On the surface, the characters in Next to Normal seem like a typical suburban family.
Two teenagers, a mom, a dad.
But underneath it all, the family is dealing with its own problems, from manic depression to bipolar disorder to anxiety — something you, a friend or a family member may have experienced, too.
It’s the idea that the audience can see themselves reflected on stage through these characters that enticed Geoffrey Goldberg, director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical on stage at the Media Theatre through Feb. 25.
“I haven’t talked to a single person who’s said, ‘I can’t relate to this story,’” said Goldberg, a Lansdale native who previously directed a production of Billy Elliot: The Musical at the theater.
“Everyone I speak with has some sort of personal connection to the story being told here,” he added, “whether it’s loss, or dealing with grief or struggling with mental illness or struggling with family members or struggling with love and relationships — there is so much of ourselves that is on stage in Next to Normal that I think that’s why it’s such an important story to tell.”
Topics like mental illness and depression aren’t typically explored in a musical where one usually thinks of big song and dance numbers, he noted. Though there are plenty of those, too.
“There’s moments of levity, but there’s moments of heartbreak,” Goldberg said. “It’s a tear-jerker of a show, but it’s so important we have that experience in the theater, too.”
He found a love for performing early on, beginning with dance lessons at age 5 and community theater by the time he was 10. As a student at Germantown Academy, he performed in the school productions and eventually studied musical theater at New York University.
His affinity for dance led him to the Broadway stage, where he was in productions like Mary Poppins and 42nd Street.
Stepping into the directing role has given Goldberg, who grew up attending Congregation Beth Or before it moved, a chance to look at the musical in a more holistic way.
When asked to direct Next to Normal, Goldberg instantly said yes, he recalled.
“It’s a beautiful story. It’s really heartfelt and it’s really hard to tell this story really authentically, and it’s hard on the actors,” he said. “One of the things I’ve loved so much is just working with this company of actors — the six of them in the show — and helping them tell the story in such a real way.”
But whether he’s on the stage as a performer or sitting in the audience as the director, Goldberg maintains one key element: community.
“I was a performer for years and now as I direct, it’s still about building that same thing; it’s about building that community of storytellers. Whether I’m performing or directing, it’s still the same for me.”
The concept of a tight community comes from his Jewish upbringing and has influenced him throughout his life — as does the importance of family, which comes through in the musical as well.
“From an early age,” he said, “a huge part of my Jewish identity was the community aspect of it, and the family and the community traditions. And even if I don’t practice as much as I did, I carry that with me into my life now.”
The theme of family in Judaism transfers to Next to Normal, even though it is not a Jewish family, as well as into a musical Goldberg himself wrote, called Piece of Mind.
His musical, which takes place across two parallel timelines in present day and World War II, follows an octogenarian struggling with dementia and memory — some memories he is trying to remember, others he’s trying to forget. It’s a project Goldberg has worked on for the last two years, and he will hold its first public reading in New York City in March.
The deeper themes of being human appeals to Goldberg in what he creates as well as the theater he seeks out.
“I’m really drawn in by the human story being told,” he said. “My background is as a dancer and performer, and I really love, obviously, big dance numbers and things like that, but I’m always about why.
“Theater has the power to change people,” he added, “and I want to tell stories that do that, that change people in some way, so whether that’s through a big dance number or through a small show like Next to Normal, that doesn’t matter. It’s more the power of the show.”
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