So, I’ve been cast as Diana Goodman in a community theater production of the musical “Next to Normal”. I’ve been obsessed with this show for months, listening to the music, reading about the show, and really trying to understand all of the subtext. When I got the part, it was such an exciting moment. This really is a dream role…so meaty, so much depth to the character, and it’s topped off with the most gorgeous score.
If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s the story of a woman (Diana) who is struggling with bipolar disorder. Throughout the play, you see not only Diana’s struggles, but the struggles of her family and the impact that her disease has had on them. It’s not pretty.
As preparation, our director assigned us an exercise that was really one of the most exhausting experiences of my life. We were asked to do write an end to end character analysis for our character. I thought, piece of cake! I know everything about this woman because I’ve been studying her for months. We had to document everything from basics like height, weight, how they dress, wear their hair, etc. to a deep dive into their psyche. That last bit was the part that really did me in.
Diana is an incredibly complex character. She runs the full gambit of emotions and has so many underlying motivations to everything she does, that it was difficult to break it all down. I had to pick the script apart and tackle one scene (or song) at a time…Diana is in 30 of the 37 songs. Yeah, it was a long process. But rather than just try to describe how Diana was feeling, I decided to use this as a true character exercise and write it as Diana.
For each of the 30 scenes, I tried to think like Diana. A tried to imagine myself in her crazy, mixed up bipolar world, and I wrote her inner monologue. It took me a combined 6 hours over 2 days. And yes, Diana is a completely exhausting person. Here’s a few snippets to demonstrate her emotional shifts (without spoiling plot lines as much as possible):
Just Another Day (Opening number, you’re meeting Diana for the first time)
I’m a mom…just like every single mom in America. That’s all I want them to see. Typical mom, typical kids, typical husband, typical life. Never let ‘em see you sweat, right? I can do this, I can keep this family running, and do it with style and flare! I can! Just watch me! Oh shit, I can’t do this.
You Don’t Know (Diana’s husband Dan makes the mistake of trying to tell her he understands what she’s going through. Empathy, ya know?)
Is Dan fucking kidding me?! He has no idea what goes on in my head! He has no clue the anger and sadness, the weight of that! He can’t. He’s never suffered over anything in his life! Not the way I have…and still do. He couldn’t give two shits.
Didn’t I See this Movie (Diana’s doctor and her husband have decided on an unorthodox treatment for her disorder.)
You want to do WHAT? Are you serious? And who made this decision? They did. Dan and Dr. Madden. They made this decision without me. TRAITORS! Well, hell no. This is NOT happening.
Wish I Were Here (The treatment, from Diana’s perspective)
Whoa, this is trippy! It’s like I got drunk, smoked a joint, and slammed about a six pack of Natalie’s Red Bull all at once! This is the best I’ve felt in years. The clarity of my thoughts. The weight that’s been lifted from my head. Hey, it’s Natalie! Wait, what? OK, maybe this is a little scary. I’m not sure I like this after all. When will it stop?!
A Promise (Dan is explaining to Diana why he fights so hard for her.)
Is Dan seriously saying that he’s stayed with me out of a sense of duty? I guess he’s finally being completely honest with me, too. I’m having a moment of true realization. We’ve built a relationship on a lie. We’re never going to be those people again.
And these are just bits and pieces. Not only does can she not keep a consistent thought from one scene to the next, sometimes she does a full 180 all in the same scene. This woman is…I really can’t think of another way to put it. She’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be in her head!
Now, I’ll let you in on a secret…it’s also amazing. Every actor has a dream role…for musical theater guys, maybe it’s Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” or Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha”. For the ladies, it might be Roxie Hart in “Chicago”, Liza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”, or Christine in “Phantom of the Opera”. For me, Diana Goodman is every bit of that to me. She’s complicated, intense, funny, a little scary, and she sings some of the most amazing songs written for a female vocalist. It’s an incredible privilege to be in her shoes and in her head. It’s just also exhausting.
By the end of this run, I may need therapy…