Next to Normal – 2011 – MTC – Opening and onwards

If you’ve ever read one of my blogs about opening nights, you’ll find that they’re usually magical evenings where the actors and stars align (Rhonda, Pamela, Sigrid…) and the show you’ve been imagining for months comes to life in front of your peers, friends and family.  Next to Normal was the highest stakes opening I’ve ever had – my MTC debut, a beloved award-winning musical, a hugely technical piece, the musical theatre debut of Kate Kendall in one of the hugest female roles in the genre…  And being MTC, there are other responsibilities that go with being the director – like addressing the sponsors at the function just before the show, to thank them for their support and give them an idea of what they’re about to see.  I am usually hopeless before an opening night, unfocused and going over a million things in my head, unable to make coherent conversation with anyone who’s sitting with me.  On the first Priscilla opening in Sydney (four thousand years ago) my friend Daryl thought I was going to have an anxiety attack.  Having to speak before the VIPs got rid of that anxiety, I have to say – being forced to follow the ever-witty Simon Phillips with a speech of my own that flattered and excited all present required me to get over my worry about what was about to unfold and get ready to freestyle.  I had a coterie of my dearest with me – Mum and Dad, Leon, Chrissy and Sandra, as well as tons of friends who were there on their own steam.  I described the show, for those who didn’t know it at all, as “The Notebook of musical theatre.  Except good.”  The MTC has actually taken to handing out packs of tissues at these pre-show functions, which is adorable (and quite necessary – a friend of mine recently saw the show and had to take her shirt off during Act 1 and wipe her face with it).

The speech.

So I walked the plank into my seat and sat down.  Right away I knew the audience was with the show.  One of the pleasures of an opening night is being able to put away the notebook and just focus on the story again.  And Kate, Matt, Gareth, Bert, Christy and Ben (and the crew and the musicians) led us brilliantly through the Goodman story.  It was a perfectly placed show and truly wonderful to sit back and let happen.  As we reached the bows, the audience rose together to applaud what they’d seen, rare for an MTC opening night.  The rush of euphoria at that point is hard to describe – in fact, it was so strong it almost worked on my mind like ECT – I have virtually no memory of anything afterwards.  That could have been the copious amounts of champagne and red though, to be truthful.

And then comes afterwards.  The season extended the next day.  The reviews came out, some amazing, some disappointing.  I learned a lot about how to take those on.  Friends and peers poured in to see the production and the feedback was incredible.  And every day strangers write to me or a cast member to say how incredible an experience the musical has been.  Virtually everyone in the show got sick, but soldiered on.  Except poor Ben, and then I made my MTC acting debut.  I played Henry for a show and a half.  I cut one line;

Diana: How old are you?

Henry: Seventeen.  Why?

I dropped the “Seventeen”.  I was frightened it would be the biggest laugh of the night.  But that alone was an exhilarating experience – being part of the show from the inside – one I’ll always remember.

Natalie and Henry hanging out before Act 2.

But it’s time for me to say goodbye to the show.  Since we opened I’ve directed a production of Hansel and Gretel for OzOpera and learned about working in a different performance genre.  That show is now touring around Victoria and will for the next six months.  I’ve gone up to Sydney and rehearsed In Vogue: Songs by Madonna and Josie in the Bathhouse, my two new shows for this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival.  I’m very excited by them, especially because Michael and Josie are two extremely funny and charming performers who happen to be outstanding singers.  And right now?  I’m in an airport lounge in Sydney about to fly to Brazil to start casting the Portuguese-language production of Priscilla.

I went to see Next to Normal a final time last night.  I took Josie, and my best friend Bianca.  Andy was there (and is opposite me now, in fact, downing a champers).  The show was beautifully performed.  This cast is the happiest I’ve had the pleasure of working with.  Each and every one of them loves and respects the other five, and their crew and their musicians.  It’s the most integrated group of theatre makers I’ve heard of.  I’d like to think I had something to do with that, but really, it was just luck.  The best people to do those roles happened to be the happiest.

Will there be a future for Next to Normal?  I’d love it to go on and be seen around the country.  But as Matty says, we had this five weeks, this wonderful season in Melbourne with a cast and production that surpassed all our dreams when we got the gig last year.  Watching those screens elegantly glide around the stage last night, I remembered how frightened I was as to whether that level of automation could be pulled off at our budget, seeing the projections flow, I remembered the many meetings about whether they were going to blind the audience, seeing Kate hold that audience captive, I remembered Matty and I singing her again and again in our music room, knowing she was Diana and the fact that this would be her debut was a risk worth taking.

I doubt I’ll ever forget how much I loved building Next to Normal – Australia.  As Bert’s character sings: The price of love is loss.  And so, goodbye.

Published by bryantandfrank

Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank make musicals. And other things.

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