About the author:
David Stone is best known as one of the lead producers of Broadway’s biggest hit show, Wicked, but he has spent the past five and a half years nurturing a musical that absolutely nobody considered to be a sure thing: Next to Normal. Stone, whose theater credits also include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Vagina Monologues and The Diary of Anne Frank, set his sights on Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s show about a manic-depressive mother and her family way back in September 2005 after seeing it in a local festival of musicals. No surprise there, but Stone’s commitment to Next to Normal even after a full off-Broadway production received mixed reviews was unprecedented—and his faith was justified when a revamped Broadway production received 11 Tony nominations (winning three 2009 Tonys), took home the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and became a word-of-mouth-propelled hit at the Booth Theatre. As Next to Normal heads toward its final performance on January 16, Stone shared his view of the show’s triumphant journey with Broadway.com.
I wasn't necessarily looking to produce a new show when I went to see Next to Normal (then titled Feeling Electric) at the New York Musical Theatre Festival back in September 2005. But I believe that the best things often happen when you least expect them. As a producer, the material chooses you—and there is no choice but to follow your heart.
It was a hot September night; the theater was tiny and packed—no more than 50 people, all crammed into the space. The show was vastly different than it is now (it ran well over three hours). The character of Henry had not yet been written. Diana consulted five different doctors, not two. The ending was confusing. And Natalie was too angry.
But hearing Tom and Brian's songs for the first time was a revelation. The music and the characters were impossible to escape, and the experience of the show entered the audience's soul in a way that was difficult to describe. There was little doubt in my mind that this show deserved a longer life—it was original and more emotionally honest than anything I'd ever seen.
There was also little doubt that getting the show right would be a long and difficult road. To write an original musical not based on any existing source material is daunting. To write a musical with this subject matter was terrifying, if not insane.
But Tom and Brian were committed to telling the story of Diana Goodman and her family with intelligence, humor and honesty. So, once Michael Greif agreed to come on board as director, we were off and running.
When Next to Normal first opened at Second Stage Theatre in February 2008, the entire creative team realized that our work developing the show was not finished, although the response from both the audience and the press was encouraging. Also encouraging was the passion and commitment that everyone showed in continuing to refine and develop the show. Tom, Brian, Michael, Alice Ripley as Diana, the rest of this incredibly talented group of actors, and our amazing designers: Every one of us knew that we needed to continue following the path of Next to Normal—wherever it might take us.
That path led our entire team to Arena Stage in Washington, DC in November 2008. Having started in New York and then escaping New York, with all of its attendant pressures, enabled the team to focus on their work in an unprecedented way. Songs were cut, new songs added. Lyrics were tweaked here and there, entirely new scenes inserted, musical numbers re-staged, continually refining the journey of this family.
And slowly, we saw the true story and characters emerge. Natalie's yearning for her mother's affection, Dan's steadfast devotion, Gabe's mischief, Diana's increasing desperation—they all came to life and the Goodman family came into focus, as if for the first time. Even if they were not aware of it, this was the show Tom and Brian had set out to write over a decade ago. The goal was never to get the show back to New York, but to complete the work and to be sure we were telling the story we wanted to tell.
Having Next to Normal run on Broadway for almost two years is certainly rewarding, and launching the national tour this fall was a very exciting new chapter in the show’s life. Needless to say, winning the Pulitzer Prize was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. But the real gift has been listening to audience members every night, sharing a collective experience that can only be found in the theater. The story of the Goodmans is specifically their story—but it is really all of our stories.
People often tell me that Next to Normal must have been a labor of love. And, while there was certainly a lot of work, it never really felt like labor. Only love.