By Sara Boyd, WCCO

An original musical coming to the Ordway Theater in St. Paul promises to be an emotional journey through the battle of mental illness — one that’s sure to leave an impact.

Just saying the words “mental illness” can conjure up certain emotions. It can be an awkward and uncomfortable topic and though millions suffer with this disorder, there’s a stigma that’s cast over those who fall victim.

Imagine then, bringing this topic to light on stage — and not only on stage, but to music. Emma Hunton had that same reaction — a musical on mental illness? Does that even work? But as Hunton found out, after reading the script and eventually being cast in the touring production, it does. And it does in a way that changes the whole scope of musicals.

“I didn’t know how it would work. Bipolar with singing and musical theater? But I mean, the scripts really stand for themselves and the music is incredible and it’s an emotional, moving story. I think it’s hard not to be affected by it,” Hunton said. “Once you sit down and really watch the material, I think it’s not hard to see why it works so well.”

The story examines the tortures of coping with bipolar disorder, what happens when the medication that’s supposed to help is the reason you’ve lost your sense of self and the struggles to keep a family functioning when the head of it is no longer the same person who helped create it.

The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner “Next to Normal” is a rock musical about a manic-depressive mother’s fight to keep herself — and her family — together. Brought to life from the director of Rent, the production has been called everything from brave and breathtaking to thrilling and gut-wrenching.

Hunton plays Diana’s daughter Natalie, who struggles to deal with her mother’s worsening bipolar disorder. She said even if you don’t have any experience with bipolar disorder or mental illness, everyone can relate to the story in one way or another.

For her, there were times when playing the somewhat overachieving character translated to her own teenage angst and that inevitable embarrassment that only a parent can bring.

Next To Normal

(credit: Ordway Theater)

“I think that every teenager can sort of relate to that ‘Oh my God, my parents’ — and granted this is sort of an extreme situation of that — but every teenager has that moment when they’re trying to be perfect and they’re trying to figure out their own stuff going on and I think there’s always that moment of, ‘Well what I’m doing is much more important than whatever you’ve got going on and I need your help, drop everything, help me,'” she said. “I think that’s what people can relate to.”

Whether it’s that feeling of understanding or perhaps a sense of sympathy for not, Hunton said audiences have really responded positively to what they’re doing.

“People really like it, which isn’t really surprising. It’s surprising how many people can relate to it. We’ve met so many people who either know somebody or personally themselves that have gone through electric shock therapy or who have bipolar disorder,” she said. “I think this makes it so much easier to talk about and it makes it so much less of a taboo thing.”

There are certainly a few scenes that may make people uncomfortable but Hunton said beyond everything else, the show needed to be an educational tool, not just a song-and-dance show. It had to go beyond the entertainment value of a night out, just watching a musical.

“It needs to be a way for people to find out what it is. It can’t be exaggerated or dramatized or sugarcoated,” she said.

“Next to Normal” opens Tuesday and runs through May 22 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts Music Theater. For tickets or more information, click here.