A Very Narrow World & The Edge of Destruction: Next to Normal

March 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm, by

The rock opera Next to Normal is all about living on the edge.

Living on the edge of normal. Living on the edge of comfort. Living on the edge of stability.

Τhe show breathes life into a peculiar teaching attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

The world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of life is not to fear.*

In the three productions I’ve seen of the musical (Off-Broadway, Broadway, and Tel Aviv), some of the most intense action takes place on a high, thin, narrow platform running parallel to the main stage floor.

It is up high on a narrow bridge where we see the mother Diana dispose of her entire medicine collection, where we see Diana converse and reminisce with with her dead son Gabe, and where we see Diana’s daughter Natalie overdose on her mother’s meds.

This narrow world in Next to Normal always appears to be falling apart. In “Perfect For You,” the awkward Henry promises that he can be the one perfect thing in Natalie’s messed up world. This world is “filled with death and disease,” he explains. “We dance on the edge of destruction.”

The truth though is Henry ain’t much of a dancer (even if he invites Natalie several times to “some spring formal dance”). On the other hand, Gabe–the ghastly memory of Natalie’s brother–is one of the most lively movers and shakers in the show.

In his seductive rock anthem “I’m Alive,” Gabe swings from the bars at the edges of the upper stage. “I am what you want me to be,” he sings to his traumatized mother Diana. “I am your worst fear. You’ll find it in me. / Come closer.”

Gabe not only lives on the edge of his narrow bridge-world. He also is the fear. And he invites you to join.

Diana recalls when she was once “the wild girl running free” during “I Miss the Mountains.” But today her wild, youthful blood only runs through Gabe’s veins, now manifest in his manic movements.

Diana tells her husband Dan that he has no understanding of her trauma (“You Don’t Know”). In return, Dan responds “I Am the One,” explaining he’s always been at his wife’s side. But, during the patriarch’s response, Gabe enters the scene.

The staging in each production differs from one other. Presenting an excerpt of the show at the Tony Awards, Gabe walked down the stairs of the upper stage of mania to get in on the action down below. As he, the embodiment of fear, holds onto his mother, Gabe grasps his mother (Oedipus-much, anyone?) and carries her off into a world of psychological terror.

When Diana later sings “I Dreamed a Dance” with her son; when he tells her “There’s a World” as he beckons her to come along (“Come with me… where we can be free”); and when he introduces himself in “I’m Alive” (“I am… desire… I own you”); we have no reason to doubt that the rote intimacy Diana offers her husband is the manifestation of her misplaced lust for her son (or her doctor, for whom she sings the tango-waltz “My Psychopharmacologist and I”).

I can’t recall if the New York productions had it (and I can’t speak of other non-New York productions), but there was one particularly powerful and transgressive blocking (literally) in the Tel Aviv performance of “I Am the One.” As Dan sang of his loyalty to Diana, Gabe stood directly in front of Dan–blocking his vision of Diana. As Gabe stood there, also declaring his loyalty to Diana, Dan fiercely ignored his son, his voice reverberating 16 years after his passing.

In Hanhagot Ha’adam (Guides of Humanity) from No’am ElimelekhRabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk begins the fifteenth of his twenty-one principles “which humanity can enact and, through them, be alive” as follows:

One should produce an image in one’s eyes as if some Other person is eternally standing opposite the Self, that Other’s observation of the Self never waning, so if the Other were to see something ugly about the Self, the Self would be embarrassed and disgusted in the Self’s own eyes…

For Dan, his Self does not care for an imaginary Other, even when that Other is standing right in front of him. What’s scarier is that this Other is Dan’s son: another piece of Dan’s self. Whether Dan simply doesn’t see the Self standing before him or he actually chooses to ignore his dead son, Diana can see both of Dan’s Selves: Dan the man and the ghost of his son.

But SPOILER ALERT, blindness to his son does not last for the whole show.

After Diana leaves the family, Dan finally speaks to his son. When Dan says the name of Gabriel (in Hebrew–Gavri’el–“My Mighty One is God”), Dan submits to his son who, though dead, is larger-than-life.

In the pronunciation of Gabe’s name, Dan validates the reality of his son–just as pronunciation of the Divine name is a proclamation of the true God in Judaism.

Gabe’s hands may have been all around his mother, but  it is only after Dan has uttered Gabe’s dreaded name that Dan can touch his son: a sad, retired embrace.

Dancing on the edge of destruction, jumping off the narrow bridge above the stage, standing as the Other before the Self, and a mystic spirit of fear and desire constantly seeking validation, there is something both devilish and Godly about Gabe’s role in Next to Normal.

Gabe is the human psyche gone wild.

Rabbinic literature often acknowledges ahavah (“love”) and yir’ah (“fear” or “awe”) as the two most common ways to relate to the Divine. For the sake of our sanity, it is important that we know to distinguish between our love for that which is greater than ourselves, and our fear of that which is greater than ourselves. Similarly, we must recognize when to love ourselves and when to fear ourselves.

But Gabe intends to confuse love and fear throughout the show. And he succeeds. In the show’s epilogue, Dan, terrorized by his son, seeks the counsel of his wife’s psychologist. (We the audience don’t know how these sessions will go).

The show’s final number “Light” quotes God in Genesis: “Let there be light.” We might not have confidence that this family actually knows a good way to find the light they seek, but we sense their sincere hopes for better times.

Concluding his piece where he introduces the narrow bridge, Rabbi Nachman writes:

You need to be strong and not to despair–God forbid**–even if what will be will be. The essence is to be joyful always and to find joy in everything one can–even if it is through foolish matters, making a fool out of the self, engaging in acts of stupidity and hilarity, or maybe jumping around and dancing–all in order to arrive at happiness, because that is a very grand thing.

Jumping around the stage. Sliding down the poles of the set. Being foolish. Acting immature. Dancing on the edge of destruction. Dangerous as he is, and depressed as his family may be, it might just be that Gabe’s got something right.


*The original teaching of Rabbi Nachman actually reads as follows:

When there is–God forbid–some urgency or–God forbid– time of distress–God forbid–know that a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge, yet the principle and the essence are not to fear in general. (Likkutei Moharan, Part II, Teaching 48)

**A lot of Chasidic writers like to say “God forbid” whenever they mention bad things. It’s kinda entertaining.

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