Musical theatre lovers now fall into two groups — those in Washington, Charlotte and Toronto, and all the rest. Those in the first group ought not listen to the original Broadway cast recording of the searingly emotional, surprisingly melodic rock musical Next to Normal. Instead, they should set aside an evening to go see the national tour while they have the chance over the next month. There will be plenty of time to listen to the Ghostlight Records two-disc original cast recording of this Helen Hayes, Tony and Pulitzer Award winner after you have experienced the emotional impact of some important plot developments without warning.
Those in the second group should pick up a copy of the recording and also set aside an evening to experience this musical not only through their speakers and/or headphones but through perusal of the 40 page booklet that includes a detailed synopsis as well as the printed lyrics.
Don’t give in to the temptation to play parts of it, or to put it on while you are doing something else. Reserve a block of time to devote to this strikingly original, engrossing and satisfying musical with a message of compassion reflecting the pressures and not just the slogans of “family values.”
Even though the recording lasts only an hour and a half, a full appreciation of it takes more than just putting the discs in the machine and pushing “play.”
Instead, spend some quality time with the booklet first. Look at the photos and read through the synopsis of the first act. Once you think you have a good feel for what is in store, put on the first disc which is 45 minutes of the music of Act One. Follow along with the printed lyrics. Then, and only then, read on to the synopsis of Act Two and put the second disc on to play its 44 minutes.
This isn’t as good as a live performance. But it will have to do as the national tour comes to an end and the company disbands at the end of July. There will be new productions and many of these will offer new takes on the work and interesting slants to consider. But the original production will recede into history leaving us with the documentation found on these two discs.
The musical is the work of Tom Kitt, the composer of the 2006 quick-closing Broadway show High Fidelity, and Brian Yorkey who writes for movies and television. They were joined in the development of this piece by director Michael Greif, who helmed Rent and Grey Gardens to Broadway success.
The heart-felt and heart-touching result of their work premiered at New York’s off-Broadway Second Stage, earning the Outer Critics Circle Award for its score and multiple nominations for its production and for Alice Ripley and Aaron Tveit for their performances. However, in the opinion of many, including that of its creators, the piece still needed work to reach its potential, which everyone seemed to agree was enormous.
Washington’s Arena Stage gave them a chance to revisit and revise the material and try it out for two months in Arena’s temporary space in Crystal City. It is clear that the creators of Next to Normal took full advantage of that additional chance, reworking the piece and refining its presentation. It then opened to nearly unanimous praise on Broadway, earning not only the Tony Award for outstanding score but a Tony for Ripley as well. Then came the topper – the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. All in all, we’d have to say it was a successful piece of polishing, wouldn’t we?
These discs capture Ripley’s performance as the mother. (She also won the Helen Hayes Award as did Tviet … how often do we get a recording of Helen Hayes Award performances? Not often enough!)
Both J. Robert Spencer as the father and Jennifer Damiano as the daughter were also nominated for Tony Awards.
Michael Starobin and composer Tom Kitt also received Tony Awards for their orchestrations which put six on stage players including one violinist and once cellist to superb use. It is a sound that is unique for a rock musical, but then, it is a score that is highly unusual for the genre. It relies heavily on melody and counter-melody, not just beat and attitude to communicate emotion. While the recording lets you appreciate those charts, the record producers were unable to resist the temptation to augment the six with Michael Aarons playing additional electronic and acoustic guitars for the recording.
The packaging nicely reflects the essence of the design of the production and the inclusion of the full lyrics allows their impact to be amplified by letting you see the words at the same time you hear them.
A full evening spent with this recording will cost you a fraction of what attending the show would cost even if you had the opportunity — and, you can revisit it again as many times as you wish at no extra charge.