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Theatre / Next to Normal

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"I don't need a life that's normal
That's way too far away
But something next to normal
Would be okay
Yeah, something next to normal
That's the thing I'd like to try
Close enough to normal
To get by"
Natalie, "Maybe (Next To Normal)"

Next to Normal is a Tony-and-Pulitzer-award-winning rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. The story centers around a Dysfunctional Family consisting of bipolar depressive housewife Diana, who suffers from delusional episodes, her husband Dan, who has been struggling with taking care of her on and off for the past sixteen years, their charming but unruly son Gabe, and their disaffected musician daughter Natalie. Also involved are Natalie's on-and-off boyfriend, Henry, and Diana's doctors, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden.

Originally, it was developed as a ten-minute short called Feeling Electric, inspired by a news report Yorkey saw about electro-convulsive therapy.

The show opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre on April 15, 2009. It was nominated for eleven Tony awards and won three of them: Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress.

This musical includes examples of the following:

  • Arc Words: Only in the first act, there's "He's not here/She's not there."
  • Bad Girl Song: Diana's cut section of "Feeling Electric"; "Wish I Were Here" and the cut song "Growing Up Unstable", for Natalie.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Natalie is a teenage jerk but mainly it's an act she puts up for dealing with her family problems.
    "all those years I prayed that / You'd go away for good / Half the time afraid that / You really would..."
  • Broken Bird: Diana definitely is one given the trauma of losing her infant son has been affecting her for eighteen years and she still hasn't gotten over it. Natalie is also one given how dysfunctional her family is, especially with the lack of love and support her parents have been able to provide.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Diana's hallucinations of Gabe return and she leaves Dan to take care of herself without him. But Dan comes to terms with his grief over Gabe's death that he had avoided for over a decade and Natalie patches things up with Henry who promises to stay with her for years to come.
  • Bumbling Dad: Natalie wants Dan to be "a typical parent and lie" that everything with Diana will be OK.
  • Call-Back:
    • In "Maybe (Next to Normal)", Diana says she is "dancing with death." This is subtle wordplay in reference to her son's death, as in all her previous dance metaphors, she is talking about Gabe. This is made more potent because he has previously led her to attempt suicide.
    • In their first scene together, Natalie tells Henry that he gives up way too easily when he first tries to talk to her and she plays hard to get. Later on when she is seriously trying to push him away due to her own issues and he won't quit, she says "You just don't give up."
    • "I am the One" is sung by Dan after Diana insists that he doesn't know what it's like to live with her insanity. "I am the One (reprise)" shows that Dan has been able to see Gabe for years and simply ignored him.
    • Early in the movie, Henry says that classical music is "So rigid and structured.", and that there's "no room for improvisation". Natalie quotes him verbatim later when she has a nervous breakdown during her recital.
  • The Caretaker: Dan takes this to codependent extremes.
  • Dark Reprise: "It's Gonna Be Good" is a bouncy, happy tune about Dan's excitement for dinner with the family. The reprise is a tense argument between him and his wife.
    • "I'm Alive", while very dark in substance in its initial iteration, becomes even more overwhelmingly vicious halfway through its reprise — Gabe becomes very vehement in tone and word choice as he re-asserts his control over both Diana and Dan.
      • "And the medicine failed and the doctors lied..."
    • Technically, when you think about it, all the reprises in Next to Normal are dark- except for the reprise of "Perfect for You." "You Don't Know" itself is a dark, sort of vicious-sounding song- but the reprise is even darker, talking about Diana struggling to regain her memories- and then it goes into Mood Whiplash when Madden says "Have you talked of your depression, your delusions, and your son?" and Diana remembers that Gabe is her son who died sixteen years ago.
    • Similarly, the reprise of "I Am the One" is pretty dark, as Diana has just left her husband and Dan sits alone- that is, until Gabe shows himself to his father.
      • "But you've always known who I am..."
    • "I Am The One" is an odd reversal. The first one starts out, while not happy, positive as Dan tries to tell Diana that he will always be there for her then Gabe appears and asserts his control on her as he berates Dan for acting like he doesn't exist Then in the reprise, it starts out darker as Diana is leaving Dan and he sings about his frustrations that he has stayed with her for years through her problems and yet she chooses to leave. Then Gabe appears again, but this time he is staying with Dan to make him come to terms with his son's death. Thus, although not quite happy, the song ends on a positive note.
  • Dead All Along: As we find out half an hour in, Dan and Diana's son Gabe has been dead for sixteen years.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Natalie, particularly during the song "Better than Before".
  • Distant Duet: There are a number. "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" is an interesting variation of the trope, as Gabe is singing to Natalie by the end of it but she can't see him.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Henry, who is determined to prove his love to Natalie.
    • Dan, who is very determined to bring his family together despite a number of... setbacks.
  • Dysfunctional Family: "So my son's a little shit, my husband's boring, and my daughter, though a genius, is a freak."
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture: After every other treatment for her bipolar disorder and psychosis has failed, Dr. Madden suggests ECT for Diana, which she compares to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The treatment ends with her losing her memories, but they eventually return, which also brings back her psychosis. This causes the doctor to recommend more ECT, which she promptly refuses, leading to her stopping treatment altogether.
  • Embarrassing Old Photo: In "Better Than Before".
  • Epiphany Therapy: Averted. Even though Dan seems to come to terms with the loss of his son at the end, he is not suddenly all fine. In fact, its only after this that he even begins going to therapy.
  • Feel No Pain: Diana has many complaints that her medication makes her suffer new problems each time it is altered, such as weight gain, sweating for no reason, constipation and nausea. However, after a while she claims "I don't feel like myself...I mean, I don't feel anything."
    Dr. Fine: Hmmm. . . patient stable.
    • Averted when she throws away her medication in "I Miss The Mountains" because she misses her younger self, who felt pain, depression, happiness, sadness and even mania; but at least she felt.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: Though it has a Bittersweet Ending instead of a Downer Ending, the show is equal parts funny and heartrending until about the last 20 minutes. After Diana remembers that she had a son who died, the show quickly drops all humor.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: At the end of "It's Gonna Be Good", the table is set for four people - but Dan, Henry and Natalie are all seated, leaving no chair for either Gabe or Diana. A few seconds later, Natalie reveals that her brother Gabe has been dead for years.
  • Flipping the Bird: Referenced in "Better Than Before":
    "We saw the painted desert, the Grand Canyon, and Aunt Rhonda/And Nat learned what her middle finger meant."
  • Ghost Song: Technically, from one point of view, anything sung by Gabe.
  • Foreshadowing: During the opening number, when Dan comes into the living room because he hears noise and Diana says it's "Just me. Talking to myself, you know", to cover for Gabe having come home late. We later find out that Gabe is a hallucination in Diana's mind, and she really was talking to herself.
  • Give Him a Normal Life:
    Diana: [To Natalie] We tried to give you a normal life. (laughs) I realize now I have no clue what that is.
  • Grief-Induced Split: Diana and Dan's son Gabe died as a toddler sixteen years prior, though he continues to live on in her hallucinations and cast a shadow over the family's lives. Near the end of the show, Diana leaves her husband, recognizing that though they love each other, they need to come to terms with their long-buried grief on their own.
  • Grief Song: "How Could I Ever Forget?"
  • Hidden Depths: While Dr. Madden is shown to be very professional most of the time, when Diana attempts to commit suicide and he's recording his patient notes, he breaks down in anger over how upset he is at nearly losing his patient, showing even he's not a flat, one-note character.
  • He's Back!: When Gabe returns at the end of "Why Stay?/A Promise" behind Dan when Diana and Dan are about to embrace. Diana issues an "oh no" and turns Dan to face the (presumably) empty space where Gabe is, to which Dan yells a long "GODDAMMITTTT!"
  • "I Am" Song: "I'm Alive". "Everything Else" is an interesting variation, since it's an "I Am" Song sung in the second person by the subject of the song (i.e. Natalie's singing about herself, but from the second person perspective). "I Am the One"
  • I Have to Iron My Dog: Natalie's excuses for why Henry can't stay for dinner start normal, and then veer into "surgery!" and "rabies!"
  • Incest Subtext: The relationship between Gabe, Diana, and Dan; inverted as this trope doesn't affect Gabe's development as much as Diana's and Dan's.
    • Depending on the production, Gabe's approach toward Diana can be very seductive especially when he incites her to commit suicide.
    • In "You Don't Know/I am the One", Diana is very caught between Dan's steadfast support and the memory of Gabe. Depending on the production when Gabe says "Look at me", he is either angrily saying it to his father who refuses to acknowledge his death or almost seductively to his mother. Most promo performances of the song with little context for it tend to go with the latter version.
  • Informed Attribute: Subtly enforced with Gabe - Diana claims that his day consists of "Jazz band before school. Class. Key Club. Then football" despite him never being shown doing any of these things. The reason he's never shown doing these things is because he's just a recurring hallucination that Diana thinks is doing these things. The long list of activities serves a different purpose— it accounts for long periods when Gabe is "out," or, not appearing in Diana's brain.
  • Ironic Birthday: Gabe's birthday, when the delusional Diana bakes Gabe a cake, is when the audience explicitly finds out, from Dan, that "he's been dead sixteen years."
  • Ironic Echo: Early in the show this conversation occurs.
    Henry: The thing about classical is it's so rigid and structured, there's no room for improvisation. You have to play the notes on the page.
    Natalie: Yeah, what did Mozart know anyway? He should've just smoked a bowl and jammed on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
    Henry: ...Yeah, let's do that!
    • Later on in the show when Natalie has a breakdown during her piano recital, it comes back.
    Natalie: You know what the problem with classical is? It's so rigid and structured! You have to play the notes on the page! There's no room for improvisation!
    Henry: Oh no.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One
    Natalie: "Oh, you're one of those pretentious stoner types."
    Henry: "That's totally unfair! ... I'm not pretentious."
  • "I Want" Song: "I Miss the Mountains"
  • Meaningful Name: Gabriel, perhaps as in the angel who appeared to Mary in The Bible and told her she was pregnant.
    • Diana and Dan have the same consonants, and just a couple vowels' difference— mirroring the codependent way they've grown together, until their neuroses are almost inextricable.
    • Diana is also a Roman goddess, who protected women in childbirth and new babies, and single women— Diana's trauma stems from her identity as a mother, and she needs to break out of her family to heal.
    • The doctors: Dr. "Fine" wants to get Diana to a flat emotional level, so she'll be "fine" (that is, functional) without any extreme highs or lows. Dr. Madden wants to probe the depths of Diana's trauma, and the result "maddens" her and sends her off-kilter.
  • Men Don't Cry: Deconstructed. Dan hides his emotions from his family until it eventually tears them apart, until his wife leaves and Natalie finds him sobbing alone in the dark. Dan eventually agrees to see a therapist recommended by Dr Madden, after a long time of bottling up his emotions.
  • Missing Mom: As Natalie sings towards the end of the show "It's so lovely that you're sharing, no really; I'm all ears. But where has all this caring been for sixteen years?"
  • Minimalist Cast: It's a 6 person show, with the only characters being Diana, Dan, Gabe, Natalie, Henry and Dr. Fine/Madden (the doctors are played by the same actor).
  • Mood Whiplash: The perky, bouncy, hyperactive "It's Gonna Be Good", followed abruptly by the revelation that Gabe has been Dead All Along; even more abrupt on the album, when the song ends and goes straight into "He's Not Here".
    • Also "Hey #1" after "Song of Forgetting." The former is Henry asking Natalie to the spring dance, whereas the latter shows Natalie's fury and frustration that her mother cannot remember anything. "What a lovely cure, it's a medical miracle! With a mind so pure, that she doesn't know anything!"
    • Better than, before! *Gabe enters*
  • Musicalis Interruptus: The music abruptly stops as Dr. Madden mentions Gabe in act 2.
  • No Antagonist: The closest thing the show has to an antagonist is Gabe, but Gabe has been dead for 16 years, and Diana and Dan's grief is the real problem.
  • No Medication for Me: Diana's reaction through the second act.
  • No Name Given: It isn't as blatant as other examples of this, and its averted at the end, but Gabe's name isn't actually said until right before the final number.
  • Noodle Incident: During "Better than Before," it's implied Diana caused the family's old house to burn down. How or why is never explained.
  • Only Sane Man: Well, there's the bipolar wife, the angsty teenage daughter, the dead-ghost son, the daughter's stoner boyfriend and the terrifying therapist. And then there's Dan.
    • Although he questions whether even he can be considered sane or not:
    Dan: Who's crazy? The one who's half gone? Or maybe the one who holds on...
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: It's fair to ask, is Gabe a hallucination proceeding from a damaged mind, or a genuine ghost that can't move on? The fact that Dan also sees Gabe only deepens the mystery.
  • The Reveal: In Act 1, it's that Gabe is a hallucination in Diana's mind.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Natalie for Gabe. Diana can't quite finish the phrase: "We had Natalie to... and I know she knows..."
  • Rewatch Bonus: Early in the show, Gabe tells Diana "You've got to let go, Mom. I'm almost eighteen." On first viewings, it's just Gabe annoyed at his mother worrying about him. On second viewings, it's the ghost or hallucination of Gabe trying to convince his mother to stop grieving after so many years.
    • Also early on, during "Just Another Day", Gabe says "Good morning, Sunshine" to Natalie, who walks passed him without a word. On first viewings, it's just Natalie ignoring him, because he's being annoying. On subsequent viewings, it's because Gabe was never really there in the first place.
  • Rock Star Song: Parodied by Diana's hallucinations about Doctor Madden, and in Madden's cut song "Feeling Electric."
  • Sanity Slippage Song: Apart from the rather obvious examples, the usually "steadfast and stoic" Dan in "It's Gonna Be Good (Reprise)" as he refuses to name their son to Diana, and eventually smashes the music box that reminded Diana of Gabe at the end of the song, causing Natalie to issue a "Jesus, Dad!".
  • Saying Too Much: When Dan encourages Diana to see a new doctor:
    Dan: This doctor's supposed to be fantastic, a real rockstar! Three different women at work gave me his name.
    Diana: Three women at work know I'm nuts?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: In "So Anyway", Diana leaves her family and tries to sort through her issues on her own.
  • Side Effects Include...: "May cause the following side effects, one or more..."
    Dizziness, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction...headaches and tremors and night fears and seizures. Diarrhea, constipation, nervous laughter, palpitations. Anxiousness, anger, exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, nausea, vomiting- (Odd and alarming sexual feelings) Oh, and one last thing: Use may be fatal...
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: As reluctant as Natalie is to accept Henry's affection, she still falls into the trope.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Most of the characters swear occasionally, but Natalie uses curse words almost as punctuation.
  • Shout-Out:
  • "Somewhere" Song: "There's a World" is a very dark example, as Gabe's describing a flawless paradise to convince Diana to kill herself and join him in the afterlife.
  • Stepford Smiler: The entire family sing about the struggle of having to keep the act up in "Just Another Day".
  • Sung-Through Musical: Downplayed. While there is some dialogue, most of the conversations are sung through, and several songs are flow directly into the next.
  • There Are No Therapists: Zig-zagged, Diana has been going to therapy for a very long time, it's just not been very effective at treating her symptoms, even though her doctors seem very earnest and sympathetic in wanting to help. No matter what they try, medication, electroshock treatment, nothing seems to work. However, one has to question how helpful they actually are considering they let her go home after electroshock therapy erases so many years of her memories she still thinks she's in college in 1991 when George H.W. Bush is president. Her doctor blithely thinks this is just a normal side effect and will wear off in time despite it being quite alarming for her family.
  • Title Drop: In the titular song, "Maybe (Next to Normal)".
  • Too Much Information: Does this to Natalie at the very beginning of the show so it seems that they are leading normal lives.
    Diana: Honey, you need to slow down. Take some time for yourself. I'm going to have sex with your father!
  • The Un-Favorite: Natalie has shades of this, all due to her brother's untimely death in infancy.
  • Two Girls to a Team: Invoked with Diana and Natalie being the only female roles in the cast.
  • Villain Song: Depending on how you look at it, both versions of "I'm Alive" and "Aftershocks". "There's a World" is definitely one, considering it's Gabe talking Diana into attempting suicide.
  • Wham Line: In Act One, He's been dead, all these years. In Act Two, And who are you?
    • One at the very end, though it should probably be taken metaphorically.
    Gabe:I know you told her that I'm not worth a damn. But I know you know who I am.
    Gabe:I know you know who I am.
    Dan:Can't you just leave me alone.