Next to Normal Summary

Brian Yorkey

Next to Normal

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Next to Normal Summary

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Next to Normal is musical written by American playwright and lyricist Brian Yorkey. It debuted on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards in that year. In 2010, it became the eighth musical in history to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Next to Normal is known for its complex portrayal of mental health disorders and treatments, particularly regarding bipolar disorder and depression. The show’s Broadway run closed in January 2011 after more than seven hundred performances.

The musical begins as a suburban mother, Diana, waits for her son to return home while attempting to comfort her overachieving daughter, Natalie. Her son returns the next morning amid the family’s preparations for the day as Dan, Diana’s husband, notices the cacophony of sandwich-making taking place on every surface of the kitchen. Dan steps in to help his wife prepare the lunches before the kids make their way to school.

When Natalie arrives at school, she takes refuge by the piano in the school’s practice room. She is interrupted by Henry, a fellow classmate who has taken a liking to Natalie and often pauses to hear her play.

As the weeks progress, Diana makes a series of doctor appointments. Dan waits in the car, preoccupied with his own depression. Diana, it turns out, has been suffering from bipolar disorder and depression for more than a decade. Over the course of her appointments, the doctor adjusts her medication, causing her to experience multiple side effects. Eventually, the medication numbs her to the point that she feels nothing. Upon relaying this to the doctor, he declares her stable. Things also continue to progress with Natalie and Henry until he ultimately professes his love for her.

Several weeks later, Dan looks forward to dinner with his family. Henry has been invited, much to Natalie’s chagrin, and Dan is preoccupied with how energetic and good-natured his wife has been recently. But when Diana emerges from the kitchen with a cake and begins singing happy birthday to their son, Dan and Natalie are shocked. Dan reminds Diana that their son died sixteen years ago as an infant. Dan then suggests another visit to the doctor, but his wife refuses. Dan pleads with her to trust him, but she does not relent.

Meanwhile, Natalie vents about the situation to Henry in her room. Diana comes in moments later to apologize. Her words fall on deaf ears, as Natalie is having none of it.

Eventually, Diana starts to see Dr. Madden, who specializes in drug-free treatment options. Her son’s ghost continually haunts Diana and, over time, the boy begins to assert his presence in more palpable ways. The doctor proposes hypnosis as a way of helping Diana discover the root of her illness. The emotionally draining therapy takes a toll on Dan, who is concerned that the doctor’s methods are too much of a strain on his wife’s mental health.

Diana’s condition is also beginning to adversely affect her family. Natalie, distracted by the fact that her mother has missed her piano recital, doesn’t perform as well as she expected to. It is in the wake of these events that Diana decides the time has come to let her son go once and for all. She returns home and begins cleaning out her son’s belongings, pausing when she stumbles upon a music box.

Suddenly, her son’s ghost appears, asking for a dance and beckoning his mother to “go away with him.” Diana attempts suicide and is subsequently hospitalized. Upon her admittance, she is restrained and sedated after self-inflicted gashes are found on her wrist. The doctor explains to Dan that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the most common treatment for Diana’s condition. Dan returns home to ponder the doctor’s recommendation and to clean up the episode that landed Diana in the hospital.

The next day, Dr. Madden proposes the treatment to Diana, who responds angrily, comparing it to the barbaric practice of having portions of her brain surgically removed. During the conflict, Dan returns to the hospital and is able to convince Diana that the doctor’s proposed treatment might very well be the only solution.

As Diana undergoes a series of ECT treatments over the next several weeks, Natalie begins to experiment with clubbing and drugs. When Diana returns home following her treatments, she realizes she has lost memories from the past nineteen years. Meanwhile, Henry confronts Natalie at school, as she has been avoiding him since the family dinner a few weeks prior. This does not dissuade Henry from asking Natalie to the formal spring dance.

Diana and Dan make another trip to the doctor to seek guidance about Diana’s memory loss, which the doctor explains is normal. Dr. Madden asks Diana about memories of her son and suggests she have more in-depth conversations about it with Dan. At home, Diana goes through her son’s belongings, stumbling once again on the music box. Dan tries to stop her, knowing her efforts are futile, but Diana is still overwhelmed by the onslaught of memories about her son. When Diana admits to knowing her son as a teenager and demands Dan to reveal his name, her husband refuses, insisting she see the doctor again for additional treatments.

Later, the night of the spring dance arrives, and Henry comes to the house to pick Natalie up. The two stumble across the tussle between Dan and Diana as he attempts to wrest the music box from his wife. Ultimately, the music box slips to the floor, smashing to pieces.

Diana returns to the doctor once again and inquires about what can be done if her medication no longer works. She has begun to realize that the issue is not with her mind, but her soul. Dr. Madden reassures her that relapsing is common and suggests additional ECT treatments. Despite Diana’s refusal, the doctor urges her to reconsider, as her condition is both chronic and deadly.

As her condition worsens, Diana decides to leave her husband. She realizes she cannot constantly rely on him and that she needs to deal with her condition on her own. After Diana leaves, Natalie comes home to find her father sitting in the dark. He is crying. She assures her father that the two of them will work it out. Appeals to Dr. Madden are no use either as, toward the end of the musical, the good doctor gives the grieving husband a referral for another mental health professional.