Next to Normal begins with the kind of show tune you'd expect: an introduction to the characters amid a loud and exciting song. It showcases their "just another day" in the Goodman household. Only soon thereafter you discover that this average family is not so typical; they struggle with their own set off issues and setbacks and strive to make the most of their difficulties.
It's a message that everyone can take home. Familial struggles don't have to match the severity of the Goodmans - a bipolar mother at the center of the collective - but they can resonate and sting equally as much. And that's why Normal has so successfully found its own audience and made such a splash with Broadway critics. It conveys the message that Broadway shows can be emotional and meaningful while simultaneously being authentic and true to the life that carries on outside the theater.
Of course, Normal is not the first show to try to re-imagine and redefine what belongs on Broadway. It's not surprising that director Michael Greif worked on Rent previously. Rent broadcast a different side of the world - the tumultuous and the heart-breaking - to a crowd of theatergoers who sought an escape to happy-go-lucky themes and places apart from their own troubles. Normal takes it a step further; it goes beyond just raising awareness about other people's worries. It forces the audience to reconsider what happiness is altogether.
It's hard to not want to root for the Goodmans to survive and heal. At the same time, it feels like that's going to be impossible. Nevertheless, while listening to songs about how to make do with what you have, to put your best foot forward, and to cope with the circumstances you've got, you can't help but be inspired. Through all their problems, the Goodmans keep chugging along.
Of course, inevitably. it reaches the point where hope and bliss give way to disturbance and fear. The play's steady ascent into a darkest side of mental illness can leave some feeling slightly uncomfortable. After all, shows are intended to help you escape and enjoy. Yet, at this show, that discomfort is surprisingly welcomed because it allows you to think about and feel for characters as if they're real. As you begin to anticipate the ending to this family's story (sitting a safe enough distance away), you don't wind up hoping for full reconciliation, redemption, and reformation. Rather, you seek just a sprinkling of clarity, lucidity and freedom for the long-suffering bunch.
Midway through the play (if not earlier), you're forced to accept that they may never find their true happiness, in the traditional sense. Which makes sense if you don't see this as a traditional family. But you're also forced to entertain the notion that they might just be, and it's the search for completely joy and utter happiness that requires a reconfiguring.