(I interviewed Brian Yorkey, playwright and lyricist of the new Broadway musical Next to Normal, for popdose.com last month. He had a lot of great insight about creating a new musical and even though the article is pre-Tony Awards and therefore a little outdated, I think it's still worth sharing. Hope you find it interesting.)
Brian Yorkey is not an asshole. The playwright of the new Broadway musical Next to Normal would never write disparaging comments on a blog post critical of his show. He actually welcomes intellectual discussions about Next to Normal and is much more humble than proud. So it was obviously disconcerting when he discovered an impostor was posting offensive comments as “Brian Yorkey” on a handful of websites this past spring as Next to Normal opened on Broadway.
That’s actually how I met Brian. Faux-Yorkey posted a snotty comment on my review of Next to Normal (on popdose.com) and Brian contacted me to do some apologetic damage control. Since the Internet feeds the fire of anonymous trash-talking, it’s hard to know Faux-Yorkey’s intentions. Deeply defensive of any semi-negative feedback about the show, he (or she) is either a creepy, obsessive fan or rather someone with whom the show resonates strongly. Writing a critically acclaimed rock musical about mental illness is sure to attract a passionate following, after all.
Next to Normal is a breakthrough original musical, receiving astonishing praise from both critics and fans. The show opened at the Booth Theatre in April and is up for a whopping 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, at this year’s awards. (Editor's note: Next to Normal won Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Leading Actress - Alice Ripley, and Best Orchestrations).
The show details the life of bipolar mother Diana, played by Alice Ripley, and how her debilitating mental illness effects both her and her family. The touchy subject matter is delicately and passionately deconstructed while a thumping rock score accompanies the characters’ struggles. It’s certainly an emotional musical, and one that offers a connection to its audience as everyone takes the journey together.
When I sat down with Brian to discuss his experience writing the book and lyrics for Next to Normal, I expected his insight to be almost transcendent, in accord with how the musical elicits such a passionate reaction from its audience. Instead, he told me about his experience with the show’s composer, Tom Kitt, and their journey from when it began as a 10-minute piece at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop a decade ago. Called Feeling Electric at the time, Brian and Tom wanted to write an edgy final project for the workshop, contrasting from their otherwise traditional peers in the class (and their otherwise traditional work). They were fresh out of college and ready to work on their craft; the subsequent 11 Tony nominations a decade later prove that talent and artistic ingenuity have to start somewhere.
Next to Normal’s journey from 10-minute piece to full-length Broadway musical was somewhat arduous, given all the people that were involved from its inception. The creative team was purely interested in telling the story and discovering the characters and their relationships. Unlike other theatrical endeavors that are about selling the show to a paying audience, Next to Normal didn’t have its sights set so commercially high, at least not at first. And that probably has a lot to do with what makes it so intimately resonant. When you don’t have to add schmaltz and sparkles to make your audience feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, you are at liberty to do what’s best for the story. Then, if a ticket is worth a Broadway price, you’ve not only done your job well, but you haven’t sold out to get there. It’s a sad rarity in theatre these days, especially with ticket prices so astronomically high.
I was curious to hear from Brian what it’s like to write a truly original musical, given that most of the new theatre out there is based on a story previously told in another form (movie, album, comic, etc). Brian admitted it’s “exponentially harder to write an original musical. Musicals that go wrong can be ridiculous because it’s a ridiculous artform. People bursting into song can be ridiculous. But musicals that go right can be sublime.” He was quick to quote Spinal Tap: “it’s a very fine line between clever and stupid.”
Currently 19 musicals are playing on Broadway. Next to Normal finds itself in the company of only two other complete originals (Avenue Q and In the Heights). Sure, there are other original musicals on Broadway, but they’re all based on a story or idea that has previously been told (Wicked, Shrek and 9 to 5, for example). In the 2008-2009 Broadway season, 14 new musicals opened. Of those 14, only four were completely original (Next to Normal, Story of My Life, [title of show] and 13). The only one of those shows still running is Next to Normal.
What is it about original musicals that make them so few and far between? Are people out of ideas? Are previously told stories simply an easier sell? Brian was quick to remind me that adaptations have always graced the Broadway stage, and that maybe “original musicals are the exception rather than the rule.” Really, Next to Normal wasn’t written to be a new, innovative comment on society or the art of theatre. Brian quotes Harold Prince, saying “You don’t set out to break new ground, you set out to write a show.” He adds, “Rent, Falsettos, Tommy, Hair…[Next to Normal] wouldn’t be there without those shows.”
Best-case scenario, Brian hopes that Next to Normal sets a precedent for original musicals in the future. He hopes producers can look at the success of the show and think that maybe it’s possible to develop an ambitious, challenging, new musical and make money at the same time. He believes the success of Next to Normal can prove that you don’t have to resort to sweet, lighthearted productions in the interest of making bank — and sometimes the risk can be worth the reward.
Will the production be around for a while, tour the country and play regionally? It seems likely. Brian counts Spring Awakening as a sort of kindred spirit of Next to Normal. Spring Awakening is the rock musical that won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical and has since had much success touring America. It is a unique, non-traditional show, based on a controversial story from the late 1800s. Like Next to Normal, Spring Awakening employs taboo topics (i.e. teens doing it) although Next to Normal doesn’t have the gratuitous nudity of the aforementioned musical — but Brian would put Next to Normal’s Aaron Tveit’s butt against Spring Awakening’s Jonathan Groff’s anyday.
Really, Brian hopes Next to Normal will strike a chord with typical American families because he sees the problems his characters go through as not-too-rare occurrences that many people cope with on a daily basis. He believes with the accessibility of Tom’s music and the relatability of the story, Next to Normal will have much success in the Midwest and other parts of the country. And at best, he hopes that kids who deal with mental illness in their own families will be able to connect with the story and feel comfort knowing they’re not alone.
Completely modest and full of appreciation for the success of his show, Brian still finds his 11 Tony nominations hard to believe. He himself is up for two awards: Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, although collecting two Tonys for his mantle is not his Tony fantasy. He’d actually just like to have an in-depth conversation will Dolly Parton about whatever’s on her mind and then have someone take a picture of them together. He’d also like to chat with Sir Elton. And it would be great if his tux was slimming. Of course, he’d like Next to Normal to win Best Musical, and he’d also like it if Alice Ripley, Bobby Spencer and Jen Damiano could win their respective Best Actor/Actress awards — and if Aaron Tveit could also win in a write-in vote. When asked about winning the Tonys he’s personally up for, he humbly admits he might not even vote for himself in those categories — but adds that he won’t turn them down if, in fact, he wins.