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Originally published April 12, 2010 at 7:24 PM | Page modified April 12, 2010 at 9:52 PM

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Pulitzer-winning play got its start in Issaquah theater

When "Next to Normal" became a hit on Broadway and won three Tony Awards, Issaquah's Village Theatre (where it workshopped) and writer Brian Yorkey thought it couldn't get any better. It has. "Next to Normal" has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the highest accolades in American theater.

Seattle Times theater critic

It wasn't an easy sell at first, an offbeat modern stage musical about a middle-aged housewife struggling with the painful complexities of grief, mental illness, marriage and family life. But Village Theatre in Issaquah took a chance on the show, "Next to Normal," written by its then-associate artistic director, Brian Yorkey.

The Village gave "Normal" its first workshop production in 2005. When it went on to become a hit on Broadway, and win Tony Awards, the theater and Yorkey thought it couldn't get any better.

It has.

"Next to Normal" has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the highest accolades in American theater.

"Never in a million years would we have imagined it," Yorkey says. "When you work in theater, you dream about the Tony, but the Pulitzer feels like something beyond mere mortals."

When Yorkey got the phone call that the play had won the prize, he couldn't quite believe it. His first move was to double-check the Pulitzer Web site: "I had to log on and see for myself."

He said he's especially pleased by the judges' characterization of the play as "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

"That was really gratifying," Yorkey comments, "because it was an unlikely show. Everyone involved with it worked on it because they believed in it, not because it was going to be a big hit."

The award adds luster to the reputation of the Village, a popular Eastside professional playhouse that has a twofold mission: to present well-known Broadway musical, and to nurture and introduce new shows. "Normal" is the eighth musical to win a Pulitzer.

And the prize is another feather in the cap of Yorkey, an amiable writer-director and Issaquah native who created "Next to Normal" with composer and co-lyricist Tom Kitt, and shared a Tony Award with Kitt for its score.

In an interview last year with The Seattle Times, Yorkey said the idea for the musical stemmed from a television news report he'd seen about the positive effects ECT (electroconvulsive shock therapy) was having on some patients with bipolar disorder.

Years later he returned to the subject and began to draft "Next to Normal," consulting with a psychiatrist and a psychologist to create a credible protagonist in Diana, a sympathetically bright and witty woman, whose relationships with her family are strongly affected by her condition.

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After the reading and workshop at the Village, the musical went on to successful Off Broadway and Washington, D.C., runs before opening on Broadway last year to enthusiastic reviews. The New York Times called the show "brave" and "breathtaking." And despite the offbeat subject matter, small cast and lack of conventionally glitzy production values, "Next to Normal" went on to become one of the hits of the 2008-2009 season and win three Tonys. It is still playing at Broadway's Booth Theatre.

"Next to Normal" will tour to Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in early 2011.

Yorkey received Tuesday's news on a work night — "Next to Normal" plays Thursdays-Tuesdays on Broadway — and Yorkey was at the theater, waiting for the actors to come and savor the news with him: "We don't really have plans — the only plan is to do some celebrating."

Seattle Times arts writer Michael Upchurch contributed to this story. Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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