When Alice Ripley returns home from her first electroshock treatment in Next to Normal, which opened April 15 at the Booth, she doesn't recognize the place — or her daughter. What she does recognize, and clings to for dear life, is a figment of her eschewed imagination, and it falls to the audience to sort out this tangled psyche.
That's the bipolar dance that has been set to music by Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and set to movement by Michael Greif (director) and Sergio Trujillo (choreographer) — hardly, you might think, a suitable case for musical treatment, but hold on there: Having a family in the throes of galloping dysfunction can only, by definition, goose the genre and push the musical envelope.
Ripley's unraveling in the center ring, as the unhinged and wildly swinging housefrau, engages the audience's sympathy and attention. Not only is she in glorious voice, her silences are just as eloquent, speaking volumes for a desperately befogged suburban mom who has stumbled out of her stereotype.
It could be said that so completely does Ripley, with her evolving illness, dominate the proceedings that she relegates everyone else to supporting players — her painfully patient husband (J. Robert Spencer), her endlessly adoring son (Aaron Tveit) and her caustic and combative daughter (Jennifer Damiano), who comes with a nerdy but persistent suitor (Adam Chanler-Berat). It goes to show you how having one certified crazy in the house can really rattle the roof and shake the foundations of home and hearth. For professional help, newly cast Louis Hobson is on hand, drawing double duty as doctors who prescribe medications and shock therapy. His bottom-line diagnosis is hope-filled — and sung: "The price of love is loss, but still we pay. We love, anyway."
"That's my favorite line in any musical from anywhere — and I get to say it!" beamed the Broadway-bowing Hobson when he met the press later at the Edison Ballroom.
The newest member of the cast turns out to be the one who has the longest history of the show: "I did one of the first presentations of the show in Seattle seven years ago," Hobson said. "I played the husband, actually. We weren't all age-appropriate for the roles we were playing. It was more just a presentation to get it on its feet. At that point, it was just to get a sense of the material and where to build from.
"I've sorta followed the project over the last few years, and in September I just moved to New York from Seattle. This was my first audition in the city, and I got it."
His favorite moment on stage now didn't exist in the Seattle lift-off. He is introduced to Ripley as "the rock star of psychiatrists," and, in her mind, he periodically breaks into Jaggeresque gyrations. Originally, the scene was the doctor-rocker's, but it has been retooled to give Ripley her funniest moment: she reacts like a scared teenager to the waves of testosterone emitted by this dangerous male animal confronting her.
Next to Normal has been angling for its place on Broadway for quite a few years — and it took a drastic overhaul in the homestretch to get it here. All hands point to David Stone, the producer of Wicked, as the one who made the whole thing happen.
"I saw the show 3½ years ago at NYMF [New York Musical Festival], and we've been working on it ever since," said Stone. "I brought Carole Rothman of Second Stage down to see it, and, after a year and a half of more work, we did it at Second Stage."
His game plan last winter was to move the show to Broadway — as he had a previous Second Stage offering, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — but he stumbled and stopped over the good-but-could-be-better notices. Critics complained that the camp and comedy forced on to the show undercut the seriousness of its intent.
Stone actually listened to them and went back to work to implement their ideas. "If one critic said something on their own, we tended to disregard that, but, where there was such a unanimity in some areas, you begin to suspect they were right. We already knew that those areas were issues for us anyway so to have the critics reiterate this to us was actually very helpful, and we started to fix the problems."
Last November, Stone wangled a slot at Washington DC's Arena Stage to try out the new-and-hopefully-improved Next to Normal and give the show that rare second chance he felt it deserved. Peter Marks of The Washington Post proclaimed, in so many encouraging words, it was back on the right track and ready for Broadway.
"Probably a third of the show now is different from what it was at Second Stage," Stone estimated. "We had to do a list the other day of what we've changed — it was massive — and the timing between the end of the Second Stage engagement and the rehearsal for the Arena Stage production was a very productive ten months."
Gone are scenes like Ripley's meltdown in public at a Costco store as well as her electroshock ordeal which ends the first act in a rock-show frenzy. "That song was called 'Feeling Electric,'" remembered Stone, "and that was the original name of the show when I saw it. To give you an idea how much the show changed: the number that used to be the title song is gone. It was written early on, which is why the authors wanted to hold on to it a little longer than perhaps we wanted them to."
"Feeling Electric" was indeed the hardest number to cut, according to Kitt, who not only composed the score but (with Michael Starobin) co-orchestrated it as well.
"We cut seven songs in all," he admitted. "There was nothing sacred about anything in the show. After our experience with Second Stage, when we realized that cutting certain songs would make the show better, there was absolutely no problem at all.
"I think there are five new songs in the show, and then there are pieces of four others. That was a substantial amount of material." Where the new songs were to go in the show and what specifically they were to say, he recalled, was largely determined by "a consensus among Michael and David and Brian and me."
To attend the opening (his second as a Broadway composer, after the short-lived High Fidelity), Kitt skipped his regular duties as musical supervisor for Sherie Rene Scott's Everyday Rapture, which opens May 3 at Second Stage, but he planned to be back at that stand the next night. Scott's husband, Kurt Deutsch, did Next to Normal's Broadway cast recording for his Ghostlight Records. "It's on iTunes and comes out May 12," said Kitt. Possibly for Tony consideration? His smile was his answer.
[flipbook] Ripley, for one (of several), was happy the show took the DC detour to Broadway: "I feel like the timing of this year with Next to Normal has been absolutely perfect. If we'd have transferred to a Broadway house after our Second Stage production last year, I think I would have been in trouble because I was struggling. But I got to have this great year to get in shape for the role and to make some sense of it, make it workable and make her more real. I'm so glad we took the path that we did because, if we had transferred to Broadway last spring, it just wouldn't have been the same."
She arrived at the press site, blissfully shaken and stirred by audience's tumultuous standing ovation. "I'm not even walking on the ground right now," she confessed slyly. "I feel really lucky to be ready for this role. There's just no end to this character. The more I know about her, the more I don't know about her — and that makes it a wonderful experience for a creative artist to have every night. Coming from Off-Broadway to on, she has become more defined, more complicated. I think maybe she has more of a sense of humor than she did before — or, maybe, I do."
Prior to being joined as husband and wife for this production, Ripley and Spencer worked Side Show together 12 years ago — she as a half-star (playing half of a Siamese-twin act), he as a swing — but he subsequently stepped up to one of the original Jersey Boys, the late Nick Massi, and is now a bread-winning leading man. "I love this role so much — because it's so close to me," he admitted. "It's wonderful to be able to play the emotions that I feel naturally as myself, and then to be able to convey that on stage in front of an audience, with some spectacular music and lyrics. And such a solid group of actors I'm on stage with every night — it's the best."
Their two children in the show have both had some previous Broadway experience.
Tveit made his Main Stem bow in 2006 in Hairspray (as Link) and then he moved on to Wicked (as Fiyero). "This is my first original cast on Broadway," he said. Interestingly, he will team up with the original Fiyero, Norbert Leo Butz, to butt heads in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks roles of the musicalized Catch Me If You Can. "I'm here until June," he vowed, "then I'm going out of town this summer to do the world premiere of that in Seattle. Then, I'm coming back to Next to Normal in September. I'm very fond of this guy that I'm playing here. It's something that gives me a lot of freedom to do a lot of things — movement-wise and emotionally — that I would not ordinarily get to do."
Damiano debuted on Broadway at the age of 15, among the youth on parade in Spring Awakening, "but now," she conceded, "it's just a little more perfect."
The daughter, damaged by her off-centered upbringing, has worked up a pretty impenetrable protective-coating over the years — and Damiano didn't shy away from the character's toughness. "I think the biggest challenge is to break in a few holes here and there to let people see through to her vulnerable side," she declared. And, yes, holding that kind of hard stance takes its toll, but "it's more like a refuge. I try to conserve all day for the show, and, when I get there, it just all flows out. It feels less draining. I'm always a little drained but ready to conserve for the next night."
Courting a tough cookie like Damiano's character is an uphill climb for Chanler-Berat, who readily allowed his character was "much braver than I am. That's what I admire about him. I wouldn't necessarily do the things that's forced on him by her."
It's his Broadway debut, and he was glowing accordingly. "It's surreal, like I'm in a dream. I want somebody to pinch me because I think it's really happening. I'm just floating through the day. I was floating when I got up this morning, and I'm still floating."
Director Greif was quick to give credit where credit was due: "Mr. Stone has the most to do with shepherding us, so we all certainly wanted to stay together and keep working on it, and The Arena gave us a fantastic opportunity to work on it, put it in front of an audience again and really be able to hone it. I'm very, very happy with the work. I love this musical. I love our cast. I'm very happy to be part of it."
Of course, this is not the only game in town for him. He is also rehearsing "a spectacular cast of 11" that includes Kathleen Chalfant, Linda Emond, Stephen Spinella, Michael Kristoffer and Michael Esper in Tony Kushner's new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which will world-premiere May 15 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
Greif did some wing-formation high-flying to get both plays in at approximately the same time. "I did a huge amount of preparation for Tony's play after Next to Normal closed at The Arena. Then, we did preparation for this New York production at that time, and, since we've been back in previews, it's only been a week of double duty."
The twice-Tonyed Spinella and Daphne Rubin-Vega from Greif's Tony-winning Rent headed the first-night guest-list of celebrities and supportive friends. A couple of teens from 13 — Aaron Simon Gross and Ariana Grande — came out to cheer on their former musical director, Kitt. In Tveit's camp were Hairspray's Tony-winning Marissa Jaret Winokur and his upcoming co-star, Butz.
Choreographers and composers came in clusters. Guys and Dolls' (and Next to Normal's) Trujillo was with the newest kid on the Broadway block, Rock of Ages' Kelly Devine, and Wicked's Stephen Schwartz arrived with A Catered Affair's John Bucchino. "I'm writing opera all the time," shouted Schwartz, speeding into the theatre (meaning Séance on a Wet Afternoon, in which soprano Lauren Flanigan will reprise Kim Stanley's Oscar-nominated movie role at a free New York City Opera presentation May 1-2 at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts).
Also in attendance: Jamie de Roy, celebrity hairstylist John Bartlett ($500 a clip), "The Practice" Emmy-winner Camryn Manheim with Side Man's Kevin Geer (whose dad, Jack Geer, played Gertrude Lawrence's lover in Broadway's first "psychiatric musical," Lady in the Dark), Robert LuPone, Legally Blonde's Nikki Snelson with Rock of Ages' Tad Wilson and In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda.
"Who's minding the swamp?" someone asked when Shrek showed up. "Nobody," said Brian d'Arcy James. "We don't have a show tonight. We just got a new schedule, and I got lucky." 'Tis the season when roles he started reach fruition and Broadway — and darn if he doesn't have the night off when they open so he attends. "It's my policy now," he shrugged with a grin. Careful to peel all green from his face, he gamely turns up like clockwork to watch others do parts he got up and running — first Stephen Bogardus in White Christmas, now Spencer's dad role in Next to Normal.