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Prize-winning rock musical tackles tough subjects of family crisis and loss

Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, Next to Normal, opens Nov. 10 at the RKF Studio on Lake Avenue.

With music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this earnest and compelling drama looks at the issues of mental illness, love, loss and coping from a very human perspective, according to IMTF's Andrew Sherman.

He added that the musical utilizes many genres and styles of music, sometimes unpredictably, to tell its story.

The Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation was founded in 2019 by actor and educator Kirby Volz, Leslie Koehlinger Russ and Sherman. It grew out of Volz’s original Summer Theatre Program for high school students, which Sherman attended and worked for in his own younger days.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the fine points of the play and the importance of its timely message with Sherman and lead actor, Jana Debusk, as well as the impact IMTF is making on the local arts scene.

Event Information:

IMTF’s Production, Next to Normal
@ The RFK Studio, Fort Wayne
Nov. 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 12 at 6:00 p.m.
Nov. 19 at 2:00 p.m.

For tickets and more information visit the IMTF website

Julia Meek: Jana Debusk, Andrew Sherman, welcome.

Andrew Sherman: Hello.

Julia Meek: Andrew, would you give us a one sentence storyline of Next to Normal?

Andrew Sherman: Next to Normal follows the character of Diana Goodman, who is dealing with a very strong situation of mental health, almost a crisis that she has been dealing with for about 16 years. And it follows her along her journey, along with her family, to find peace after the death of her young child, which actually to her may still be in the picture.

Julia Meek: So, Jana, what drew you to this play?

Jana Debusk: Well, I saw this originally on Broadway when I was in my 20s. And I was immediately captivated by the show, by the music by the story.

Like I said, I was in my 20s, so I didn't really understand Diana, the way that I do now having my own child who's almost four, and having had a lot more life experience with mental illness, whether it was personal or adjacent, and figuring out how we are all kind of one step away from this character and from these situations. So when I saw that it was coming, I had to audition.

Julia Meek: Specifically, for the role of Diane?

Jana Debusk: Yes.

Julia Meek: Now this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, a very earnest and powerful one, at that. Just how does the content lend itself to the musical format?

Andrew Sherman: Well, the musical format is kind of unpredictable, to be honest. If you read a synopsis of the show, you would not expect to hear the styles of music that it includes.

I think that also goes to show why it's a Pulitzer Prize winning musical, because it includes essence of rock, of folk, of country of jazz, all different genres are included in this, which makes it even that more exciting because, you know, some musicals always are at one tempo or at a certain rhythm that we are hearing.

Through the 30 songs that are in this production, you get a very good variety, where one is a nice soft ballad, but then you're jumping right in with your banjo.

Julia Meek: You certainly have everybody's curiosity piqued there. Andrew to be sure, but take it back one step further.

Andrew Sherman: Sure.

Julia Meek: Having music in the production at all, how does the content work with that?

Andrew Sherman: Anything can be told amplified with music. Where someone can read a book to you, you don't necessarily remember the meaning of that book, or how it impacts you by reading the text. Me personally and with many, that is why music touches the soul more.

So this story is amplified through the music, and how it is told, no matter what genre is being used to tell it. There are some of the deepest moments in the show with some of the most unpredictable genre or styles of music, but that makes you really think about what is in front of you what is on stage.

Julia Meek: That fits in?

Jana Debusk: I absolutely align with and agree with Andrew. I don't think this story could be told without the music. I think it's an integral part of the storytelling.

Andrew Sherman: Yes.

Julia Meek: That's really impactful. So okay, mental health being such a relevant issue and topic, especially post COVID, how do you feel that the genre of musical and as you're describing, a wild and wonderful amount of musical styles that you're representing, that it really does serve to help the cause, spread awareness for the whole mental illness situation and circumstances as well as tell this particular story?

Andrew Sherman: Yeah, it's appropriate that you mentioned COVID. What did most of us do during the peak of that? We sat on our couches, we binge watched TV, or we listened to music.

Music was there for us, it did not go away for us while we sat there in sorrow or in boredom, or trying to find the next craft that we had always wanted to get to.

And when we were working on those things, what was often playing in the background? Music, something to lift our spirits, and I think that it walks hand in hand with this piece of theatre as well.

Julia Meek: And okay, what's the biggest challenge at being convincing in that format?

Jana Debusk: Well, I am playing a woman who is diagnosed bipolar, and I have no personal experience being diagnosed bipolar. However, the ride that this story brings us on really gives to that diagnosis and also challenge.

So I would say the most challenging part of making that real is, what are my parts as a Jana or the human parts that are also in somebody who was diagnosed bipolar?

So I may not be bipolar, of course, but I have absolutely struggled with anxiety, modes of depression as any human in the human experience does. And so I take those parts of the human experience and amplify them to create Diana.

Julia Meek: You're proving that the whole process works really well that way, isn't she Andrew? (chuckles)

Andrew Sherman: Absolutely, yeah.

Julia Meek: And assembling a cast for such, was that difficult?

Andrew Sherman: It was one of the most difficult castings that I have ever had to sit behind the table for. We have produced pretty massive productions at IMTF in the last five years and 30 people doesn't sound like a lot, but 30, when it comes to casting a show for only six people was a lot.

Julia Meek: Almost too much of a good thing?

Andrew Sherman: Tt was. And Jana can attest that at the callback process when we had our seven or eight Diana callbacks, is that that's where we as a production staff really were in the hot seat because it is finding that algorithm that is going to best pay homage to the message that is coming from these authors that wrote this musical.

But Jana and I have both seen the show on Broadway. And after casting the show with my first email to this cast was: I walked out of that theater as a changed person. And however, you know, overzealous that might sound it wasn't I didn't know that a piece of theatre could touch me, in my heart my soul, like this one did. So while we were picking this cast, I had to always put that at the forefront as how am I going to help a cast portray the message of this story to make them feel like I felt when I first saw this,

Julia Meek: It's quite a revelation as well as an admission and you found a way, or you're finding a way?

Andrew Sherman: Absolutely! We are, every rehearsal we are what I call digging deep.

Julia Meek: Good for everyone, including the audience's that are going to be watching this. Now. Let's talk about your organization. Andrew. You've been a part of it growing up through the ranks since you were 14; that was 2007--quite youthful. It was formally Fort Wayne Summer Music Theater?

Andrew Sherman: Yes. So the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre started in 1999. It was just a high school program for students.

Julia Meek: So how and why has it blossomed and rebranded since then?

Andrew Sherman: In 2019, my mentor and second father Kirby Volz, he had done 20 years with it and decided to turn it over. And I had been in youth program for a number of years as a student and then working my way through the production staff of it, and he chose me to take his place.

But I had a goal in mind taking that over was to broaden it and to reach more. So the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre still exists. That is our summer program for high schools. But when I took it over and formed the 501 C three, it was the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation to reach a broader audience and go to year round programming.

Julia Meek: Congratulations. And you also managed to form a performance based partnership with the Russ Koehlinger Foundation during COVID no less. What is that netting both groups by now?

Andrew Sherman: The Russ Koehlinger Foundation is a gem, is a pillar of our organization. They have helped us every step of the way with the facilities that now we call home off, of Lake Avenue.

There's been a partnership, but we took COVID and we ran with that time to develop, especially the infrastructure of the organization, building out the space, putting all of our touches on a brand new 14,000 square foot studio.

The Russ Koehlinger Foundation is a gem to this community and giving back, not only philanthropy but guidance of us small business owners every step of the way.

Julia Meek: And it sounds like build the space or put that space out there and they're gonna come?

Andrew Sherman: Absolutely yeah! Making it versatile to not only be a rehearsal space to create and to feel comfortable in but then to also perform in.

Julia Meek: Fantastic and Jana, interacting now with this entire group, what is your own theatrical past?

Jana Debusk: So I actually have a Bachelor's of fine arts from Western Michigan University for musical theater, and I spent my entire childhood, young adulthood as a musical theater actress. I moved to New York City, I got an agent I did the whole thing. I did off Broadway, I'm sorry, off off Broadway (chuckles) let's be honest. Off off Broadway, and Broadway cabarets, so I have a strong base in the New York theatre community as well. But I have a long and loved history with musical theater.


Julia Meek: Now, in full disclosure, we should also mention that you are quite a student of jazz, a performer of jazz, a composer of jazz to go along with all of that, it's really phenomenal. And you're an internationally accomplished musician in that kind of performance.

Put it all together, obviously have a very musical lifestyle. (chuckles) How's it all working for you right here in Fort Wayne, Indiana and enjoying such outlets as the musical theater on the local level?

Jana Debusk: It's incredible. I love having the versatility to be able to explore in this community, all the ways that I feel music.

And the way it works logistically is you know, obviously, when you're in a rehearsal process, you pause the other projects, and then you go back, it's kind of like a back and forth of where the energy flows. But right now the energy is in Next to Normal.

Julia Meek: That's a great place to be.

Jana Debusk: Yeah.

Julia Meek: Indeed. So the city is rightfully proud of his theatrical sources and resources in history, as we're discussing. How would you say that we compare to other areas our size and scope?

Jana Debusk: I think that fort Wayne's scene is explosive. And it's growing all the time, especially for its size. I know that we are technically the second largest city in Indiana, but it still feels small, in that it's really connected.

I think there's a lot of opportunity. And I think that each year that I've been back, for four years now, it's shown me something else. There are multitudes in this community.

Julia Meek : And you're ready to meet them all.

Jana Debusk: Yes!

Julia Meek: And just what are you and IMTF looking to tackle next Andrew?

Andrew Sherman: That is a loaded question which I can only tease right now. We we announce our full '24 season in December, which will be six shows. Our biggest one of the year is always that Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre one which is for the high school kids.

Last year, we tackled Phantom of the Opera and we were the Indiana premiere for that one, over 4000 people saw that show--thank you, Fort Wayne and everywhere else that came and saw that! So we're not trying to top that production. We are trying to maintain excellence for our students. So we are looking at something that may be along the lines of like a golden age show.

Our production staff is really focused on teaching the students in our program about musical theater that was written before 2005 (chuckles) Because there are so many today's modern day teen actors, musicians that anything before Wicked, they're like what is that?

So we're looking at some older pieces, but just as energetic just as name recognition popular and then for the adult series, we have a real classic yet favorite up our sleeve for next fall. That's all I can say about that one.

Julia Meek: We will not make you divulge anymore (laughs) but we do look forward to being kept posted on that. And it does sound like your high school students even more and more deeper, better and more students, are jumping into the same?

Andrew Sherman: Yeah, we pride ourselves in formatting the summer program. In particular, as like a summer stock. We do shows that are bigger than the high schools would tackle in this area.

And I'm a high school director myself and there's some of these that I wouldn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole unless I had the team in place, the budget in place, etc. But also that goes the same route as the adult shows that we're producing like Next to Normal. It's these pieces that dig deep, that really make people think, that challenge our actors, that make them get into the text and into their connecting into their personal lives. We like to choose those pieces of theatre and will continue to do so.

Julia Meek: We hope so. And Jana, what musical field or world has your attention going forward?

Jana Debusk: Well next in the musical theater world, I will be portraying a character named Grizabella in a musical theater show that I'm not sure is announced yet, but there's lots of animals on stage that meeoowww!

So if you know that very well known musical, you guessed it, it's an animal that meows. And I will be playing Grizabella!

Julia Meek: Everybody has to be giving teasers this interview and that's a great one. (chuckles) Thank you so much, we will be watching.

And, well putting it all together, it sounds like you two and this production, this cast and crew is ready to rock and roll and it will not be too long before we do have Next to Normal ready to be out there for a view. So bottom line, what do you want everyone in those audiences to take away with them when they leave that theater?

Jana Debusk: They take away hope. That is my short and long answer. I hope that they...I hope (chuckles) that they take away a message of optimism for whatever life deals you because life will deal you what it will, as we all know and how you maneuver that is the message.

Julia Meek: And Andrew?

Andrew Sherman: I am just excited to let Fort Wayne experience this story. When we talked about this, and there are still a very large amount of people that say Next to Normal what? And it's one of those that I would say even if you've never heard of it, put a performance date on your calendar.

Come experience this piece of theater, it's captivating, it pulls you in. It's just like a good movie or a good trilogy depending on what your cup of tea is, that will leave you in a different headspace than you came in. Maybe, maybe not for the best but definitely for the better. It can hit home.

It really makes you think and it lets you form some of your own opinions about what you just witnessed. So come experience it.

Julia Meek: Andrew Sherman is executive artistic director of Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation and director of Next to Normal in which Jana Debusk stars. Thank you for sharing the story about the production, you two, have a wonderful showing, carry it on.

Jana Debusk: Thank you.

Andrew Sherman: Thank you so much.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.