There’s nothing like diving into a show with both feet. In fact, that’s a paraphrase of a line Diana has during “Just Another Day”, describing what looks to be a fairly awful day through the eyes of her approaching mania. My version of that was diving into rehearsals of the Australian premiere of this show with either food poisoning or mild gastro – not really sure, but whatever it was played havoc with me on endless flight back home from Broadway and the Priscilla opening.
But coming into a gorgeous, sunny Melbourne day can do wonders for your stomach, and walking into the rehearsal room at MTC to see your boyfriend/musical director and six cast members you spent weeks meticulously choosing, all hard at work on the intricate harmonies of this brilliant show is better than a bottle of Pepto-Bismo and a double strength Advil. Matt started work with the cast on Monday, pretty much simultaneous with the opening night performance of Priscilla, and they had all the music down by the time I swanned/staggered into the room two and a half days later.
The score for this show is a gift. A really challenging gift, but so textured and moving and exciting and exactly what Matt and I believe musicals should be. The score (and story, of course) transport you as Diana and her family go through their dark night of the soul and finally see “Light”. The harmonies are very layered, sometimes there are six different things going on at once, and the weaving of dialogue and lyric needs to be so precise and yet look limitless.
All musicals start with music calls. You could start with a read-through, but that’s always a bit spare without the music. I suppose you could start with animal improvisations, but you’d be hoping that was either a funded piece over three months culminating at a Festival, or a Julie Taymor circus-rock-drama. The plan for this was four and a half days of music calls with the read-through Friday afternoon. However, the cast had prepped so well (Kate has been working with Matt for months now) that we were able start staging the opening number in the morning session before the read through.
Richard Roberts is designing the set for this piece. We started meeting seriously when I got back from Toronto Priscilla – our process was to bounce ideas back and forth, while listening to the score, then to work from sketches, a white-card model and eventually the perfectly rendered model of the set (currently my best friend as I try to translate how the pieces of this automated set all play together, tell the story and actually allow real human beings to move around on and operate it). I have to say, it’s a beautiful design, marrying the goals we had for the show – practical (we’re in a house, now a music room, now a psych office), thematic (Diana’s disintegrating mind, family on a lightbox, a house that split into many different parts) and aesthetic (figures in space, haunted house, lines that dissect). And in a real coup, the MTC production team has built the actual set into the rehearsal room for us, so we can work the levels, staircase and trucks right from day one.
My first official job on Thursday was to introduce the cast and creatives at the traditional MTC breakfast, a delicious feast I couldn’t partake of due to said stomach illness. We then moved into the room for the set/costume presentation and then the all-important poster shoot. Marketing has been embraced by the performing arts in recent years, and this has been done particularly well by MTC who are great at branding their company while making clear what’s unique about this particular show. For “Next to Normal” we’re going with an image of Kate in a euphoric state with her family in varying states of concern around her. It’s a really kinetic image (made so by the actors bouncing on a trampoline to get the images) and should be really vibey once Lydia has worked her magic on it.
Friday we began the opening number by talking through it around the table, and beginning to touch on how each member of the family related to each other. We worked the lyrics as spoken text, to make sure we all understood what was underneath before we reintroduced the melody back in. Then it was time to get it up on it’s feet. This is a testing time, literally, as you’re figuring out how the space works, where the sightline issues might be, how fast should the pieces go, how to get up and down each space, and what it means to do so. And on top of this, it’s a complex seven or so minute number that introduces the Goodman family and the inciting incident of Diana’s mania coming to the fore again, as represented by her overzealous sandwich preparation.
I was dreading those sandwiches, just a little. Luckily we didn’t get to them on the first day, and instead went into the read through after lunch. I asked the cast to make bold choices – it’s frustrating when actors internalise the first read through, either through shyness, getting stuck in the script, or feeling that the floor is where the choices will be made. It’s so much more helpful if they throw it out there at the reading, so you know where their head’s at. This was a great readthrough – intense, moving, funny at times. I knew the actors were wonderful, having gone through the agony of “who’s right” months ago, but our designers, choreographer etc hadn’t seen them, and were in tears and really excited by the show that began to form.
Saturday we finished off the opening number. Kate is really bold, and gives you tons of choices, which is a director’s dream. She was great with experimenting with the sandwich moment and quickly found a way to make the moment move from sensible preparation to out-of-control. We also found that prop bread would be more usable than real bread. Especially with all those tracks in the floor. I’ll save real bread for my next show, Hansel and Gretel. Good work was done on the number, and I knew that Andy would stylise and clean it up when he joined on Monday. The afternoon was spent with Christy and Ben on the first four Natalie/Henry interactions. They have a lovely chemistry and are delightfully natural.
Staggered out of the rehearsal room, thrilled at the work done thus far and even more at the chance to finally have a day off.