, rather than seated together. They will rely on technology to ensure that they play cohesively.
While some of the exact terminology surrounding Diana’s diagnosis has changed since the time of writing, Next to Normal has retained its relevance because questions around mental health and wellbeing are universal to the human experience and one “that we can all lean into” says Tee. “Everyone now has a point of reference to this. Mental health and its challenges are just as normal as any other lived experiences."