Editor’s Note: A Daily staffer contributed to this production, but they were not involved in the creation, production or publication of this piece.
“Next to Normal,” a rock musical written by Brian Yorkey (“13 Reasons Why”) and Tom Kitt (“If/Then”), features a suburban family dealing with mental illness and loss. It originally debuted on Broadway in 2009 and has won awards like the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Next to Normal” focuses on a mother, Diana, who struggles with bipolar disorder. The musical explores life with mental illness and grief: how it affects us, our relationships and our ability to love. “Next to Normal” illustrates how a seemingly “normal” family can, in reality, be anything but.
The University of Michigan production, with producer Kaitlyn Tom, director Alexandra Lee and assistant director Victoria Vourkoutiotis, chose to center the story around a cast made up of mainly Asian American and Pacific Islander actors, which created an environment of conversation and community. The creative team described the rehearsal process as collaborative — saying that as a team (cast and crew), they were able to explore and have conversations about the intersection of identities and mental health that emerged having centered this story around a cast of majority people of color. In choosing this cast, the process allowed for explorations and understandings of how those identities and different ethnic backgrounds influenced approaching the characters.
Not only were conversations held within the cast and crew, but they also worked closely with the University of Michigan’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center, and their dramaturg, and Daily staffer Mik Deitz, conducted strong research regarding bipolar disorder to ensure they were portraying a truthful and accurate depiction.
It was extremely important that this story — one that focuses on mental health and family dynamics — showcased mental health through a lens other than one of whiteness and privilege, as Lee puts it. In fact, Tom approached Lee in November 2021 with the idea, as they had grown up in a similar area, and shared a similar experience of not seeing a lot of AAPI representation in theater or in mental health spaces. Additionally, Vourkoutiotis shared that having a cast and crew of Black, Indigenous and people of color, did not have to be a political statement — their art does not have to be activism, it is just art. “Nothing about the script changed, but what does this same story look like with different people on stage?” said Vourkoutiotis.
With this mentality, it was easy to build a strong sense of community during the process. “A good portion of us being from an AAPI background played a really formative role,” said Lee. Even the auditions, which are typically scary and competitive, were moments of beautiful togetherness and community. “Wow, I’ve never seen this in my life,” Tom said, regarding how beautiful it was to see all the AAPI actors together in a theatrical space.
“Next to Normal” is the perfect avenue for mental health advocacy. As Lee puts it, “the musical aspect portrayed not only the substance but the emotional tone of the character.” The time, work and thought that went into this process have created an incredible result. “Next to Normal” is running this weekend, March 26, at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. in the Newman Studio in the Walgreen Drama Center. Admission is free and you must reserve your ticket in advance.
Daily Arts Contributor Constance Meade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.