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A committed Next to Normal fan opens up about his obsession
For reasons I don't entirely understand, I am obsessed with Next to Normal. It goes beyond the fact that the musical is a masterpiece that won a slew of rave reviews and awards, including the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I saw it several times on Broadway, a few additional performances on its first tour stop in my hometown of Los Angeles, and once again on its tour finale in Toronto. I've also attended three different regional productions -- one of which featured a cast that could not agree on the key of the prerecorded accompaniment.
Last year, I discovered that an adaptation of the show had been a huge hit in Buenos Aires (Casi Normales!), and that a special series of concerts was being planned in that city featuring members of both the local and original Broadway casts. So I cashed in my airline miles to fly to the capital of Argentina -- alone.
The long flight gave me plenty of time to obsess over my obsession: Why did I like this show so much? And why did I feel so sheepish about that? I couldn't help but judge myself. After all, most people go to Argentina to see the sights, learn to tango, or hunt Nazis; I was flying over 6,000 miles to see a musical about mental illness that would mostly be in a language I don't understand. Was I crazy?
Buenos Aires was amazing and the packed shows were great, full of nervous energy, even some gaffes, and -- despite being presented as a concert, not a play -- drama. Even with no sets, props, or dialogue; even with the actors using handheld mics, wearing evening attire, and often speaking Spanish, I still got chills.
At the third night's performance (yep, I saw all three of them!), a young Argentinian woman sat next to me. Unlike my neighbors on the previous nights, she spoke English. And she'd seen the last two concerts, too. She couldn't believe I'd come all the way from California. But instead of saying I was crazy, she said I was wonderful.
Nina -- who was nineteen and had a boyfriend working backstage -- exhibited all the unbridled enthusiasm that I had been too ashamed to let out. She introduced me to reviewers from a popular local website called Chapeau Argentina (Argentina Hat!), to the man who had adapted the show for Buenos Aires, and, after the performance, to members of the Argentinian cast. They wanted photos with me! To them, I was part of the story. They weren't embarrassed that I was there; they were honored. They thanked me for coming. This was crazy.
After the concerts wrapped up, it was time to head home, and I figured my international Next to Normal adventure was done. But then at the airport, in the long passport line twisting and turning on itself like a centipede, I spotted Alice Ripley, the Broadway production's original Tony-winning star, inching towards me. OK, now this was crazy.
She passed and then we were in the same straightaway. I had to wait for the queue to twist in order to see her again. Minutes passed. The line moved and finally we were next to each other, separated only by the ribbon of a retractable line divider. I tried to think of something to say and I tried not to stare. I took a breath. I said... nothing. It was that old embarrassment creeping up again.
I figured I had one more S-curve to go. We would only be face-to-face one more time. I thought, this time I'll do it.
But the final stanchions sent the star to the immigration agents as I was left behind waiting. By the time I got my passport stamped, I had lost her. I snaked the obligatory route through the duty-free shop but I didn't see her anymore.
It's just as well, I thought. She performed and I enjoyed. Our transaction was complete. I headed to my gate.
And then, just like that, walking toward me in the concourse was Alice Ripley. I didn't have time to think. I found myself saying, "Excuse me, I just have to tell you: I saw the shows here and you were phenomenal."
"You saw the shows here?" she asked and I nodded. "Where did you come from?"
"And you came here just to see the shows?"
"Yes," I confessed somewhat awkwardly.
In that moment, when she could have recoiled or rolled her eyes or called security, she looked at my face, grabbed my hands, and said, "That's amazing. Thank you."
And then Alice Ripley -- target of my harmless but dedicated admiration, creative genius whose performances have given me chills and laughs and tears -- sat down with me in the low sofas of a Buenos Aires airport bar for a recorded interview. After some pro-forma questions, I asked what had really been on my mind the entire time. "So, just for the record: do you think I'm crazy for having come to Buenos Aires to see Next to Normal?"
"No," she said without hesitating. "Not at all...I'm so pleased and honored and touched that you would go all that way just to take it in. And this is not by accident that we ran into each other."
And in that instant, my embarrassment was gone. I suddenly understood that I didn't need to apologize for emotionally connecting with art. In fact, that is what is required for art to exist. I mean, really: If Alice Ripley was okay with me loving the show this much, then who was I to disagree with her?
Soon after, I walked to the gate, got on the plane, and sat in my seat for the long journey home. Guess which show's cast album I listened to all the way back to LA?
Have you ever been obsessed with a show? Tell us in the comments!
J. Keith van Straaten writes about travel and credit cards for ThePointsGuy.com, and creates puzzles and games as a Senior Writer on NPR's Ask Me Another. He is the creator and co-host of Predict-ament, launching this winter on Geek & Sundry. Please tweet him at @J_Keith if you discover a production of Next to Normal he hasn't seen.
Top photo of van Straaten courtesy of the author. Next to Normal on Broadway photo by Joan Marcus.