A Next to Normal Tragedy

WARNING: This piece is going to be dealing heavily with the theme of losing a child. If this topic is uncomfortable or painful for you, I completely understand, and I’d advise against reading it if you feel that it may be too much.

Yes, it’s true: I’m not done talking about this musical. The last time I wrote on Next to Normal, I discussed Dan Goodman’s character, and how his arc represents the damaging consequences of struggling through a certain kind of unhealthy relationship, one that doesn’t allow the affected party to cope with his grief and trauma in an effective way. Dan’s story is one of trying to overcome a tragedy, and in his failing attempts to deny his own pain, he becomes a complete inverse of Diana, who instead chooses to embrace her pain and venture out to seek her mental health on her own.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today; after all, I said everything I needed to say about the complexity of Dan’s character, and the musical makes Diana’s journey clear enough to where my comments would probably be redundant. Today, I want to discuss the why of Dan and Diana’s shared conflict. I want to discuss how, when one thinks about it, this particular tragedy is one that musical theatre tends not to tackle very often. I wonder if, maybe, there could be a space for more of these kinds of stories.

As any fan knows, one of the main characters in Next to Normal is Gabriel, the beloved son of Dan and Diana whom the script describes as “dashing. Gentle. Bright. Playful. Everything a mother, etc.” He adores his mother. He’s mischievous in just the right ways and an angel in the precise amount it takes to make up for the mischief. He plays football, makes good grades, participates in a long list of other extracurricular activities, and is popular at school. He truly is the prodigal son that every mother dreams her future child could be like.

However, any fan will also know that Gabriel and all his accomplished perfection are an illusion. Gabe, as we, Diana, and later Dan know him onstage, doesn’t exist. In fact, the smiley teenage boy died many years ago in infancy.

Diana doesn’t know what Gabe would have been like as a young adult. How would he have looked? It’s possible he wouldn’t have looked like Aaron Tveit. What would have been his interests? Maybe the real Gabe would have traded football and jazz band for wrestling or theatre. Maybe he wouldn’t have been mischievous at all; maybe he would have been a little too mischievous. All of his personality was lost before Dan or Diana got the chance to know what it was.

Losing a child is probably one of the worst tragedies a person could ever face. For parents, there’s a unique kind of pain in understanding that they outlived someone close and beloved who was supposed to live their life long after the parents were gone. What’s more, when their child has the chance to grow a little, there’s the loss of that child’s beloved personality and sense of self. As Hamilton so accurately puts it, parents who are forced to come to terms with this tragedy “going through the unimaginable.”

While not very common, there are musicals that touch on this subject. Hamilton is an obvious example. Elisabeth das Musical, the popular German-language musical that follows the life of the titular Austrian Empress, engages with the theme of a mother losing her children twice; the second time, Elisabeth’s son is a fully grown man who commits suicide. The first time? Elisabeth loses her infant daughter to illness. And while the young daughter is so little at the time of death that she’s played by a doll onstage, the son is seen both as a living child and adult, one with wants and fears and a fleshed out personality of his own. In a way, the show highlights the difference in losing an older child and losing a baby, even though both are tied under the same umbrella of grieving parents.

Before I continue, I should stress that I am in no way arguing that one kind of loss is worse than the other, nor am I pitting them against each other. It’s just that I feel the losses are different. Nothing better, nothing worse. Just different.

For Dan and Diana, the tragedy is not only that they lost their son, but also that they never got to know their son in the first place. Where Dan tries to bury his grief deep down, Diana gets caught in the neverending question of “What if?” Instead of having clear memories of the kind of person her son was, Diana is forced to conjure up a completely imaginary son in his place, one who could have potentially existed or, on the other hand, been entirely different.

“What if Gabe would have been into football?”

“What if Gabe would have stayed out late after curfew?”

“What if Gabe would have been an outgoing kid with lots of friends?”

I have five brothers. I love them, and I don’t hate boys or anything like that. But growing up as the only girl in the family, it was sometimes hard to connect with my siblings, so every time my mom announced she was pregnant, I would cross my fingers and hope for a sister. And one time, my wish seemed to have been granted.

I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when I learned she would be a girl. I remember being excited, imagining all the ways we could play together, and the fact that I’d finally have another kid to share all the girly things with. And I also remember the feeling I had when my parents called from the hospital, dropping the news that my baby sister would never be born.

I like to think I’m over it now, but there are still times twelve years later when I feel a sadness hanging over me, and I wonder how different things could have been had my mom not miscarried. Would my sister and I have had shared interests? What would she have wanted to do in school? What kind of music would she have liked? Like Diana, I’m caught in the “What if?” questions, and the truth is that no matter how many different outcomes I imagine, there’s no way to know for sure who my baby sister would have truly been. And if I’m feeling that way as a sibling, I can only imagine how my mom and dad must feel as parents.

I understand that some people grieving over a baby’s death don’t like to be reminded of their pain and would rather see more “escapist” musicals. That is perfectly valid and understandable. However, I want to give credit to Next to Normal for handling the tragedy in a way that I (and I’m sure many others) can relate to. When a family loses an older child, they must grieve over the loss of a human being they’d grown to know and love; when a family loses a baby, they must grieve over the fact of never knowing who that human being would grow to be.

I’m not sure I’d want a whole flood of shows tackling this topic to come to Broadway. However, I do think the musical theatre scene may have some space for a few more shows that help audiences navigate this particular kind of pain. It’s a heavy topic, but I believe that having characters and stories that ask the same questions we do in real life can be a great way for theatre fans to confront tragedy head-on and work through our grief.

I’m not a parent yet, but Diana and I are both caught in the “What if?” surrounding our respective losses. I, for one, will forever be grateful for the fact that I have a wonderful musical with which to ask these questions.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)