News Column

EPCC stages Pulitzer-winning 'Next to Normal': Bipolar disorder, suicide attempt -- it's a musical!

June 16, 2013


June 16--A bipolar woman who battles depression, suffers from delusions and tries to kill herself is not the stuff of which hit musicals usually are made.

But that's exactly what three-time Tony Award-winner "Next to Normal" is about. It looks at how a stay-at-home mother's disorders affect her family and bring out the best, and worst, in the medical profession.

"These are not usually topics that you'll find in a Broadway musical," admits Keith Townsend, who is directing the EPCC Performers Studio Summer Repertory production of the contemporary rock musical.

It will be performed Thursday through June 23, and again July 25-28, at the El Paso Community College Transmountain Forum Theater.

The National Institute of Mental

Health estimates that one in 17 Americans lives with mental illness; one in four will experience some kind of mental health disorder this year.

It's becoming a hot topic these days, both in politics (particularly the debate about gun control and mental health) and in pop culture (it was the focus of the recent hit movie "Silver Linings Playbook").

But it's not common fodder in a world where people break out in song.

"If you do find it in any kind of musical, it's usually like an 'ABC Afterschool Special' -- sophomoric," Townsend said. "But this play is not that. The dramatic literature is very, very good."

In "Next to Normal," the eighth musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey and composer

Tom Kitt take the audience into the world of Diana Goodman, a wife and mother whose mother was also bipolar.

Diana's illness emerges after a traumatic event -- the death of an infant child -- early in her marriage to devoted, well-meaning but sometimes clueless Dan Goodman. They have a daughter, Natalie, who grapples with her mother's illness, her father's attempts to keep the ship afloat, and her own doubts.

Diana is on medication and in psychotherapy, but she tires of feeling nothing, and expresses that in the signature song "I Miss the Mountains." She quits her meds, a common occurrence. Dan finds her a new therapist, a "rock star" who tries hypnotherapy, and, when that isn't effective enough, persuades her to try electroconvulsive therapy.

That's just the first act.

"Next to Normal," which ranges from the dramatic to the humorous, started as a 10-minute musical called "Feeling Electric," which Yorkey and Kitt wrote as college students in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.

Yorkey said he was inspired by a news story about electroconvulsive, or shock, therapy, and how a disproportionate amount of the treatment is used on women. "(It's about) a woman who struggled with a mental illness all her life and her family and all the men in her life who have tried to make her well. ... That's where it started," Yorkey told

It debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and moved to the Great White Way the next year. "Next to Normal" received 11 Tony Award nominations and won three, including best original score and best orchestration. It was chosen for the Pulitzer in 2010. The Pulitzer board called it "a powerful rock musical" about mental illness.

New York Times' critic Ben Brantley gave the Broadway show a mixed review, comparing it to "The Who's Tommy" and a TV disease-of-the-week movie. But he was impressed by its emotional heft.

"To watch this tale of a haunted housewife e and the household she in turn haunts is to ride a speeding roller coaster of responses," he wrote. "One minute you're rolling your eyes; the next, you're wiping them. When the show ends, you're probably doing both at the same time."

Townsend said he likes to locally debut new "cutting-edge" shows during the summer rep season, which opened this weekend with a revival of "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead."

"Next to Normal" is one of those edgy musicals. So is the satirical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which will be staged June 27-30 and July 18-21.

The director also likes plays that "deal with social issues that are not normally dealt with" and that "stretch out our performers to keep advancing. This piece can do it," he said.

This year's company is its biggest yet, at 48. Its mostly high school and college students share all production and performing duties over the two-month season.

"Next to Normal" features a nine-member cast that performs nearly 30 songs, backed by a live band squeezed into the back of the set.

Marilyn Wallace, a 20-year-old speech communications major at EPCC and Burges High School graduate in her fourth year with the company, said it has been challenging playing a woman who not only battles with bipolar disorder and delusions, but also tries to kill herself.

"First I had to do research, (beyond) the basic chart descriptions in the script ... and I looked up some of the medications and their side effects to get a knowledge of what she may be going through," she said.

"It's a very intense character, what she's going through, even walking and running through."

Wallace, who has a bipolar sibling, wants to play Diana with as much empathy as she can. "I feel it's a little difficult to have to go there, but if we're going to be sending out this message about people who go through this, I want to do justice so it doesn't take a toll on me personally," she said.

"That's really what the purpose of this musical actually is," Townsend said, "to bring awareness to this."


-- What: "Next to Normal" performed by EPCC Performers Studio Summer Repertory.

-- When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. June 23. The show will repeat July 25-28.

-- Where: EPCC Transmountain Forum Theater, 9570 Gateway North.

-- How much: $15; $10 for military and non-EPCC students; $7 for seniors and EPCC students and staff.

-- Information: 831-5056.

-- Also: EPCC"Summer Rep also will perform "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" June 27-30 and July 18-21, and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" July 3-14. "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" completes its first run at 2:30 p.m. today and repeats Aug. 1-4.


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