All human and feline residents involved are safe, and there wasn’t much damage to the building. Ferdinand, who believes even the siren-free garbage truck is a dinosaur, hasn’t come out from under the bed. Our improvised evacuation plan was to shoo all the cats outside and let them take shelter where they could find it. It turns out that, when someone pounds on the front door after midnight, their instincts don’t tell them to head for the hills but instead for the least reachable place in the house. When the fire trucks arrived, I was unsuccessfully prodding an embedded OC as my laptop shifted in the backpack I’d thrown on. As disaster preparedness goes, I think we got somewhere in the B- range, which doesn’t quite cut it.
Standing outside in my bathrobe while AK chatted with the neighbors, I flagged down one of the firefighters and asked him whether I should get the cats out.
“Nah, fire’s out,” he said. “How many cats do you have?”
“Three,” I said, hoping he would post this information on the fire station bulletin board: In case of fire at ___________, rescue three cats: black, orange and miscellaneous.
He whistled. (In our Christmas stocking at AK’s parents’ house, we got a magnet that said: Cats are like potato chips. It’s hard to have just one.) “Did they have a nice Christmas?” he asked.
“Yeah, they got a lot of toys. How was yours?”
He shrugged. “I worked.”
“Lots of tree fires?”
“No, that’s next week when people put them by the curb and kids come by and light them on fire.”
Some things restore your faith in humanity. Some things make you question it.
Last night AK and I saw Next to Normal at the Ahmanson, her Christmas present to me. All I knew was that it was a musical about a bipolar woman. During the opening number, featuring a family of four going about their morning in a stylized three-level set approximating a suburban house, I think both AK and I wondered if we were in for a musical version of some sitcom’s Very Special Episode.
But zaniness was the tip of a devastating and beautifully executed iceberg. I could go on about how the musical is kind to all its characters: the grieving bipolar mother, the exhausted caretaker father, the overachieving but invisible daughter, the diligent therapist. Or how it doesn’t resort to tempting gimmicks, like using the musical medium to stage dreamlike enactments of crazy. Ironically, the show is very un-theatrical about mental illness, depicting how it wears people down rather than blows them up.
It hit me on a level that goes far beyond my ability to critique, though. Maybe a third of the way through the first act, I started sobbing and pretty much only stopped for intermission. I related to being helpless to wild emotion in a way I don’t think I would have three months ago. I haven’t cried like that at any piece of art since the first time I saw Rent and Angel appeared thin and IV-tethered in Act Two. In a way, Next to Normal is an appropriate bookend to Rent (same director, perhaps not coincidentally). Although Rent takes grief and struggle seriously, it also romanticizes them. It dresses them up in rock music and blue vinyl pants. Next to Normal strips them down: This is a musical of white button-down shirts and nondescript hoodies.
But in erasing any gothy delusions about the beauty of death and disease, it shows life at its barest and deepest. We can’t always have peace or stability or togetherness or normalcy, but, as the main character sings, “You don’t have to be happy to be happy to be alive.” The idea that this is the best we might hope for is depressing—and yet, isn’t what we’re left with life itself? Love itself?
As I told AK on the way out, still sniffling into a paper towel pilfered from the Ahmanson bathroom, the message of Rent was that life is fragile. The message of Next to Normal is that life is really, really fragile.