Can a musical successfully tackle mental illness without it turning its characters into caricatures? Until Next to Normal, many people might have answered that question with a resounding no, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, has shown that musicals can be serious and win over audiences at the same time.
Since it opened off-Broadway in 2008, the musical, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, it has shown a light on mental illness through the character of Diana and her struggles with bipolar disorder, earning praise from critics, audiences, and mental-health professionals.
For years, and still to this day, there is a stigma for those suffering from a mental illness that makes the experience difficult not just for them but also their families.
For Catherine Porter, who plays Diana Goodman at the Alliance Theatre, there is a more personal reason she is drawn the production. “My sister is bipolar as well. I saw her progression,” Porter states. She watched her sister go from being a feisty, creative artist to suffering her own breakdown. It has helped her understand the character of Diana a little better. “Witnessing that, I feel like I know the person,” she says.
Once known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is classified as a mood disorder. Most of those who suffer from it experience extreme changes in mood, one of its most well-known characteristics. During these swings, a person may go from one state to a manic state with lots of energy. It would not be usual for someone to gamble his/her own home away during one of these episodes. At other times depression is prevalent. Each individual may exhibit varying symptoms.
Other characteristics may also occur. Some people may have reduced attention or impaired memories. Extreme creativity is another feature commonly associated with the disorder. For more information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, please visi: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml.
The Alliance Theatre will host an After-Words with Emory Healthcare and Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences on October 26 to 28, 2012, November 2 to 4, 2012, and November 9 to 11, 2012. For more information, please visit: http://alliancetheatre.org/Alliance/Our-Plays/Now-Playing/Next-to-Normal.aspx.
This experience has had a profound impact onPorter’s interpretation of the character. “I am sympathetic with Diana. She’s a wonderful character; she’s a real person who is really sharp and funny,” she states. “She has been in the unfortunate situation of suffering a huge loss.”
A complex character with a difficult score to sing, the character of Diana could be considered a middle-aged actresses dream role. “She’s a very interesting character, and all women in my age group want to play her,” she says.
Playing the character once can be a dream come true, but the Alliance Theatre’s production gives Porter the chance to play the character twice. “I was the last standby for Diana for the last seven weeks of the show on Broadway,” she says.
However, unlike some other standbys, she did not have the opportunity to take the stage very often. Marin Mazzie, who was playing the role at the time, had never missed a show. Porter comments, “I learned the role not expecting to go on.” But, as fate would have it, Mazzie became ill, allowing Porter to take the stage twice.
In this production of Next to Normal, Porter wants to give her own stamp on the character. As a standby, one must emulate the role as performed by the actor or actress cast in the role. “I didn’t get to realize my own vision,” she says. “It is good to do it here, along with Scott Schwartz, and develop a new version of the show. “
Even though she is playing her own interpretation of the character, she is implementing a few ideas that she learned while in the Broadway cast. First she approaches the role in this manner: “Be truthful in the moment, and it will be effective. It is all written in the piece. The show is so beautifully written.”
Based on her observations of Marin Mazzie during the Broadway run, she works to spare her voice through the run of the show because the score is extremely demanding. She states, “It doesn’t have to be sung with a rock voice, she did it differently.”
Porter further explains, “The score is certainly challenging, my character in particular. When Diana has her more manic moments, such as in “You Don’t Know,” you have to see how far you can push without loosing it. You can’t blow it out. It feels like it should be screamed became she is loosing it, but you can’t do it.”
What makes the score so challenging is the amount of emotion that has been written into it. With numbers that are full rock songs to quiet ballads, the musical takes the audience on a journey that parallels the fractured emotions of its lead character. It is that emotion that draws people to the show.
Porter captures the audiences connections with the musical when she comments, “It is a very human story. We are from dysfunctional families, and there’s something to relate to for everyone. It touches everyone on some level. Stuff some Kleenexes in your bag.”
Next to Normal plays at the Alliance Theatre through November 11, 2012. Tickets are available at the Box Office, by calling 404-733-5000 or online. For more information on the show, please visit the Alliance Theatre’s website.
By: Kenny Norton