Songs from Musicals: #9, “A Light in the Dark,” from Next to Normal

Honorable mentions: “Light,” “I Am the One”

Next to Normal always stops me when I listen to it; it leads the league in single lines which are breathtaking because the air has been knocked out of you. “A Light in the Dark,” the second song in the first act where a man in Diana’s family tells her to kill herself, features a line that’s practically whispered by Dan and Diana, both at their wits’ ends as to how they can manage Diana’s worsening bipolar disorder. Diana only knows what doesn’t work -pills, therapy, ignoring the problem entirely, etc. – and that there used to be something that did. Dan only knows that there’s a problem to fix, like his wife’s mind is a dripping tap or a flat tire that’s inconveniencing him. And although Diana says, and probably rightly, that Dan doesn’t know how she feels and can’t possibly say that he hurts as much as she does, both of them come up with the same thought as their desperation mounts: “I can’t get through this alone.” A married couple, and both of them feel alone. It makes me wish I were dead, thinking about how two people who used to actively love each other feel like they live in an empty house, utterly unsupported by anyone else. This entire show makes me wish I were dead.

The mental health focus of the show is less important to me now than it was when I was in high school and first listened to it; I find myself fixated on how every man in the show buffets Diana (who, I don’t care how often this show is performed or revived, will always be Alice Ripley). We’ve covered Dan’s immature response to her illness. Her repressed memories of her son try to control her, willing to kill her off if that’s what it takes to maintain control. Her doctors alternately drug her to stability (in one of the play’s weak “gotcha!” moments) or recommend electroshock therapy. Diana leaves Dan just like Nora leaves Torvald, but unlike the Scandinavian prequel, there’s joy in Diana’s packed suitcase. Nora slamming the door is a triumph. Diana’s offhand, “So anyway, I’m leaving” is a statement of independence, independence that Diana hasn’t been able to seize for the entire play. “A Light in the Dark” is the low point of her independence; her husband is more concerned with the state of the family than the state of his wife or, perhaps, thinks that the state of one is the state of the other. In any event, he convinces her to try a medical procedure that you’d have to be insane to want. But while it’s true that he can’t get through it alone, she has no way of knowing. The ballerina, as she said early in Act One, has been getting lifts so often that her legs have atrophied.

“A Light in the Dark” mirrors “Light,” the show’s last song. The darkness is, of course, the focus in the former song. Shadows, small pinpricks of light. And in the latter, “Light” is warming as well as illuminating. The message is clear enough, that one has to yield to the other and then back again. “Light” has one of those breathtaking lyrics, too: “And you find out you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” “A Light in the Dark” is the low point that makes a line like that to resonate bell-like, and which, mercifully, proves it to be true.

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