What IS Normal?

 Zack Anthony Curran was among the opening night audience at the MTC last night for the Australian premiere of Next To Normal. 

 ZAC“I don’t need a life that’s normal, that’s way too far away, but something next to normal would be ok. Yes something next to normal, that’s the thing I’d like to try. Close enough to normal to get by.”
This incredibly poignant lyric has haunted me since the first time i heard it in 2009. It’s from the musical Next To Normal which is currently playing at The Arts Centre presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company.
With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt it is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of theatre i have ever experienced.
The Australian premiere is directed by Dean Bryant with Musical Direction by Matthew Frank and choreography by Andrew Hollsworth. This is not a review. All I’ll say is… Don’t. Miss. This. Show…
The premise of the musical is heavy from the start. It takes a look inside the home of a perfectly normal American family who are dealing with all the usual stuff like loss and grief, addiction, teen angst, sex, suburban normality, mental illness and the resulting breakdown of relationships.
Next To Normal conjures some fairly deep emotion in me. It is true that i can’t go past a soaring emotional music theatre ballad… Especially of the contemporary variety… This aside, the idea that presents itself more heavily than others is that of mental illness, and the affect it has on family.   This is interesting to me as it seems, for an issue which has touched so many of us in some way, it is something rarely discussed in real life.  
Artists however, have been portraying mental illness since the inception of theatre. Even in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare was entertaining the masses with the likes of Macbeth and King Lear – two plays heavily shrouded in themes surrounding people losing their minds.
Usually art imitates life, though in this case, i feel like art is giving us an outlet to express and experience something we don’t yet have the social freedom to explore and discuss in our own day to day lives.
I find it intriguing that the subject of mental illness is basically something we don’t speak about. Why is it that we choose to carry on and not acknowledge anything that might push the boundaries or make anyone feel slightly uncomfortable?  
I am going to be bold here and venture to say that most of us don’t like to be pushed or challenged especially by people in real life – I know I hate confrontation. This is why i love theatre… For some reason when “art” does it – I love being provoked, stimulated or even tricked into thinking about something that would have otherwise passed me by. It gives me the opportunity to live and breathe through a few hours of implausible expression.
Next To Normal shows us what it’s like living with a severe mental illness and the battering affect it can have on relationships. It does what very few music theatre shows have done in the past, particularly on the Australian stage, and takes that taboo subject and thrusts it so far into your face it’s impossible to ignore.  
The play asks us the question “what is normal?”. We spend the entire show exploring the idea, eventually realising – nothing is, and that’s ok.
This is not a musical with a particularly happy ending but it certainly is moving. It certainly leaves me sitting in that deep reflective slightly sad place that sometimes i like. It makes me feel real, somehow helping me to accept that nothing lasts forever, and that even after great turmoil, stress and years of agitation as depicted by the family in this story – you can still find a way forward, even if it’s not to achieve the conventional idea of happiness.
“Day after day wishing all our cares away. Trying to fight the things we feel but some hurts never heal. Some ghosts are never gone; but we go on we still go on and you find some way to survive and you find out you don’t have to be happy all to to be happy you’re alive.”
Next To Normal plays at The Arts Centre in The Playhouse until the 28 May 2011.  Featuring: Matt Hetherington, Benjamin Hoetjes, Gareth Keegan, Kate Kendall, Bert LaBonté and Christy Sullivan.

Erin James

Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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