Sometimes people say that art, whether it be an evening of live entertainment, a song, a film, a novel, a painting, a poem, or whatever else, changes their life.
I don't know that I've ever been able to boldly and confidently say that about any one thing that I've ever seen, but I do believe that good art is always changing me in ways big or small, most of which I probably don't ever notice.
I saw the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal for the first time at the Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden Saturday night. A theater I've never been to, had never heard of (I think it opened while I was on my mission), but nevertheless, this was far and away the best amateur production of anything I've ever seen, period.
It was kind of an impulsive, spur of the moment Saturday night decision. It was fun to run into some old friends there.
It wasn't fun to stand in a really long line because there was only one cashier (who was doing a great job) who was clearly in over his head. People weren't really seated until nearly ten minutes after curtain time, and then we waited for almost another ten. An announcement finally came that there were some technical issues that needed to be sorted out. By this point I was squirming and starting to fear that perhaps I would regret my purchase. The house, even though it took far too long to seat, was 60% full if I'm being generous. I wish this wonderful show were marketed more aggressively so that it could find the audience (granted it is a select audience due to language and content) it so rightfully deserves. If the staff is by any chance reading this, I hope they realize the dynamite they have for a show and can find the motivation to step up their game just that much more. The experience you have before you get to your seat, does indeed affect your perception of the production.
Then the band started playing, the lights went out, the actors (I don't really think they were ever "acting" though) entered and every fear dissipated.
Well, every fear of a poor production, that is.
I don't know where to applaud the crew in this post, but I'm going to do it here. They were truly unsung heroes in this production. The lighting and set, simple and few did its job. A raised platform was utilized beautifully, not too much, not too little. The stage hands were masters at their craft. They flew on and off the stage without ever being noticed. Many of the set changes and shifting of props they did were quite pivotal to the story and they managed to pull all of it off without ever drawing attention to themselves or taking an unnecessary amount of time. Really, they were spectacular.
The small cast of six was just a hair short of perfection. And I'd almost rather slap a puppy than nitpick. Really, all six of them were perfect. Beautiful, knock-the-roof-off voices from all six of them. But more importantly, they were real. I don't know that my disbelief has ever been further suspended than it was for these two hours. They tickled me, hurt me, prodded me, made me realize my countless faults, and also my many strengths; they reminded me of so many people that I've known (for better or for worse) throughout my life; they were real people that could've walked straight out of any page of my journal.
I could gush and gush about the wonderful direction, precise and efficient technical aspects, the powerhouse live orchestrations, and breathtaking cast, but what affected me most was the material. I don't know that it will soon leave my mind, even if I never see it again.
I don't know that I'm a dramatically different person because of this show. I don't know that someone would say "there's something different about you" to me after I had viewed it. But, I DO know that I was affected. It wasn't a heart-warming Pixar's Up affected, it wasn't an "I'm ten feet tall" In the Heights affected, neither was it a crush your heart and then run it through the shredder Schindler's List affected. This wasn't your grandmother's feel-good musical. It was rather disturbing. Not morbid, never gross, but definitely unnerving. It does of course have its flicker of hope as well. It was as if this piece had arms that reached out from the stage, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me violently for two hours seeming to scream: "WAKE UP!"
There are no big production numbers, no ensemble, all of the costumes could've been pulled from the performer's closets, the setting is the present, this is not the musical you did in high school. I've never felt like a theatrical piece of art could be as real as this was. I was completely enveloped and instead of watching an exploding, firework-esque spectacle on stage, I was looking inward and evaluating my self throughout. I felt. I felt so much. I laughed, I grimaced, I squirmed, I panicked, I gasped, I ugly-cried. I related to every character in one way or another. I was so glad that I walked into this production for the most part blind to the plot, because it was one heck of a roller-coaster. It was just so freaking real. I would recommend not researching it if you haven't seen it. The twists and turns will really knock you out.
This show tackles the issue of mental illness, something I still know very little about, but I do believe is real. If anything, I now believe there's an "illness" waiting to happen within each of us (of course some much much more or less than others) that can be heavily reduced or enhanced by our choices. I don't know that I walked out knowing more about mental illness, but I did walk out knowing how I want to live my life and choices that I definitely do and choices that I definitely DON'T want to make. I'm also ok with admitting that there is indeed a little bit of crazy in me and that I'm going to need help from time to time.
As for the language: this show is peppered with the r-rated curse word. It's not a word that I like. It certainly wasn't a pivotal force in moving the plot forward, but it was never forced, convoluted or played for shock value. I feel like reckless language can be an indicator of a reckless life and when I heard the profanity, my reaction wasn't: "I can't believe she just said that word" it was: "I really wish she could just make better choices and be happy." Need I say more about how real and close to home this experience was?
Do I think every piece of art should follow suit and tackle issues that are uncomfortably hard-hitting? Certainly not. Do I think that this is an experience that everyone who can stomach it should have? Absolutely. I'm honestly disappointed that I'm much too far away to see it again. I lucked out by circumstance and am fortunate to have seen it at all.
I've walked away from this production with an appreciation for the imperfect mortal life that I have been given the opportunity to live. I will never have a Normal family and I myself will always be struggling. It's why we're here. This riveting stage-production reminded me of that. It's all part of the process. The difficulties, the pain, the trials, the humiliation, the anger, the depression, the losses...they're all part of being alive. But isn't being alive so much better than not living at all?
"you don't have to be happy at all, to be happy you're alive"
"Give me clouds, and rain and gray.
Give me pain, if that's what's real.
It's the price we pay to feel.
The price of love is loss,
But still we pay.
We love anyway.
There will be light.
When we open up our light.
Sons and daughters, husbands, wives.
Can fight that fight.
There will be light. "