All in The Family For Next To Normal

Jun 15, 2009 By Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Set designer Mark Wendland and lighting designer Kevin Adams on the Broadway production of Next to Normal

“The story of Next To Normal takes you to all of the rooms in a suburban home, a couple of doctors’ offices, the daughter’s school, her boyfriend’s house, several locations in a hospital, and a lot of the action takes the characters to different locations simultaneously,” says set designer Mark Wendland of the Broadway production, who, along with lighting designer Kevin Adams, was nominated for a Tony for his work on this rock opera set in the suburbs (which earned a total of 11 Tony nominations). Brian Ronan designed the sound and Jeff Mashie, the costumes.

“Director Michael Greif and I felt like the job of the set was to take us as fluidly as possible from scene to scene,” Wendland explains. “The props and some photographic panels helped to focus scenes and indicate a sense of time and place, but the overall abstract framework allowed for an approach to the staging where anything could happen.”

The rock score reflects the emotional arc of the story: “We wanted to make a world where rock music could feel natural but be able to seamlessly transform for the ballads,” notes Wendland. “A lot of the visual energy of the show is in the movement from big visual moments, where the whole stage is filled with action, to small intimate moments. With only six actors in the show, simplicity seemed appropriate, but we snuck in a little spectacle. The set, I hope, works as a kind of playground for the actors, giving the audience just enough to understand the story but leaves a bit for the imagination.”

Wendland and Adams frequently work together. “Our common experiences and sensibilities make for a great process,” Wendland points out. “We can really look at a text and ask each other what we think the visual journey will be. Plus, he’s incredibly sensitive to music and space and color; I feel safe making simple choices that I know he will fill in beautifully. That safe feeling allows you to stick your neck out a little farther than you might have otherwise.”

For Adams, this production continues his series of “pop/rock light bulb musicals,” creating a trilogy, of sorts, which also comprises Spring Awakening and Passing Strange. Similarly to those two shows, the set for Next To Normal contains many fluorescent bulbs used as sculptural objects as well as illuminative devices. “This show was done soon after the Off Broadway production of Passing Strange [which later went to Broadway], and I told Mark I was interested in dismantling the flat plane of the large Passing Strange wall into multiple, flat planes,” says Adams, who was also interested in exploring long lines made of light bulbs. “Mark turned this into two ceilings of colored compact fluorescent light bulbs and clear MR16 bulbs as well as a three-story gridded plane of clear MR16 bulbs that act as audience blinders.”

The stage area is not very deep, and Adams hung the entire plot downstage of the three-story set structure, with the only lighting upstage being the fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs that are located in the set itself. “It’s a heavy frontlit show, and we added six tungsten [Vari-Lite] VL1000 units front-of-house to make up for the shortage of front positions in the Helen Hayes, as well as add new specials to the show as needed,” says Adams, who lit the upstage white cyc with Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast® and ColorBlaze® units on the sides and in the deck. “These versatile units, which are the same as I used to light the large back wall of Hair, allow me to put moving light on the cyc, mix a wide range of saturated colors, and light the entire cyc as well as small sections,” he notes.

“Audiences really connect with the story of this family,” says Wendland. “The creative team worked to cut away anything that got in the way of honestly telling that story and worked to fill in pieces of the family’s story that were missing.”