Tom Kitt’s Big Year

In January 2009, former Armonk resident Tom Kitt was closing his second Broadway musical after weak ticket sales. (His first lasted 10 days.) Now, he has a Tony, a Pulitzer, and two hit shows on the Great White Way.

Tom Kitt wanted to be the next Billy Joel. He was 13, and he had just moved from Port Washington, Long Island, to the Armonk border (technically Bedford) and started attending Armonk’s Byram Hills High School. A career in theater was nowhere on the horizon.

     He had always played piano, but he’d just taken the classical track. It wasn’t until his family’s relocation that he discovered the world of pop music. “I discovered Billy Joel and the Beatles,” he says. “I mean, I’ve always known the Beatles, but I started playing and performing their songs on piano and singing. I really wanted to be a singer/songwriter.”

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     But first he had some growing up to do. “I had fantastic experiences living in Armonk,” he says. “I really, really loved the area. Long Island, where we’d lived, was very dense, and Armonk just felt more open. I made great friends there, people I still keep in contact with.”

     The attitude seems fitting for someone who—after attending Columbia University and finally being bitten by the theater bug, which replaced those singer/songwriter dreams—spent much of his career working on Broadway musicals that take place in the suburbs. “I think I know the suburbs well,” he says. “As an artist, you always come back to where you’re from and what your life experience is. I’m fortunate that I had a wonderful experience living in Westchester. I can draw on that fruitful and creative educational time when I’m working.”

     His first big Broadway outing—the first featuring all his own songs, with “Music by Tom Kitt” in the Playbill—had nothing to do with the suburbs, though. High Fidelity is all about cities. The book, written by Nick Hornby, was set in London, which was then changed to Chicago for the big-screen film adaptation with John Cusack, and subsequently was relocated once more to New York City for Kitt’s musical.

     On paper, High Fidelity seemed perfect for a Broadway musical adaptation. The book and film had a cool, dedicated following, and the subject matter is all about music. In fact, that’s what Kitt latched on to—in addition to going back to his pop singer/songwriter aspirations—when he wrote the music for the show.

“My overall artistic vision of High Fidelity was that Rob—the main character, who was obsessed with pop music—would express himself throughout the show in the pop music that he loves,” he says. “I wanted to reference as many pop songs as possible but make them original. So you’d say, ‘Oh, that sounds like the Who right there. And there’s Springsteen, and there’s the Beatles, and so on. It’s tricky to pull off because are you able to establish your own voice? I felt like I was and had a ball doing it.”

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     Unfortunately, the show flopped. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “a show that erases itself from your memory even as you watch it” with “a lot of watered-down pop and rock elements.” Audiences didn’t care much for it, either. High Fidelity closed within 10 days.

     Still, Kitt says, “I’m very proud of the work. I loved the show. As an artist, all you can do is put your work out there and hope it’ll be embraced.”

     Kitt’s next big Broadway outing fared a little better. Though he didn’t write the songs for 13—a sweet musical about a young teenager who moves from Manhattan to Indiana and has to negotiate his small-town school’s social life—he was the show’s musical director, in charge of conducting the band and teaching the music to the actors. (The music was written by Parade’s Jason Robert Brown.) This time, reviews ranged from “pre-processed and formulaic” (the New York Times again) to “sheer bliss” (Variety).

    Unfortunately, the better notices weren’t enough, and 13 failed to sell enough tickets to stay afloat. The show closed after 22 previews and 105 regular performances. Kitt believes it was a victim of timing. “They opened that show right in the middle of all that stuff happening on Wall Street with Lehman Brothers and the economy,” he says. “A lot of shows didn’t make it past January.” (It’s been estimated that approximately one-third of Broadway shows closed around that time, in January 2009, including big-ticket productions Grease, Gypsy, Hairspray, Spamalot, Spring Awakening, and Young Frankenstein.)

     Still, he looks back on the production fondly. “13 ran for three months,” he says. “There’s a fantastic cast album. All those kids are going off to do incredible things. And Jason Robert Brown wrote a phenomenal score that is being done all over the country. I look at 13 as a success.”

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     At the time, Kitt couldn’t have guessed that a much bigger success was lurking around the corner. It was a project that reached way back to his college days at Columbia University, when his then-girlfriend (now wife), actress Rita Pietropinto, introduced him to fellow student Brian Yorkey. “My first impression was, ‘Who is this dopey freshman with the backward baseball cap?’” Yorkey recalls. “My second impression, after he sat down at the piano and began to play, was, ‘Holy crap, this guy’s a genius.’”

     The two started a fast friendship and musical partnership, and, after college, they were accepted to the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop as a team. (Some of the creative forces behind A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Avenue Q, and Ragtime are alums of the program.) For their final project, the pair was tasked with creating an original, 10-minute musical. “Brian came to me and said, ‘What about a musical about a woman with severe depression, and the men in her life who are trying to make her well?’” Kitt says. “There was a statistic that jumped out to him that said that seventy percent of all patients who receive electro-convulsive therapy are women, and ninety percent of the people who prescribe it are men. There are lots of reasons for that, but it’s an interesting statistic, and it helped formulate the beginning of the story.”

     The result became the seed for Next to Normal, which the pair kept working on, in-between other projects they took to start their careers and pay the bills. “We just loved it so much that even when we got frustrated, or had other things to turn to, we would always come back to it,” Kitt says. “And we had people who kept us focused and said, ‘You guys have to work. This is something that’s worth finishing.’”

    Unlike High Fidelity, Kitt wasn’t trying to reference other songs or artists with the music for Next to Normal. “Brian and I knew that we wanted it to have a rock sound primarily, even though it’s not one-hundred percent rock,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that whatever was going on, the music was serving the dramatic moment. It works kind of like an opera, where the music is as much a storytelling device as anything else in the show.”

     Also unlike High Fidelity, this time, you wouldn’t assume that Next to Normal would be a hit. It isn’t based on an already-popular property. There are no big-screen stars in the cast. The subject matter—one family’s struggles with its matriarch’s mental illness—is a hard sell, to say the least. Of course, this is the show that, after opening in April 2009, went on to find a larger Broadway audience and is still running today. This time, even the New York Times couldn’t complain, calling it “a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.”

     When the Tony Awards rolled around, Next to Normal racked up 11 nominations, and went home with three trophies—two of which went to Kitt, for Best Score and Best Orchestrations. (The third went to Best Actress winner Alice Ripley.) And while winning a Tony is impressive, what came next was truly a feat: Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “I think I yelled ‘No effing way!’ about fifteen times when David Stone, our producer, called to tell me,” says Kitt.

His shock is understandable, considering that the show wasn’t even nominated for the prize. A jury tasked with recommending the Pulitzer finalists chose three different works: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, and In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl. The members of the larger Pulitzer board went rogue, electing to name Next to Normal the winner instead.

     Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty, the chairman of the drama jury, wasn’t pleased. “In an era in which important new dramatic works rarely get their start in New York, the board’s geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away, is especially disheartening,” he wrote. (“Nor is this intended as a slam against Next to Normal, which deserves a second wind at the box office,” he added. “The musical’s rock score may be generic and its understanding of mental illness simplistic, but there’s a searching emotional quality to the piece.” With friends like that…)

     “All I can say is that anything like this is always really subjective,” Kitt says. “There are incredibly deserving people every year, but, for whatever reason, the process happens a certain way. It’s out of your control.”

     Shortly—just a little over a week—after the huge Pulitzer surprise was announced, Kitt officially opened his next Broadway venture, another musical for which he didn’t write the music himself—but he didn’t mind, because he was a big fan of the original artists. The play, American Idiot, features the music of Green Day. Kitt reworked the band’s songs—mostly from the albums American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown—into a musical about three friends who set off in different directions to start their post-adolescent lives.

     “It’s a different challenge to take an album and open it up theatrically but make sure that you protect it and keep its original intent in tact,” Kitt says. “What’s great is that Green Day has been so supportive of the process. They’re rock stars, but you couldn’t ask for more down-to-earth, real people.”

     American Idiot is also a success, getting positive notices starting with its out-of-town run in Berkeley, California (Green Day HQ). It garnered three Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical. Though the top prize went to Memphis, it brought home the other two (for Scenic Design and Lighting Design), and Green Day and the cast joined together for an explosive performance at the awards show.

     After scoring A Winter’s Tale for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park, Kitt is continuing to blend Broadway with the pop-rock world. He, along with In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and longtime collaborator Amanda Green, are working on a musical adaptation of the Bring It On franchise, which will do an out-of-town run in Atlanta early next year.

     “He’s an excellent collaborator because he loves to play, and he leads with the spirit of ‘best idea in the room wins,’” says Miranda. “When we are working together, there are no egos at work, just a great back-and-forth. Also, his knowledge of music is so encyclopedic, he can pick up any reference you put down—and play it, instantly.”

     Though the songs for Bring It On: The Musical are still in their draft phase, one fan is sure that the score will be catchy. “One thing I don’t think gets mentioned about Tom enough: he writes wonderful melodies,” says Yorkey. “I’m not a sophisticated musician. I like tunes. And Tom writes some of the best tunes out there.”

Tom Kitt brings his singer/songwriter influences to his Broadway scores.

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