In “Next to Normal,” the bipolar Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) sings about the litany of side effects caused by her medications: vomiting, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and, finally, “I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything.”
“Patient stabilized,” her psychiatrist replies.
Merging gentle comedy with unsettling subject matter was one of the challenges facing director Michael Greif (“Rent,” Grey Gardens”) when he was asked to join the creative team as the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning rock musical — opening Nov. 28 at the Ahmanson Theatre — foundered following unsuccessful productions in 2007. Author/lyricist Brian Yorkey had first envisioned the piece after viewing a TV news segment on electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy 10 years ago; when Grief came aboard, the show was titled “Feeling Electric,” sported biting humor and a sequence in which Diana had a breakdown at Costco.
“It was a moment I felt I could be particularly frank,” Greif recalled of those first meetings with Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt. “I loved the characters and the subject matter; the heightened emotions were perfectly suited for a musical and something I felt was worth singing about,” he said. But Greif questioned the tongue-in-cheek title and suggested the show should focus “less on the medical establishment and more on the painful effects of Diana’s illness on her family.”
The writers had had similar thoughts, and, as Grief helmed productions off-Broadway and in Washington, D.C., he urged them to elaborate not just upon Diana’s story but also upon that of her devoted but exhausted husband and angry, overachieving teenage daughter.
Diana’s breakdowns are not the kind of Hollywood treatments that have been found in works such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; in one disturbing scene, the suburban housewife compulsively makes sandwiches that fill the house.
The fictional Goodman family is not meant to be specifically Jewish — the surname is “more of an Everyman statement,” Greif said, adding, “I think certainly one can recognize [composer] Tom Kitt’s Jewish background in the piece. Some of the music is distinctly Semitic. It’s liturgical, and in it one can recognize some beautiful, plaintive prayer.”
Greif, 51, grew up in a working-class Jewish home in Brighton Beach, N.Y., where he became bar mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue, and a mass emigration of Russian Jews into the area made a dramatic impression on him in 1977. Upon returning to New York for his freshman winter break from Northwestern University, he was startled to discover that his apartment building “had become 50 percent Russian. It was extraordinary — the change in the language, the textures, the sights and even the smells of the cooking in the halls.”
A decade later, Greif met the great Jewish American playwright Tony Kushner, whose current off-Broadway revival of “Angels in America” Greif has directed to excellent reviews. Kushner proved to be a major influence on Greif — as he has for many theater artists of his generation — in both his melding of the naturalistic and the fantastic and in his moral observations: “In the great Jewish tradition, Tony struggles with and vehemently pursues the truth,” Greif said.
“Truthfulness” is a term the director often uses to describe his approach to “Next to Normal”; to avoid any kind of sensationalistic depictions of mental illness, he and the authors read first-person accounts, such as William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” and spoke to psychiatrists. When Diana’s psychopharmacologist sings, “Is medicine magic? You know it’s not. But it’s all we’ve got,” the words are taken verbatim from those of a real doctor.
“I know people who have struggled with bipolar disorder,” Greif said. “It’s important that we portray them with honesty and dignity.”
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