Forming "Normal" "Next to Normal" and the American Family

(Image from "Next to Normal" Broadway promotional poster)


"so it's times like these I wonder how I take it, and if other families live the way we do. If they love each other, or if they just fake it"

-Nathalie, Just Another Day

The musical “Next to Normal” focuses on the lives of the Goodman family and their struggle with grief and mental illness. In order to cope with their issues, the family tries to mask their imperfections behind a mask of normalcy. The idea of normal portrayed by the Goodman family is drawn from the ideal nuclear family unit. The nuclear family is an idea that originated in the post-WWII “golden age”, and it persists within American culture as one of the cornerstones of the American dream. In trying to achieve the perfect model of the American family, the Goodmans only manage to push themselves further into misery. Ultimately, the story of the Goodman family highlights the unhealthy nature of using cultural ideals, such as that of the American Dream, in order to solve one’s personal problems. This theme has increasing relevance in the fight against the societal stigma of mental health, and the ongoing struggles of those who suffer from mental illness. This analysis examines the Goodmans’ performance from multiple angles: Through the songs they sing, their actions in-universe, and the way the show is presented to its audience. In answering the main question of this analysis, I hope to connect "Next to Normal" to the concepts of performance, cultural norms, and mental health in America.

How does the Goodman family in "Next to Normal" perform the ideal of the typical American family?

The main characters of "Next to Normal", the Goodman family, consists of four members: Diana, the mother; Dan, the father; Gabe, the son; and Natalie, the daughter. Diana is a stay-at-home mom who does her best to keep the household together and running. Dan is the working man who supports his family through his nonspecific office job. Gabe is a snarky, somewhat rebellious teenager. Through his dialogue, he makes it clear that he doesn’t get along the best with his father, but he’s very close to his mother. Natalie, only a little younger than Gabe, is the intelligent overachiever type. She works hard academically in addition to playing the piano, hoping to get a full-ride scholarship into Yale. Throughout the show, she struggles with a budding romance with a boy from her school. So far, so normal. However, this only describes the family on a very surface level. Diana suffers from severe bipolar disorder and delusions, and her mental illness is the driving force of the story. Dan struggles with trying to support his wife while dealing with his own emotional turmoil. Gabe actually died when he was a baby, and his appearance in the play is born from the parents’ grief, particularly Diana’s. Natalie, having grown up in this unstable environment, struggles to connect with and accept her family and herself. The family does their best to appear like a perfectly normal on the surface level, but beneath it all lies the true struggles shown throughout the play.

(Image by Author)

The idea of “normal” that the Goodman family attempts to perform is heavily based on cultural norms associated with America. Specifically, they attempt to emulate the ideal of the nuclear family structure. The nuclear family structure is a product of the 1950s, when post-WWII America reached a golden age of stability. People married younger, the birth rate increased, and most women settled down as housewives and homemakers. The nuclear family unit became a symbol of this golden age, and it persists as a symbol of the American Dream to this day. Despite its prevalence in American culture, the era of the nuclear unit was actually very short-lived. Due to feminist movements and the licensing of the oral contraceptive known as the Pill, the 1960s created a cultural revolution that led to more “untraditional” family types. Still, many conservatives champion the ideal nuclear family unit, and its performance in media (a prevalent example being the sitcom genre) has led to its continued survival within the American consciousness.

(Image Credit: Pxfuel.com)

The Goodman family, on the outside, fits the mold of the typical American family. The family consists of a married mother and father with two kids. The mother stays at home to take care of the house, and the father goes out to work every day to make money for the family. They even follow the golden age trend of getting married young, due to Diana getting pregnant. This projection of the typical American family is a deliberate performance the family puts on in order to cope with the difficulties in their lives. A prime example of this performance is in the song It’s Gonna Be Good.

Throughout the song, the family asserts that their lives are “good” and as they should be. The song’s bouncy, frantically happy tone and use of repetition shows how the family is trying to present themselves in the rosy, “golden age”, no-problem ideal of the American family. However, by song’s end, the mask falls away once more.

(Image Credit: Anemone123 on Pixabay.com)

Another example of the family attempting to fit the mold of the perfect American family can be seen when Dan is trying to help his wife remember their life together as a family after the treatment for Diana’s disorder causes her to lose her memories. He reminisces about their past, but paints everything in a rosy, perfect light. Dan talks about a beautiful wedding, a cross-country vacation, and their first house in the suburbs. His idealistic retelling of the past highlights elements that embody the middle-class American dream. When Natalie is quick to point out things weren’t as amazing as he claims them to be, Dan brushes off her concerns by claiming this is a chance for them to reshape their lives. In this instance, Dan is trying to push his fantasies of having the perfect family into Diana’s broken memories, an attempt to make make-believe make-belief.

(Image Credit: ArminEP on Pixabay.com)

The idea of the American family is performed not only in-universe, but on the stage as well. Gabe is an integral member of the cast, despite not being “real” within the world of the story. However, his role as a vibrant, active character in the show makes him as real to the audience as he is to Diana. Prior to the scene where Natalie reveals that her brother died before she was even born, Gabe integrates seamlessly into the family’s performance of “normal”. He acts just like a typical teenager. The only hint that he isn’t what he seems is his lack of interactions with the other characters (outside of Diana). However, after the reveal, Gabe’s actions become more fantastical, bordering on sinister. He transforms from an element of the family’s facade into a representation of how this act is eating them alive. Gabe, the son that should be a part of their picture-perfect family, brings the family more suffering the harder they cling to him. Gabe represents the insidious nature of the family’s performance, and how in their struggle to capture the ideal nuclear family, they’re only destroying the happiness they could have.

(Image by Author)

The Goodman family performs the typical American family by trying to capture the rosy, golden-age image of the nuclear family unit that oversaturates American culture. They use this performance to mask their grief and other issues. They use this idea of what an American family “should” be as the benchmark for “normal”, and they desperately try to pretend that they can and have reached this constructed mark. Ultimately, this performance only causes them more pain, as they try to achieve an unreachable ideal instead of working with what they have. In the end, the family is only able to find some level of peace when they stop trying so hard, settling instead for something “next to normal”. The story of the Goodman family has much broader implications within the realm of mental health and familial stability. It shows the unhealthy nature of clinging to cultural ideals, especially ones as transient and variable as the American Dream and nuclear family unit. Performing an idea that doesn’t fit is at best uncomfortable, and at worst can be extremely detrimental to one’s mental health. In such precarious times, especially in America, people should be less concerned about conforming to old cultural ideals and instead chose the structure that is best for them. Mental health issues in particular still face a strong stigma in society, and many people suffer in silence because of this. “Next to Normal” is a message about perseverance, not with the help of American culture, but in spite of it.

(Image Credit: Hans on Pixabay.com)

Works Cited

Kitt, Tom, and Yorkey, Brian. Next to Normal. Stockholms Stadsteater, 2012.

Schechner, Richard. “Ch 2: What Is Performance?” Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2013.

Stanley, Tim. “The Changing Face of the American Family.” History Today, vol. 62, no. 11, Nov. 2012, pp. 10–15. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=83883085&site=ehost-live.

Created By
Tessa Schaap