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Living With Bipolar Disorder Feels 'Next To Normal'

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5.7 million Americans are affected by bipolar disorder, a mental illness accompanied by moods that can swing from deep lows to dizzying highs.

The subject doesn't obviously lend itself to musical theater, but was indeed the theme of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning show Next to Normal.

Since its opening Off-Broadway in 2008, the musical has found audiences identifying with the courage of its untraditional heroine, Diana Goodman. She's the wife and mother whose story is at the heart of Next to Normal, Theater League's last show of the season currently at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

A Ten-Minute Genesis and Ten-Year Gestation

The show's frank examination of bipolar disorder and its impact on a family began as a kernel of an idea more than a decade ago at a BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, recalls its Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt.

"We were assigned a project to write a ten-minute musical," Kitt says. "Brian Yorkey, my writing partner, saw a news report about depression and shock therapy, and some of the statistics and stories jumped out at him.

"We were in our twenties and looking for something a little off the beaten path and something that would stir up some discussion. The more we researched it and the more we started to see how it affects not only millions of people but our own lives and people we know, it became a very personal story."

Lead Actor Learning her Highs and Lows

Playing Diana in Kansas City is Deb Lyons, who says it's been challenging pinning down her character's mood swings.  

"She's very complicated, obviously -  trying to figure out how to play someone who is bipolar is kind of a mystery because it's not like somebody who has a broken ankle walks with a limp, you know," Lyons says.

"When is she on drugs and when is she not on drugs? Trying to map that out, trying to figure out, okay, what kind of state is she in in this scene, is a tremendous amount of work.  It's probably the most challenging role in modern musical theater and I can't think of a role that has this much complexity of character."

Making Personal Connections

What's marked nearly every performance in New York and around the country on tour are the audience members gathered after the show at the stage door to share their own connections with the illness. Creator Tom Kitt says one story stays with him.

"After the show one night when we were in previews," Kitt recalls, "a teenage boy approached (me and Brian) and said, 'I just want to thank you for this show. About 3 months ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I didn't know how to explain to my friends what that meant. Now I have this show, and I want to thank you for that.' That moment made it all worth it."

When Art Imitates Life

As a licensed clinical social worker, Kathy Steiner has long worked with bipolar disorder, and says that dramatizing such a prevalent illness can only be a good thing.   

 "I thought it was pretty wonderful that it did address that," Steiner says, "It will go a long way toward educating the public and it's a very powerful thing to live with in your life. It's the power of theater, the power of art, and we know that historically people who have been diagnosed as living with bipolar disorder were creative and brilliant - some of our greatest artists and musicians. So it doesn't surprise me that it has become a musical."

Though Steiner adds that bipolar has traditionally been hard to diagnose,  doctors may be getting better at it. According to bp, the magazine devoted to the illness, there's been a significant increase in Americans use of  psychiatric drugs.


Theater League's "Next to Normal," June 5-10, 2012, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, 816-994-7222.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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