Rachel Bay Jones on Tackling a Mountain of a Role in Kennedy Center’s Production of Next to Normal

Interview   Rachel Bay Jones on Tackling a Mountain of a Role in Kennedy Center’s Production of Next to Normal
 
The Dear Evan Hansen Tony winner discusses playing lead Diana in the Washington, D.C., engagement of the Pulitzer-winning musical.
in rehearsal for <i>Next to Normal</i>
Rachel Bay Jones in rehearsal for Next to Normal Marc J. Franklin

Tony winner Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen) was glued to her seat the first time she saw Next to Normal on Broadway. In fact, she didn’t want to give that seat up.

“It was with the original company and I just could not leave the theatre when it was over; the ushers had to ask me to get up because I was weeping so hard,” she says. “It wasn’t just that Diana’s journey and the powerfulness of it was all very real—and Alice [Ripley] was ferocious—but I couldn’t believe that this was what musical theatre was now. It was so overwhelming and exciting to me.”

That’s why when Jones was contacted about playing Diana in The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, with the chance to sing such gems as “I Miss the Mountains,” “You Don’t Know,” and “Didn’t I See this Movie,” she didn’t hesitate for a second to say “yes!”

The limited engagement will be staged January 29 through February 3 at the famed Washington, D.C., venue, under the direction of original Broadway director Michael Greif (who earned his third Tony nomination for his work on the Broadway production). With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal takes an unflinching look at a suburban family struggling with the effects of mental illness, particularly as matriarch Diana grapples with bipolar disorder. The show collected three Tony Awards in 2009 and won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“It was a realization of a 10-year dream. I’ve wanted to do this role forever, it’s perfect,” Jones says. “Coming back to it, we’ve moved on in society a little bit. We talk about mental illness, we talk about what women go through, and now we’re really ready to swing the doors wide-open and see what it’s all about. We’re in a different place and I’m really excited to delve into this.”

The show also stars Tony Award nominee Brandon Victor Dixon as Diana’s husband Dan, Maia Reficco as her daughter Natalie, Khamary Rose as her son Gabe, Ben Levi Ross as Henry, and Michael Park as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine.

“It’s a beautiful, sensitive cast and extraordinarily talented,” Jones says. “I couldn’t be happier to have Brandon as my husband. Shows like this, where there’s so much vulnerability, it’s not like life, you get in a room and explore the deepest, most private things that people can go through and there’s an immediate intimacy. And it’s nice to be together with Michael again.”

Although Jones has been attached to the show for about a year, her other commitments have kept her from really diving into the music until recently, and she admits, though she loves the music, it’s not a soundtrack she’s played regularly.

“I wasn’t obsessively listening to the album, it was too painful,” she says. “There’s something about this show, it’s not a thrill for me to run around singing these songs in the shower or my apartment because they are so fully invested emotionally, so it’s not something I have casually been listening to for years. That would be completely overwhelming.”

Jones—and Park, for that matter—are no strangers to intense material, having spent much of the past five years creating and starring in Dear Evan Hansen. When the Benj Pasek-Justin Paul musical premiered at D.C.’s Arena Stage in July of 2015, Jones originated the role of Evan’s mother, Heidi, while Park originated the part of Larry Murphy. Both went on to play their respective roles on Broadway, with Jones leaving in 2018 and Park staying with the show until last year.

As her Dear Evan Hansen Tony-winning role attests, she’s equipped to handle the emotion, and she’s eager for the challenge to step into Diana’s shoes for a week.

“She’s so deep and so complex. Just a fully alive person. In her mind, she is hiding her voice and the battle that she goes through to try and navigate what’s inside her,” Jones says. “Exploring the depths of grief and what that does to us is interesting to me. Exploring how survival is possible is interesting. Also the idea of how triumph over grief is possible and these kind of adversities when you’re battling with yourself is something we can all relate to.”

Once Next to Normal finishes, Jones will get right to work on her new solo show, Something Beautiful, which she will perform at Feinstein’s/54 Below on April 24 and 25. You can also see her soon in a new Amazon TV series called Panic; the upcoming John Leguizamo-helmed movie, Critical Thinking; and she recurs on CBS’ God Friended Me.

“It has been fast and furious, and though nothing would make me happier than if this was a longer revival, because of the length of the run, it was easy to fit in to my schedule,” she says. “Plus, it’s easier to navigate the emotional components of living with this when you know it’s only going to be a couple of weeks of your life. This is one of the greatest musicals of all time and it’s going to be insane.”

Jones has been a special guest performer on Playbill Travel’s Broadway on the High Seas cruises. Cabins are now on sale for Broadway in the Great Northwest, Playbill Travel’s first domestic cruise featuring Kate Baldwin, Tedd Firth, Aaron Lazar, and Beth Leavel (April 26–May 4, 2020), and for Broadway on the Mediterranean (August 31–September 7, 2020), featuring Audra McDonald, Will Swenson, Gavin Creel, Caissie Levy, and Lindsay Mendez, and for Broadway on the Nile (December 27, 2020–January 7, 2021) and Broadway on the Caribbean (February 15–22, 2021), with performers soon to be announced. To book a suite or stateroom, call Playbill Travel at 866-455-6789 or visit PlaybillTravel.com.

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