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‘Next to Normal’ tackles difficult subject matter

Mark Clements, artistic director for the Milwaukee Rep, went through a period of depression from 2005-2007. The bouts were sometimes debilitating, but initially he was too ashamed to seek help. Once he found help, he was amazed by how supportive friends, family and therapists could be. Sharing his pain helped to dissipate it and put him on the road to recovery, he found.

Clements’ personal experience in part drives the Rep’s production of “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that opened Dec. 6 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. The pop-rock production, which also won three Tony Awards, deals with the story of a suburban housewife with bipolar disorder and her family’s attempt to cope with it.

“My problems were not as serious as being bipolar, thank God, and I knew the reason for them,” Clements says. “Part of the play’s purpose is to address the issues associated with mental illness. ‘Next to Normal’ allows us to start a conversation.”

Described by Clements as “a theatergoers’ piece of theater,” “Next to Normal” won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the first musical to do so since “Rent” took the honor in 1996. Composer Tom Kitt’s surging musical score, which earned one of the show’s three Tonys, joins with Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics to paint a picture of suburban suffering for lead character Diana Goodman, her husband Dan, daughter Natalie, and the ghost of her dead son Henry, who appears as part of Diana’s delusional state.

Mastering the role of Diana, who goes through pharmacotherapy, electric shock treatments, self-cutting and other mental illness challenges, proved a daunting, but not impossible task, says Sarah Litzsinger, the Broadway performer chosen for the role. Extensive conversations with Clements and cast interviews with therapists helped the Indiana native establish a baseline character on which to realistically build Diana’s manic and depressed stages.

“I think Diana reacts differently to the other characters due to her illness, and it seems to me that her mania and depression rule over her,” says Litzsinger, best known as being the longest-running actress to play Belle in the Broadway production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” after inheriting the role from Andrea McArdle. “The way I see it, the disorder is doing the driving and she is simply the passenger.”

“Sarah is able to display the broad range of emotions needed and can be powerful as well as vulnerable,” Clements says. “In addition, she has a killer voice. We really lucked out with her.”

Clements also lucked out in heading one of the first regional theater groups to mount a production of “Next to Normal,” which started in 1998 as “Feeling Electric,” a 10-minute theatrical workshop sketch about a woman undergoing electroshock therapy and its effect on her family. Playwright Yorkey brought the idea to Kitt, who scored the piece, which was performed at a number of workshops over the next several years. 

The first full-length version appeared off Broadway in 2008. The concept and approach were revamped by director Michael Greif before the play open at the Booth Theater on Broadway in 2009. Greif also directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning production of “Rent.”

Despite the uplifting musical score, which Clements believes helps make tackling the subject matter easier for audience members, the Milwaukee Rep understands the seriousness of its subject matter and the effect it might have on theatergoers. Rogers Memorial Hospital, a psychiatric facility with outlets in Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Oconomowoc and Brown Deer, is the show’s signature sponsor. Doctors will be on hand for the talkback sessions that follow many performances. Other medical facilities are among the community participant groups for the show.

The content also is having an effect on performers, including Litzsinger. She anticipates that playing Diana might be a life-changing experience.

“How could it not?” the actress asks. “When rehearsing, it’s hard not to fall to pieces sometimes.”

Despite the challenges, Clements believes Milwaukee is ready for a show like “Next to Normal.”

“Milwaukee audiences are inquisitive and like to be challenged,” the director says. “This play is witty, entertaining, ends on an uplifting note and has a killer score. It’s a show that affects people very deeply.”