After putting on productions of Heathers and Carrie, then a concert version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Riverdale finally went full musical this season with the episode “Next to Normal.” Honestly, a Riverdale episode featuring songs from the angsty millennial theatre nerd favorite Next To Normal couldn’t have come at a better time, because there’s currently a lot of discourse about *another* musical that attempts to talk frankly about mental wellness, Dear Evan Hansen, and this is the perfect antidote. By balancing tonal shifts and using music to portray the grieving process, Riverdale’s Next To Normal episode does what Dear Evan Hansen was trying to do better.
Let me get this out of the way so the helicopter from Miss Saigon doesn’t come to take my Theatre Snob card away from me: while this was a really, really good episode of Riverdale, it wasn’t a great representation of the musical Next To Normal. A lot of the lyrics were changed to accommodate Betty and Alice’s story. I wouldn’t expect anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the original to have any idea what it’s really about after watching Riverdale. But that’s fine! Riverdale wasn’t trying to be a production of Next To Normal; the characters were using the musical’s songs and themes to cope with what they were going through in their own life—specifically the death of Polly Cooper, among other things.
And another caveat I’ll throw in here is that the two musicals, and subsequently the Riverdale episode, are not dealing with 100 percent the same mental wellness issues. Dear Evan Hansen is more specifically about anxiety disorders and Next To Normal the musical is about bipolar disorder. But all three, and Riverdale chiefly, use music to help its characters process their depression and grief.
In Riverdale, specifically with Alice’s plotline, the musical numbers are figments of her own denial and help her escape into a fantasy world as she processes Polly’s death. When she can’t deal anymore, she starts to sing. Betty, who also knows the musical, enters the fantasy and uses singing to try and pull her mother out of it. The music is at times kind of cheesy on purpose, and at other times incredibly poignant. Which is all I wanted out of Dear Evan Hansen, but they dropped the ball at every opportunity.
Ignore how every trick Hollywood employed to make Ben Platt look younger backfired and left him looking ghoulish. Ignore that, unlike Next To Normal‘s hyper-specific lyrics, Dear Evan Hansen‘s lyrics offer generic metaphors and empty platitudes. Dear Evan Hansen takes an antihero plotline we would expect from a character like Sweeney Todd or Seymour Krelborn and tries to turn it into an inspirational “it gets better” moment. The tone is never clear. Songs like “Sincerely Me” in Dear Evan Hansen want to be in a dark teen comedy like Heathers, but then songs like “You Will Be Found” want to be taken seriously, even though the character saying those so-called inspirational words is still half-lying. Evan makes a terrible mistake and gets in over his head in a way that could be played for comedy, but it’s somehow supposed to be both serious as a heart attack and adorkably forgivable at the same time. Pick a friggin’ lane!!
Riverdale, on the other hand, knows how to pull off wild shifts and juxtapositions in tone. They’ve been doing it for five seasons. Fans of the show are beyond used to going from a serious conversation about the SATs to a campy cult meeting and then a lounge performance of a song from the Donnie Darko soundtrack in the span of 42 minutes. So when the CW series uses alternatively peppy and heartfelt music to tell a story about depression, grief, and showing up for your family, that’s nothing! The audience doesn’t experience whiplash. We’re along for the ride. We know which characters we’re supposed to root for and occasionally forgive when they mess up. The songs of Next To Normal, which waver between being sardonically upbeat and grounded, fit that perfectly.
If you enjoyed the Riverdale episode and don’t know anything about Next To Normal, I do recommend checking it out. In the words of Betty Cooper, “it’s actually a really beautiful show” and, like the Riverdale episode itself, is much more capable of dancing with darkness than Dear Evan Hansen.
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