After rave reviews on Broadway, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal is set to win over audiences here. The powerful musical deals with a suburban woman’s battle with the mental illness bipolar disorder and how it affects her family. Pangdemonium’s artistic director Tracie Pang spoke to Expat Living about how honesty and some surprising comic moments can cast off the stigma of mental illness.
Pangdemonium has staged some amazing productions in the past; how did you decide on this musical?
The story of a family coping with mental illness is incredibly powerful and the emotional dynamics drew me in, although it was the amazing music that caught me initially. It’s unusual for a musical to win the Pulitzer Prize; it was largely awarded for the strong writing and story. Often, musical theatre pieces are quite light, but this piece has depth.
Mental illness affects thousands of people. How is this difficult issue dealt with?
The musical is quite serious, but there is humour in a very adult style. It explores in a very realistic way how the mother’s bipolar disorder affects the whole family. With that realism you get sarcasm in people’s immediate responses, which can be humorous. This brings a level of humanity to the issue, rather than treating it lightly.
Mental illness is still stigmatised, as this musical reveals. Having worked with the Institute of Mental Health, we know that the Ministry of Health is working to de-stigmatise the issue in the community. We’re hopeful that staging this musical will help to do that too.
Sally Ann Triplett is a big name, known for her West End performances in Chicago, Cats and Mamma Mia. Was it a big coup to secure her for the lead role?
It’s the first time Sally has worked with us. She has amazing credentials and is finishing Viva Forever prior to coming here. It’s exciting to have international artists coming to work with us. As much as possible, we want to create work for our talented local artists because we are a Singaporean company. However, if we feel we can’t cast locally, we have to search further afield, and it’s good to work with people from overseas who bring new ideas and an injection of their life experience.
How long have you been preparing for the show?
We’ve been working on the show for six months, having spent months reading and soaking up the music before that. Rehearsals start this month and last for four to five weeks; it will be intense for the six cast members who’ll be working about eight hours a day.
Is there one line that stands out for you?
There are many, but if I had to choose, it’s when the mother, Diana, says: “I tried to give you a normal life, but I realised that I don’t know what that is.” The daughter, Natalie, responds: “I don’t need a life that’s normal, but something next to normal would be OK.” Exploring the idea of what is normal is very interesting. Everybody has very different ideas.