Next to Normal comforts me.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: "What drugs have you been on?! It's a musical about a dysfunctional family where the dad's depressed, the son's dead, the daughter's bitter and alienated from her parents, and the mom's driven to the brink of suicide by the ghost of her son, who she can't bear to let go even though he died 16 years ago!! How is that the least bit comforting??"
Well, how should I put this...? I relate to it. It's something I feel like I understand well.
Not that my parents neglect or abuse me, or that either of my siblings is dead and come back to haunt the family like some grim spectre, or anything like that. Nor are we destitute. Compared to a lot of other families out there, mine is financially well-off. And I have yet to see a family whose members love and support each other to the extent that mine do.
But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Problems arise in my family from time to time, and whenever those problems bubble to the surface, it just seems natural for me to identify with Next to Normal characters like Natalie (the teenage daughter) or Diana (the mother), or compare my life to the lives of the characters in the musical. Next to Normal further convinces me that just because a family is stable in certain aspects, it doesn't mean it's completely stable in others.
I don't think I'm alone in believing that about my family. Every family has issues, and everyone has been involved in a family feud at least once in their life. Every teenager or young adult has, at one point or another, echoed the thoughts of Natalie when she states:
"I wish I could fly,
And magically appear and disappear;
I wish I could fly -
I'd fly far away from here."
- "Superboy and the Invisible Girl"
This musical accentuates that you don't need to be underserved or impoverished to deal with family strife. According to Next to Normal, it's all too clear that even well-off families hide emotional clashes and nervous breakdowns behind their pristine white-picket fences.
Somehow, that's cathartic. Goes to show that, if you're suffering, you're not alone in the world. Other people feel your pain. Realizing this pain in a musical like Next to Normal is a good thing.
Ben Brantley's review of the 2009 Broadway premiere of Next to Normal described it not as a "feel-good" musical, but rather as a "feel-everything" musical. I totally agree with that statement, and celebrate the musical more because of it. Sometimes, when life - or family - gives you crap and you want to feel better about yourself, you don't need a "feel-good" song sung by people who obviously are much happier than you are at the moment. You need an anguished song, a yearning song; a complicated-feelings-song from people torn between two or more points of view. You need to hear a messed-up character tremulously wail a "feel-everything" song, so that you can think either "at least I'm not that guy!" or "someone out there feels what I'm feeling!" Eventually, you'll end up with a buoying dose of schadenfreude and increased optimism about your family's capability to overcome obstacles. (It's got to be better than that of the Next to Normal family.)
By touching upon the emotional mountains and valleys of a middle-class family, Next to Normal comes across as one of the most personally touching musicals I've heard in a long time. Maybe, in its comparison to more unrealistic musicals out there, it's one of the most normal.
'Till next time,
P.S. I think the song "Just Another Day" best illustrates the idea of "feel-everything." Give this Youtube audio recording a listen and see what you think. Can you relate any aspects of the song to your life?