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Arts

How ‘Next to Normal’ found its shape

A musical reaches deeper for a serious take on mental illness

JENNIFER TAYLOR FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Tom Kitt at home last month in New York. He and Brian Yorkey, his “Next to Normal’’ co-creator, are working on another show.

NEW YORK - When Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey began writing the musical “Next to Normal’’ back in 1998, they were in a rebellious state of mind. As a fledgling young team at the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York, Kitt and Yorkey needed to create a 10-minute musical for their final assignment and hoped to raise eyebrows by tackling an unorthodox subject. Inspired by a “Dateline NBC’’ segment that Yorkey had seen, their concept centered on a woman struggling with bipolar disorder and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or shock treatment.

SAGLIO PHOTOGRAPHY INC.

Sarah Drake (left) plays Natalie and Kerry A. Dowling plays Diana in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Next to Normal.’’

“We expected that people would say, ‘You can’t write that!’ or ‘That’s a terrible idea for a musical!’ Which made us want to write it even more,’’ Kitt, the composer half of the duo, says over breakfast at a cafe near his Greenwich Village apartment.

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But the musical struck a chord with those at BMI, and with many others as well. It eventually went on to Broadway and captured the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The show, which receives its Boston premiere from SpeakEasy Stage Company beginning Friday, evolved along the way into a story about a wife and mother grappling with the effects of mental illness, and the psychic toll those manic highs and debilitating lows exact on her family. By now, “Next to Normal’’ has garnered something of a rabid cult following.

“Most people have been touched by the battles of mental illness in some way or another,’’ says Kitt, who is 38. “It’s either going on in their families or next door to them, or they know people who have experienced it.’’

Indeed, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, more than a quarter of all American adults suffer from diagnosable mental disorders, and nearly half of all adults have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Severe mental illness, meanwhile, affects 1 in 17 Americans.

The show’s main character, Diana, is a seemingly average suburban housewife, whose upbeat facade masks a struggle to hold on to her sanity. And we see Diana’s family dealing with her ups and downs: husband Dan, always picking up the pieces that his wife leaves in her wake; daughter Natalie, the tough yet fragile overachiever; enigmatic son Gabe.

“What better subject matter to write songs for than people trying to help one another, people trying to get better, people trying to move past loss, or not move past loss?’’ Kitt says. “I felt that stuff very strongly. So the musical element really came pouring out of me, because it’s a subject matter that just makes me hurt and makes me cry and also makes me laugh and feel hopeful. That’s what I wanted to give people walking into the theater. I wanted them to feel all of that. And I think the music does that very viscerally.’’

When the show premiered off-Broadway in 2008, the response from critics and audiences was mixed. Most raved about the pulsating rock-and-pop-inflected score, the show’s emotional intensity, and star Alice Ripley’s powerful performance. But a number of reviews noted that “Next to Normal’’ suffered from a bipolarity that echoed that of its central character, often veering wildly from poignant and wrenching emotions to arch commentary or cheeky satire.

“They started writing it when they were much younger, when they were more interested in ideas about medicine and what they wanted to say about psychiatry,’’ producer David Stone, who shepherded the musical on its path to Broadway, explains by phone from London. “Brian has said he was snarkier then. As they got older, all of that stuff wanted to fall away, and it did.’’

In the musical’s final week off-Broadway, they made a number of key changes. They cut the song “Costco,’’ in which Diana had a breakdown in a store that veered toward the comical. Instead, they moved her breakdown to the end of a new opening number, “Just Another Day,’’ which set the stakes of the story right up front.

Audience response to those adjustments, Kitt recalls, “gave us huge confidence to say, maybe there are other discoveries to make, if we really look at the show without any ego and ask ourselves, ‘What’s not working and what could be better?’ ’’

At Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., they did a major overhaul. Some songs were cut, new ones were added, and others were significantly altered. They fleshed out the character Dan. They wrote or rewrote several of Natalie’s songs and modulated the character’s youthful sarcasm.

Most significant, they finally parted ways with what had once been their title song, “Feeling Electric,’’ in which Diana’s psychiatrist performs shock treatment on her while assuming a rock-star persona. It was the rousing Act 1 closer, and had been in the show since its birth. But it had a tone that no longer belonged. They replaced it with an unexpected and moving ballad called “A Light in the Dark.’’

“Those campy and snarky elements were holding people back from truly embracing the show,’’ says Kitt. “In the end, they were not helpful to tell the truthful story that we wanted to tell. Losing those elements is what finally set the show free.’’

When “Next to Normal’’ landed on Broadway in 2009, critics and audiences raved about the alterations. The musical went on to win three Tony Awards, including best original score and best orchestrations.

At the moment, Kitt and Yorkey are in the initial stages of writing a new show together, and Yorkey is collaborating on a musical, “The Last Ship,’’ with Sting. As for “Next to Normal,’’ Kitt says he’s gobsmacked by the visceral reactions the show elicits from audiences. When it was in previews on Broadway, a 15-year-old boy approached Kitt and Yorkey and thanked them for writing the show. He had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and said that the show made him feel like he wasn’t alone.

“You could just see it on his face. It meant so much to him to be able to have this in the world,’’ says Kitt. “Brian and I just said to each other, ‘You know, whatever happens, that is what it’s all about.’ To me, that’s the beauty of art. I’ve had so many experiences with film or musicals or books where I just walk away changed in some way. One of the things that makes me want to be a writer is to pour my heart into something and hope that I can affect someone in that same way.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.
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