The award-winning Broadway musical “Next to Normal” is coming to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music this week with performances starting Tuesday. The play tackles an unusual subject matter for the whimsical world of musicals: mental illness.
Can you sing about bipolar disorder, medications, and delusions and not make light of the suffering experienced by people with mental illnesses? “Next to Normal” tells the story of a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, and shows how her illness affects the whole family.
The musical started as an experiment by writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt during a workshop in the late ’90s. Both went on to develop other projects, but kept returning to their idea of taking on mental illness as a topic.
As they talked to people about the project, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Families affected by mental illness wanted them to tell their stories, and have the play be real and engaging. Yorkey says his doubts about the project were resolved after a preview performance, when a teen came up to him and Kitt, and started to cry
“He told us that he had been diagnosed bipolar three months earlier and that he had no way of explaining to his friends exactly what that was,” remembered Yorkey. “Now he could point to the show and say that’s what it’s like.”
During the Philadelphia run, the performance on Wednesday will be preceded and followed by a discussion about mental illness. Dr. Arthur Evans, who heads Philadelphia’s department of behavioral health, will be part of the panel. He says art projects such as murals or plays get people to open up.
“We have been able to have conversations in communities about these topics in ways that I think would be very difficult if we were to go out and say ‘we’re from the department of mental health and we’re here to talk about mental illness,'” said Evans
Evans says realistic portrayals of mental illness in a play or on TV go a long way in reducing stigma, and giving people a sense that they are not alone.
“Next to Normal” performances in Philadelphia are presented by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The show will be staged at the Academy of Music.
This disclosure, underwriting announcements for this play have been airing on WHYY.