Hilary Thomas' Artistic Statement about Next to Normal
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Next to Normal. It was 2008 and I was lucky enough to see the original cast on Broadway just before it really took off, winning Tonys, a Pulitzer and all kinds of critical acclaim. I went in with very little sense of what I was walking into. I knew it was about a family. I knew it addressed mental illness in some way. I knew a few songs, totally out of context. What I didn’t know was that I should have packed a bucket of kleenex and strapped on an emotional seat belt, because I was about to be rocked in a most profound, life-altering way.
When the lights came up for intermission, I vividly recall sitting in a puddle of my own tears, overcome with a visceral paralysis, reeling from the beauty and power of this show. I sat there, trying to digest what I had just seen, feeling so relieved that I had another act waiting for me, because I couldn’t bear for the experience to be over. I was hooked for life. The depth of the characters, the right-up-my-alley-rock-opera-ness of the music, infused with brilliant, timely and daring lyrics, the magnificent, intricate storytelling; this show spoke directly to me in so many ways. And through accidental eavesdropping to my right and left, I knew that it was speaking directly to each of us in different ways.
For more than a decade, like any dedicated musical theatre nerd (though I prefer the word “enthusiast”), I obsessed over this Next to Normal. As a choreographer, my own personal brand of obsession involves very specifically infusing dance in ways that these shows have not explored. I started to develop vivid visions when Diana, matriarch of the family, would sing, or speak, or breathe, or crack open. I saw dancers everywhere. Manifestations of her trauma. Extensions of her soul. And thus began Lineage’s journey with Next to Normal.
In the fall of 2019, we held auditions. For eight hours straight, we listened to talent after talent sing some of our favorite songs from the show. But I was worried about finding a Diana. That is one role that simply can’t be played by anyone who is less than extraordinary. Three quarters through the audition process, I was resigned to the fact that our Diana would be fine. Just fine. And then Stephanie auditioned. With two songs fully prepared, showing her tremendous range - from desperately wailing to deeply contemplative, we were all in tears by the time she was done. From that moment on, this show was nothing but tears - and I mean that in the best possible, most profound way.
The day after auditions, I sat with my mother, a huge fan of the show (and especially of its director), and told her all about our magnificent cast. Not only was it oozing with talent, but each person involved loved the show tremendously. She was just so thrilled, and of course the extra excitement was that it was going to be the very first production in our brand new, magnificently renovated Lineage Performing Arts Center. A few weeks into rehearsals, my mom had a series of strokes and after ten grueling days in the hospital, she died. Our earliest rehearsals are clouded in the deepest, darkest sadness I’ve ever known. This brand new cast came together in support of me, of each other, and we bared our souls day after day in rehearsal. More than I’ll ever be able to comprehend, this show offered me a channel through which I could process and digest my own personal grief. Next to Normal is an emotional conduit for every member of our cast in many deeply personal ways.
With just weeks until opening night, construction wrapping up in the theatre, and PR ready to blast, a little pandemic hit. And suddenly this new family of talent, this beautiful dancing swirl of profound words and captivating music, these hopes of a new, beautiful center where Lineage would connect its community through art. . . suddenly on hold.
And now it has been a year.
We’ve quarantined. And cried. A sea of lost opportunities in our wake. Twelve months of slowing down. Of reevaluating. Of relearning. New understandings, new perspectives slipping in, taking hold. And this show has hung on. The cast, now cemented as family, with shared depth, talent, art, loss, love.
Still unable to perform in our new space, we’ve turned our vision sideways to create, likely the first ever drive-in performance experience of Next to Normal. In our search for large, local parking lots, we stumbled upon the grounds of the Gamble House. One look at this gorgeous, historic, Doc-Brown-famed residence, and I knew that Diana and her family had found one hell of a home with which to share their story night after night. Our partners at the Gamble House leapt at the opportunity to be a part of this groundbreaking show.
And here we are, just weeks away. We’ve launched back in as if no time has passed. For exactly one year, the material sunk deeply into all of us - actors, dancers, musicians. Our new “set” has surpassed our wildest dreams. Sure we’re all in masks. Sure the audience will be sitting in cars, glass and masks separating us in an elephant-in-the-room sort of way. But somehow it works. And the message is more powerful than ever. This show forces us to look at mental illness and grief in all its rawness. This year has forced us to examine our own mental health and grief, testing so many of us in tremendous ways.
Lineage has always strived to create connections to the community through the arts. To help process and heal by offering relatable stories, music, and dance. Now is finally the time to bring this show to life. I hope you will join us for this powerful experience.
Artistic Director, Lineage Performing Arts Center