Interview with Next to Normal Writer/Lyricist Brian Yorkey

Yorkey describes the musical's inspiration, plus his medical research

'Next to Normal' musical
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Next to Normal, a rock musical chronicling the life of a suburban mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder, ran for more than 700 shows on Broadway before closing in 2011, and since has played in many theaters internationally.

The musical's lead character, Diana, had suffered from bipolar II with psychotic features — hallucinations — for some 16 years as the curtain rises. Over the course of the musical, she decides to stop taking her medications and ultimately must cope with severe memory loss after a series of ECT treatments.

Next to Normal explores both mental illness and the impact the illness has on an otherwise pretty typical suburban family, particularly on Diana's teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan.

Brian Yorkey is the writer and lyricist for the text and songs of this musical. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Yorkey in 2009, just as the show was opening on Broadway, and ask him a few questions about the production.

Question: The number one question asked by everyone is regarding your inspiration for the musical. I recall reading in one interview that you and (composer) Tom Kitt began collaborating on this project in college. Was there someone in one or both of your lives that struggled with bipolar disorder?

Brian Yorkey: Tom and I each have a number of people in our lives who have struggled with mental illness. They have certainly been on our minds throughout our time working on the show.

We wanted to get the story right and have the medical part of it be as accurate as possible, for them and for all people who have similar struggles.

Our original inspiration for the show came when we were in the BMI workshop [the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop] for musical theater songwriters.

The final project of the first year of the workshop is a "10-minute musical" on the topic of your choosing. We wanted to do something a little different. So one night, when I saw a "Dateline" news report about ECT, I had the idea: What about a story of a woman who has struggled with mental illness her whole life and all the men who have tried to help her? From this kernel, over the course of many years, Next to Normal grew.

Question: I shared a few refrains from the song “My Psychopharmacologist and I” with members of our forums. Everyone was floored by the realism in the lyrics, not something often found in fictional representations of mental illness. What research was involved that allowed you to so accurately touch the heart of what makes bipolar disorder such a devastating illness?

Brian Yorkey: We did a tremendous amount of research as we wrote. Often every new plot point would send us off for more research. We read first-person accounts like Andy Behrman's Electroboy, Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, Kitty Dukakis's Shock, Terri Cheney's Manic, and William Styron's Darkness Visible, among others. An invaluable resource was Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon. We also looked at more clinical texts like Andre Green's On Private Madness and seminal works like Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer.

We also read many, many articles and personal accounts, doing our best to look at both sides of potentially controversial aspects of the story.

Question: I read that you held workshops in 2002 as part of the writing process. Did you consult with individuals who have bipolar disorder, significant others to those with this mental illness, [or] medical professionals such as psychiatrists or psychologists?

Brian Yorkey: We were fortunate to have both a psychiatrist and a psychologist consulting with us along the way. They read drafts of the show, saw the productions along the way, and gave us recommendations for language, diagnosis, treatment and such.

We told them that while the "civilians" in the show might not always make the best decisions, we wanted the doctors to behave as competent, well-meaning, helpful doctors would — as, indeed, we believe most doctors do. Our goal was not to indict medicine in any way — far from it. Our goal was to show how insidious the disease is, how challenging to diagnose and treat. And survive.

We didn't directly consult with individuals who have bipolar disorder. But every time we did a public presentation of the material, we were blessed to hear from numerous people who suffered themselves or loved someone who did. Their feedback, both positive and constructively critical, certainly informed our work.

Question: One member of our community noted the long development cycle for Next to Normal. She wonders if you think living with the process of change and unpredictability over this long period of time mirrors, in some way, the morphing nature of your subject matter — mental illness and family life?

BY: That's a fantastic metaphor. It hadn't occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense. In fact, I think it speaks very well to the evolution of the story. As we rewrote, with each draft we got a little more precise with Diana's symptoms, a little better at diagnosing her and clearer on the impact these things would have on her and her family. At one point, her psychopharmacologist says, "Well, we'll try again and eventually we'll get it right," which is something we kept telling ourselves.

With the aforementioned help from our consultants, we zeroed in on her specific case and exactly what course her treatment and ongoing struggle should take. In that way I think it mirrors the experience of many patients who must take a long-term approach to living with and fighting a disease that changes shape over time. Very interesting. I'm going to use that metaphor again, if that's OK.

Question: There have been a lot of comments in reviews regarding the fact that some significant changes were made to the content when the show moved to Broadway. Some scenes were changed, some new songs added, etc. These changes seem to have breathed raw, unshielded emotion into the musical. Were these changes in response to how people with bipolar disorder perceived and related to the production?

BY: In part, absolutely. We never changed our goal through the many years of working on this show. We wanted to tell, as truthfully and humanly as possible, a story of a woman who struggled with mental illness and the family who struggled with her.

What did change is how our work went over with audiences, with critics and especially with those who knew the subject matter intimately. Obviously, every single person has a different take on it, but over time you start to hear a consensus from these groups. There are things you hear again and again, and those are the ones you take to heart. We wanted this show to be an emotional experience, as honest as it could be, and we wanted people to experience emotions with Diana and her family — to empathize, to share the experience, rather than just witness it.

Question:  Next to Normal has received 11 Tony Award Nominations, including Best Musical. Congratulations! Clearly, you don’t have to know someone with bipolar disorder to appreciate this musical. Why do you think so many people are connecting with the show?

BY: Thanks for the congrats! I think there are a few reasons why people are connecting with the show including an incredible cast under Michael Greif's smart, sensitive, yet powerful direction, and also Tom Kitt's wonderful music. As far as the story goes, I think two things.

First, I think many more of us are closer to these issues than others may know. Mental illness has touched someone we love in some way and I think Next to Normal is rare (certainly for musicals) in bringing these struggles to light and to some catharsis. I also think, even if our immediate families haven't experienced these exact issues, we've all struggled with a family dynamic that's ... challenging. We recognize ourselves and our family members in the Goodmans. Some of the PR for the show says it's about "a family in crisis," and I always add, "But really, what family isn't?"

I also think the show provides a few laughs and a really good cry, and we all need those.