Normal love

Two stars of Tony hit Next to Normal sound off on musical theater's future

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THEATER Despite widespread critical acclaim, three Tony Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, Next to Normal is something of a tough sell.

"It's a story about a bipolar mother and how her family deals with her disease," Curt Hansen explains, "and how it affects the kids, and how they also contribute to the disease."

Hansen plays Gabe, the seemingly perfect son of afflicted mother Diana. As one of Next to Normal's seven characters — performed by only six actors — Hansen has a pivotal role in the show.

"I can't give everything away, but [Gabe's] just this golden boy," Hansen offers. "Everything [his mother] wanted him to be, he became."

Meanwhile, Diana's other child is neglected. Emma Hunton plays Natalie, the gifted, underappreciated, and frequently frustrated daughter.

"It's such a great role for a young girl," she says. "There's not a whole lot of that going on right now in New York, at least not currently running on Broadway."

Hunton embraces the challenges of portraying such a complex character in a multilayered piece. "I think everybody in their teens goes through that phase of 'I'm angry at you, but I don't have a reason to be, so I'm just going to be pissy,' *" she says. "[Natalie's] is actually warranted, so it's hard to flesh out when she's just being an annoying teenager and when she's actually hurting."

Hansen and Hunton are relatively new additions to the cast: they join the national tour alongside Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Diana on Broadway. Both actors faced a daunting challenge in taking over for the actors who originated their roles. Aaron Tveit and Jennifer Damiano received adulation and awards in their respective parts as Gabe and Natalie.

The trick, Hansen says, is to bring something unique to the role instead of trying to replicate the original.

"I was able to make it my own, and I think not having any contact with [Tveit] and finding it on my own has been a great thing," he relates. "That's ultimately what actors want to be doing — doing their own thing rather than just kind of copying."

Hunton faced an even odder challenge as an offstage friend of Damiano's. In order to provide her own interpretation of Natalie, she made sure to audition with a blank slate. "I hadn't seen Next to Normal before I booked the role," she says. "Once I had finally gotten the audition, I didn't want to go in and do exactly what Jen had done."

Both actors credit Ripley with helping them ease into the show. Although the Tony winner spent months working and bonding with the original Broadway cast, she has had no trouble adapting to her current costars. Hansen and Hunton explain that her dynamic performance gives them more freedom to explore.

"She is so amazing just to watch every night on stage," Hansen says. "She's so open and receptive of new things. Every show is different in some way, and I think she creates such a great atmosphere because she is so receptive."

He elaborates, "I feel more confident because if I do a little something different, I know that she'll take it and go with it, rather than putting up a wall."

Devoted Next to Normal fans have also responded well to the touring cast. Hunton, who maintains an active Twitter account, hears from enthusiastic theatergoers on a regular basis.

"Sometimes it's very overwhelming and I won't look at what's been [tweeted] at me," she admits. "Because they're so, so nice, and you never want it to go to your head. If I read those every day, I'd think I was the cat's pajamas."

She also jokes about the effect Hansen has on audiences.

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