If you’ve ever found yourself “living on a latte and a prayer” or wondering how you can keep it all together, you’ll probably find a lot to relate to in Next To Normal, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning musical that looks to be on its way to becoming a modern classic.
Centering on one suburban family of four striving to build lives that are as close to normal as possible while matriarch Diana struggles to manage her bipolar disorder, the show is one that the New York Times praised as a “brave, breathtaking musical,” and that has become quite popular in the years since its premiere.
Zoetic Stage 2022-2023 Season (Next To Normal)
Yet Next to Normal was also a musical that Zoetic Stage Artistic Director Stuart Meltzer somehow avoided seeing or listening to until it emerged as a top contender for the company’s 2022-2023 season, in which he has now been directing their production of the show, which is slated to open March 16.
“I think partly why I didn’t venture too closely into it prior was because Zoetic Stage only does one musical a year, and we were, for a good chunk of our time, really focusing on the Sondheim canon,” he explains.
But when looking for something a little smaller scale for that singular slot this year, Meltzer finally paid heed to the many people in his artistic circles who had suggested Zoetic consider the musical and then found himself “falling in love with” the challenging script.
There also may have been a personal dimension to the reason that Meltzer found himself initially avoidant but ultimately compelled by the play’s subject matter: because his own life is one of the many that have been shaped by the impact of mental illness, which he also admits may have been a factor in why he initially avoided engaging in the material but then found the story to be such an affecting one.
“My mother was bipolar, so I’m a product of so many similarities within this musical…I’m a product of someone who’s experienced some of this,” he said.
“So I knew that I had to go into it at the right time.”
But it was also clear to Meltzer that now is that time, for reasons that include the central role that the subject of mental health has taken in modern-day discussions of American life.
“How it connects to betterment of health and family dynamics and relationships, and really where the American psyche has gone in 20 years, or in 30 years, the deterioration of certain components. I think all of that is omnipresent in how we conduct our lives,” he says.
Going by the statistics, it’s certainly easy to see where Meltzer is coming from; according to statistics from the National Alliance On Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, with 1 in 20 of those experiencing “serious” disorders.
But though the piece may have special meaning to those who have dealt with mental illness in their own lives or been affected by it through its impact on their loved ones, Meltzer believes that it is one that has far broader implications in its ability to touch the hearts of individual audience members.
“I don’t call it a musical about bipolar disorder, or about a family that’s being sort of tilted on end. I really think it’s a musical about hope, release, and the promise of a better tomorrow. And I think if we’re going to connect a musical to these times that’s a perfect musical to do so,” he says.
And though he’s found dealing with the intensity of the material to be occasionally “overwhelming,” he’s also found engaging with the show’s cast on how they deal with psychological betterment in their own day to day lives to be “very fruitful artistically.”
To further explore these important topics, Zoetic will be inviting special guest Victoria Gray, licensed social worker and clinical assistant professor at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, to speak on the themes of grief and mental health after the show’s March 25th performance. Another talkback, which is set to take place after the show’s April 2 performance, will give audiences a chance to engage with Meltzer and the play’s cast.
In the meantime, along with the emotional challenges that emerged while tackling this particular script, Meltzer has also faced more practical challenges in adapting it to Zoetic’s given playing space at the Arsht’s Carnival Studio.
“It gives us a lot of freedom, and it gives us a lot of restrictions,” he describes.
For instance, because creating the kind of literal household set that has often been utilized in previous productions was out of the question in the black-box theatre, Meltzer has reinterpreted the story in a more impressionistic way that breaks with what he describes as “conventional storytelling.”
Zoetic’s version will also feature a three-quarter thrust stage, meaning actors will be surrounded by audiences on three sides, which, along with the venue’s intimacy, is something Meltzer believes will add an “incredible layer” to the audience’s experience.
“We can feel, literally feel their vibrations when they’re singing, and that’s thrilling,” he describes.
Meltzer also believes the upcoming production will be distinguished by the artistry of its cast, most of whom have already established themselves as among the top performers in South Florida with an impressive array of credits and credentials and some of whom are already Zoetic favorites: Jeni Hacker, Nate Promkul, Ben Sandomir, Robert Koutras, and Gabi Gonzalez. A sixth, Joseph Morell, is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and New World School of the Arts alumni who will be making his professional debut.
“The musicianship of these six actors are unreal…I’ve been so blessed working with the artists on every level of this production,” Meltzer describes.
Zoetic Stage Next To Normal 2 (Pictured- Nate Promkul, Jeni Hacker.) Photo- Chris Headshots