OK, so I know that many of you have been waiting for me to weigh in on Next to Normal winning the Pulitzer Prize. Frankly, I was stunned, but not for the reasons that most people in the theatrical community were similarly stunned. I've been pretty vocal in my criticism of the show, primarily in my review of the Off-Broadway production at the Second Stage Theater, but also in my review of the much-revised Broadway production at the Booth Theater.
My criticisms of Next to Normal were initially based on the quality of the show as well as its ostensible anti-psychiatry message. Between the show's Off Broadway and Broadway stints, the show's artistic execution has vastly improved, and the apparent message has been toned down considerably. But more on that later.Coincidentally, the day of the Pulitzer announcement, I had been talking in my musical-theater history class about how no musical that has ever won the Pulitzer has genuinely deserved it. (The eight musicals that have won the award are Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Rent, and now Next to Normal.) I don't necessarily agree with that statement, but I often use it as a provocative proposition to start a discussion about awards and their relative worth. (For the record, I think that, if any of these musicals genuinely deserved the Pulitzer, it was Sunday in the Park With George.)
After N2N won the Pulitzer, there was a lot of moaning and hand-wringing about the selection process, and how the Pulitzer board members chose to ignore the recommendations of the nominating jury. Well, according to the Pulitzer rules, they're perfectly free to do, so that part didn't really bother me. I figure the board is free to choose as it sees fit. I did have to raise my eyebrows at the revelation that a significant number of the Pulitzer voters had seen Next to Normal the night before the voting. Why is that a problem? Well, N2N is a heart-wrenching show, and it strikes me that the voters may have been responding on a knee-jerk, emotional basis rather than from a considered, analytical viewpoint.
In contrast to the Pulitzer voters, I wanted to take my time in formulating my response to the Next to Normal win, which is why I've waited this long to post about the topic. In short, I don't think the show deserved the award, but that view is not based on the inherent quality of the show. I think it's a very well-crafted show, with a strong score and an affecting story.
No, my objection remains with the show's romanticizing mental illness (witness the song "I Miss the Mountains") and its implicit rejection of psychiatry. The show's main female character, portrayed very affectingly by Tony-Award winner Alice Ripley, suffers from bipolar disorder, and throughout the course of the show undergoes a number of treatment modalities, including talk therapy, drug therapy, and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). At the end of the show, she rejects all of the above and decides to go it alone. I took great exception to this apparent repudiation of psychiatry, and said so in very strong terms in my initial review. Librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey contacted me in a series of vitriolic emails, which at first I did not respond to. When his tone became more measured and collegial, I answered back, and he and I engaged in a productive dialog about his right to craft a show that says whatever he wants it to.
Now, is the show condoning Diana's actions or merely portraying them? Yorkey has never specified to me. Are people free to reject all forms of therapeutic intervention? Absolutely, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with it, or stay silent about it. In my experience, there are far too many people who eschew treatment for mental illness based on the archaic and dangerous notion that they should be able to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Psychiatric disorders are genuine medical conditions, not imaginary constructs. A diabetic cannot through force of will regulate his own insulin levels. Likewise, the power of positive thinking isn't going to help someone with bipolar disorder regulate the amounts of serotonin and dopamine that are available in her synapses.
Is it possible for a show to be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize yet still espouse a viewpoint that I find questionable at best, dangerous at worst? Well, that's free speech for ya. At the very least, Next to Normal provides the opportunity to create some dialog about the topic of mental illness. And, again, it's a very strong show artistically, and one that audiences seem to have genuinely responded to, based on the fact that the Broadway production, defying all odds and predictions, recently recouped its $4-million investment. And the show will launch its national tour in November. I encourage all my readers to see the show, whether on Broadway or on tour, and decide for themselves. All I ask is that you view the show with both an open mind and a skeptical eye.