BWW Interviews: Artistic Director and Goodman Family in 4th Wall's NEXT TO NORMAL
4th Wall Theatre will present NEXT TO NORMAL, the story of a mother, Diana Goodman, who struggles with bipolar disorder, and the effect that her illness has on her family. This contemporary musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is an emotional powerhouse that addresses such issues as grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and suburban life. With provocative lyrics and a thrilling score, this musical shows how far two parents will go to keep themselves sane and their family’s world intact.
BWW is thrilled to talk to Kate Swan, Artistic Director at 4th Wall Theatre and the person behind the reins of the company's 16th season opener NEXT TO NORMAL, as well as the actors portraying the family in this drama. Welcome to all of you!
Kate: Thank you for having us!
BWW: NEXT TO NORMAL seems to be the hot ticket show around the country right now. Tell us what drew you to the show.
Kate: 4th Wall has a history of doing shows with challenging subject matter (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Bat Boy: The Musical, March of the Falsettos, LaChiusa's The Wild Party, Parade), and when Next To Normal was running on Broadway, many people in the company knew it was perfect 4th Wall material. I heard the cast recording and then read the script when it became available, and I was immediately intrigued by it and wanted to direct it. This is fascinating, great writing!
BWW: Many times people attempt to copy what has come before, but it seems 4th Wall is all about fresh perspectives on shows. What makes your approach to the piece different?
Kate: I am almost more interested in the family dynamics than in the mental health issues of the characters. We are not by any means playing down the challenges of living with bipolar disorder and other medical issues, but I do want to focus on the effects of the disorder on all of the family's relationships and the ripples that extend beyond the walls of this family's house.
BWW: The show has such powerful themes of mental disease, suicide, loss - what research did you and your cast go through to prepare for this?
Kate: My own research has included books, blogs, and online videos of people who struggle with bipolar disorder and other forms of depression. As soon as the show was cast and long before rehearsals began, we all started sharing what books we were reading on all applicable subjects as well as making sure that we all knew what all the specific references in the play are (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, various writers, lots of different pharmaceuticals). Two of the primary books we passed around were Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher and On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler.
BWW: The role of Diana (which won Alice Ripley the Tony) can be played in such different ways. We'd love for Nancy Feldman (4th Wall's Diana) to give us a some insight into who she believes the character to be.
Nancy: Diana is haunted by the past, and tries to mask this by creating a "normal", idealized world as a way to escape the reality in her life. But the truth is that her mania and depression govern her life, and as a consequence, her illness shatters her family's life as well as her own. It's a long and difficult journey for her to eventually realize she needs to face her demons in order to be free of them. I think one of her most poignant lyrics is "You don't have to be happy at all, to be happy you're alive."
BWW: Kate, with this being such a rock musical - the core is still a Pulitzer Prize winning play. It's not your average 'boy-meets-girl' musical. You have a Broadway background in Beauty and the Beast and yet as a director it seems like you are drawn to musical pieces with strong, powerful stories. Do you find you approach these pieces from a different standpoint?
Kate: I tend to do different kinds of shows for different theatre companies - 4th Wall is definitely where I have done some of the darkest shows of my career! The truth is that every show worth doing has heart in it, every good story is about the changes that the characters go through, and all plays and musicals should take the audience on a journey of discovery. My job as the director is to make sure that the actors are specific and consistent about their choices so that the audience can truly understand what it is like to be in their shoes.
BWW: Seeing as how you are right outside of New York City, we can only imagine you had an amazing turnout for auditions. How did the family dynamics play into your casting?
Kate: We were very lucky to have a great turnout from all over the tri-state area for these six roles. When I got down to the absolute best people for the roles, I happened to also find that I was looking at the headshots of actors who could actually be mother and daughter and father and son! In other words, as a director, I got lucky!
BWW: I know that on Broadway, whatever actor that played Gabe was met with catcalls nightly. I wonder if David Maglione is ready for that! For those people out there that still do not know all the twists and turns in this musical, David, can you tell us how you believe Gabe fits into this dysfunctional family?
David: Gabe is trying to hold his family together. He is always there for his mom, whenever she needs comforting, encouraging, or even a laugh. He's the son that every mom dreams of. It's been so amazing to work with Kate and 4th Wall on bringing this family to life. And as far as the catcalls go, I was definitely one of those fans - so it should be interesting to be on the other side of it!
BWW: One of the wonderful themes of the show "attempting to find normal" is something so many people can relate to...perhaps not as dramatic as the Goodman family. How do you all see this family's journey in finding 'normal'?
Gregory G. Allen: I'll take this one. I play Dan, the father, and see us as many other families out there. You don't know what goes on behind closed doors: even of your neighbor. Dan is attempting to keep up a good face by still going to his daughter's recitals and feigning some sort of perfect existence in a really messed up world: trying to hold it together while the rules constantly change beneath him. Kate has talked to us much about 'control' in this show: something that I think many in this family volley with to see who can maintain it.
BWW: And Kelly Karcher plays the daughter Natalie who is at many times pushed aside for the sake of her mom. Kelly, what do you believe is Natalie's biggest asset to the Goodman family?
Kelly: That's tough. I think her parents would say that her greatest asset is her self-sufficiency--on the surface, she's your classic overachiever, the one who has it together, the one they don't have to worry about as they're dealing with her mother's illness. She's a survivor--she knows she can't depend on her parents so she believes she can't depend on anyone, and she tries to keep everything under control on her own. Ultimately, though, the way that affects her relationship with her parents...I don't know if I could really call it an asset. It gets them through, but it doesn't bring them any closer together.
BWW: Kate, do you think families can attend this show and relate to it or do people walk away thinking they have witnessed a large melodrama?
Kate: I certainly hope that the audience relates to the story in some personal way. The first time I saw the show, I was in a small audience of mostly young and middle-aged couples. When the lights came up at intermission, the young woman sitting behind me turned to her companion and started talking about what Diana's illness was doing to her family. And when I headed out to the lobby and wandered around, there were three different older women talking to their daughters on the phone. It really struck me as something remarkable and special about this show that people so urgently wanted to talk about it and their own relationships. I hope we can all learn from it. (By the way, this is definitely not a show for kids under 12 or 13; it contains really difficult material and a lot of language. Parental discretion is recommended.)
BWW: Anything else anyone wants to add about this multifaceted family?
Kate: In addition to the 4 characters in the Goodman family, we also get to meet the daughter's boyfriend, Henry (played by Miles. G. Jackson) and two of Diana's doctors, both played by John Wilkening. Every member of this cast is super-talented and great in the show. They all bring unique qualities and intelligence to their roles, and I know we are heading for a really fabulous production.
BWW: I know there are many fans of this musical and it is great that NJ and those in the New York area get a chance to witness it being presented. I appreciate you all joining us to talk about your experience and encourage people to call and get reservations in for this show.
The show's limited run is Oct 5, 6, 12, 13 at 8pm and Oct 7 at 3pm at the Westminster Arts Center (449 Franklin Street, corner of Franklin and Fremont) in Bloomfield, NJ.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.4thwalltheatre.org or through the box office phone number (973) 748-9000 ext. 1279.
Adults $25, Seniors $22, Students $18, Group Rates (15 or more) available by calling 973-566-9255
Photo Credit: Tom Schopper