Next To Normal: “It is important and necessary to look at the dark things”

The cast and creative team of Next To Normal on the show’s West End debut

Fifteen years ago, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next To Normal debuted on Broadway. It’s been a long wait this side of the pond to see it on a West End stage, but it’s finally happening – after a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse, Next To Normal has arrived at Wyndham’s Theatre to tell the story of the Goodman family anew.

Next To Normal was unusual for its era. Now, in a time where screen to stage adaptations and jukebox biopics are more successful than ever, the dark, moving and entirely original story of the Goodmans feels even fresher. Exploring mental health, grief and the messiness of family life, Next To Normal brings a catharsis to the West End just as necessary as escapism.

We sat down with director Michael Longhurst and composer Tom Kitt, as well as cast members Jamie Parker (Dan) and Jack Wolfe (Gabe) to talk about the show’s impact and legacy.

Next To Normal | Ticketmaster UK

What’s it been like bringing a show that’s had such a strong fan backing for so many years to the West End for the very first time?

Jamie Parker: The level of excitement is wonderful. The conversation around mental health is certainly very, very different from what it was 15 years ago here, let alone in America, and musical tastes change over time, so I feel very fortunate that we have this opportunity. The anticipation that’s out there from its existing audience is all to the good because hopefully it means that we’ll have a healthy time with audiences. Hopefully that enthusiasm might also mean that we can scoop up some new fans of the show as we go along. Even though we’re all cut from the same cloth in this cast, at the same time, it’s quite a wide net. We can all be on the same page on material like this but we’ve all done really quite different things. That’s all to the good as well, because we’re maybe bringing a smattering of people in who might not necessarily have gone to see this show without this combination of people. Whatever helps get people into the theatre to see new stuff that’s gonna challenge them or that they just haven’t had the opportunity to see.

Michael, when you first assembled this company for rehearsals, where did you start?

Michael Longhurst: When I do a play I always start with a read through, sifting through the text. We read it together, we ask questions. I encourage the actors not to make any choices, because actually, you need to spend time really looking at analysing the facts of the play. Wait a minute, how long has this character been with that character? Does that mean that they were together then when this happened? It’s all about textual analysis. I think that takes about a week. But in the musical there’s a simultaneous process of just learning the note bash. I have to hold back on that process for a few days, while the company learn the score together.

I think that process of them making sounds together is an extraordinarily bonding thing. I just get to skulk around for the first few days of rehearsals slightly in awe of the sound that these humans can make and watching the musical director and supervisor shape those sounds. The combination of the literal process of making sound together, and the analysis of the material and the bringing in of experts to inform us is how I start the process.

How has the atmosphere has been in rehearsals? It’s quite sombre material – has it felt sombre?

Jack Wolfe: No, not at all. It’s always felt really electric and really exciting. I think we’re really lucky with the cast – we all get on so well – and the creative team, and so it’s a room full of love. We’re all just really excited to navigate this material properly. The musical is, I think, really hopeful about humanity. I think the resilience of all the characters is the thing that we keep trying to get back to in rehearsals. In terms of rehearsing it now for the transfer, we’ve made quite a lot of changes, and we’ve been able to sort of revamp it and expand on what we were working on at the Donmar Warehouse and then invite audiences who have seen it before to something a bit different and a bit exciting.

JP: The culture is to… I’m not quite sure what the right word is. I was going to say “wear it lightly”, but we’re not being superficial with it. It is powerful stuff. It is messy. You try and carry that the full weight of that around all the time, and that’s gonna send you mad, I think. It’s a case of being grateful for the chance to let it have its moment and let it flex its muscles over you and say what it needs to say. Through giving it that chance to breathe and to let fly, you kind of lessen its power over you in the long term. It’s a sort of drip feed catharsis. If you try to hang on to it, if you try to bottle it or if you try to grip too hard to it, then you really are just going to exhaust yourself and weigh yourself down.

I’ve done heavy material before and it’s always just an ongoing negotiation of how you’re gonna keep an eye on it and make sure that you’re not carrying around a cloud. It’s strange, actually, because when you do heavy material like this often you do feel lighter outside of the theatre. There’s a paradoxical kind of euphoria that comes with getting whisked away in a very powerful wave like this. You step away feeling kind of purged.

When you went about putting this company together, what were you looking for?

Tom Kitt: I wanted great artists. This show – in terms of the score, in terms of the story – t demands a lot. It needs multifaceted, extremely talented artists who can go to a number of different places. Caissie Levy is someone I’ve known and I’ve dreamed of working with, so when Mike suggested Caissie, I was immediately thrilled and hopeful that she would take it on. Then being introduced to everyone else in the cast – you just see them in the material, and you see how it bubbles and how they connect to it, and how they’re teaching you something new. I saw that potential in very video that I got to see. Now we’re getting to experience it live. They’re continuing to teach me about the piece.

Jack, as a fan of the original, what do you find surprising and exciting about this version?

JW: I think for any show, I think it’s one thing to appreciate a show externally and to watch it and to take what you need from it, but when you go into the text and are able to mine it properly, especially from the point of view of one character, it opens up this entire world of possibilities for you, as an actor. You’re able to sort of see something that you really love from the perspective of one character, and that’s what I was able to do. I think as a fan of Next To Normal, I always wanted to know, what would happen if Natalie was in this scene, or if Gabe saw this happen? What’s really exciting about the vibe in the show is that you’re able to explore those ideas and fans who know the original are able to see characters in a brand new way with new dynamics between the family and new relationships. I think that’s a really, really cool thing.

How have you found it working with this material?

JP: This hasn’t really, up to this point, been in my wheelhouse. This isn’t the kind of music that I’ve sung before. There was no reason for Mike (Michael Longhurst) and Nigel (Lilley) to necessarily put me on the list or even at the top of the list. But what you are looking for as an actor is to take a bit of a risk and do something that’s going to be a bit different and a bit of a stretch. It’s been interesting coming back. Over the course of rehearsals and the run at the Donmar, my voice adapted and changed. Then we had a bit of a break and coming back to it, already, my relationship with the score is very, very different. It takes a while for your body to get used to it, and that’s brilliant. That’s all discovery.

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

JW: I always stand just off stage to watch Casey sing ‘I Miss The Mountains’ every night because she’s become a very close friend of mine, and I think ultimately, it’s an amazing masterclass. I think she’s wonderful and I can learn so much from that. I’ll never not watch that song.

ML: My favourite moment changes and it changes in relation to the audience.  There are many revelations, so there are moments when a plot twist happens and you can hear the audience gasp. Or a moment of healing happens and you can hear the sniffles going around the auditorium. That for me means we’re telling the story well, because it’s hitting the audience. There are a bunch of those in the show and they swing around every night.

Tom, how did it feel seeing this show in previews on the West End for the first time?

TK: It’s sort of indescribable coming to something 15 years after it first appeared on Broadway and 26 years after you started writing it and feeling like you’re seeing it for the first time. Every step along the way, it’s a challenge, but it’s also a revelation. Here, 15 years later, I just was struck with the history of it. We as human beings, we go through a lot in our daily lives, and certainly the challenge of creating new musicals, being an artist in the world, it’s the greatest challenge that I’ve ever undertaken. There’s all sorts of things, highs and lows, that come along with that. I think as I sat in the theatre, I just felt the waves of emotion coming from the cast that the audience was giving back to them. I was just so moved by that feeling, so grateful for it, and it overwhelmed me. It’s a dream, to be on the West End.

How would you say your relationship with this story and this show has changed?

TK: I started writing it when I was 24. It went to Broadway literally the week before my second child was born. Now my third child, Charlie, is 12, Michael’s 19, and Julia’s 15. As I’ve had my own family unit through the years, and watched the story of a family play out, I’ve seen how I sort of tapped into myself to create this, drawing on what I’d seen in the world, what I’d felt, what I’d observed. It’s both familiar and I see new elements that touch me in different ways. Now I’m watching my children discover this story, because they hadn’t seen it on Broadway – they were too young. Seeing them watch it and seeing their friends talk about it… I can’t help but be changed and affected by that.

This is a show that has truly entered the musical theatre canon and feels lasting. Why do you think that is?

ML: I love a nearly through-sung musical. I think there is something incredibly powerful about being held on the tide of the composer’s music all the way through. It’s pretty amazing when that happens. I just think the music does something to our soul, it accesses the place more quickly, more directly, often more profoundly than words alone can do. I think it has an emotional access into our consciousness because it’s through-sung. But I do think it’s about the themes – and not just a specific medical condition. I think it’s about mental illness, but more importantly, it’s about a family. We all have families and we all get on with our families better or worse – we’re estranged, we’re loved, we’re trying to love, our family is normal or next to normal, or whatever it is. To watch the watch the mess of life that is living in a family, especially when the family has caring responsibilities, is hard.

We don’t tell celebrate carers, and we don’t think about the emotional impact of that, and of grief and trauma and these things, so to do that is really cathartic for an audience. I watch it, and it makes me think about how I relate in my own relationships. I think that is really satisfying. I think the family’s resilient and the healing that takes place in the show makes looking at the dark things worthwhile. I think it is important and necessary to look at the dark things. Then, if the dark things happen to you, and you’re on your own and you don’t have a community and you don’t have those support structures, you might be better able to find them or deal with those moments because you’ve experienced it in the community of theatre.

TK: It’s a dream as an artist to create something that becomes part of the canon, that numerous people will come and interpret and want to do. There’s a Goodman family in Brazil. There’s a Goodman family in Argentina. There’s a Goodman family in Norway that I actually got to see in person. I think there’s been a Goodman family in China and Japan. The human condition affects everybody, and everyone has someone in their life that they know or have been in touch with that has gone through elements in the story that feel familiar and touch them in some way. I never saw that coming. I just wanted someone to do it somewhere.

Next To Normal is now booking at Wyndham’s Theatre. Find tickets here