Tom Kitt (CC ’96) and Brian Yorkey (CC ’93) just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their musical Next to Normal. The show is now one of just eight musicals to ever receive the award; the most recent being Jonathan Larson’s Rent in 1996. Next to Normal, an emotional rock musical about one woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder and its effect on her family, opened on Broadway in April 2009. The production was highly acclaimed, receiving 11 Tony Award nominations and winning 3 for Best Score (Kitt and Yorkey), Best Orchestrations (Kitt and Michael Starobin), and Best Leading Actress (Alice Ripley).
Columbia was a crucial step in the development for both Kitt and Yorkey. Rita Pietropinto (CC ’93, SoA ’96), Kitt’s future wife and Barnard professor, was an actress in the 99th Annual Varsity Show when their musical director abruptly had to leave the production. Pietropinto asked Kitt to replace him, having heard of his musical talents. In an interview with Columbia College Today, Pietropinto recalls that Kitt was “the most talented thing in the world. I think when most people meet Tom, they say that.” The following year, Pietropinto convinced Kitt to compose the 100th Annual Varsity Show with writer Brian Yorkey (CC ’96). Angels at Columbia: Centennial Approaches was Kitt and Yorkey’s first collaboration. The rest, as they say, is history. As Yorkey explains, “We continued writing, and haven’t stopped since.” Kitt confirms: “As soon as Brian and I wrote our first score together, I knew I wanted to pursue musical theater seriously.”
After graduation, the two were accepted into the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop for musical theatre writers. In 1998, their final project was to write a ten-minute musical. One evening Yorkey was watching a Dateline NBC report about depression and electroshock therapy and was inspired. The unlikely subject became the basis for their mini-musical and a project they would return to many times. Ten years after that first mini-musical, Next to Normal debuted Off-Broadway at Second Stage. After another few months of re-writes, and with the addition of director Michael Greif, the unlikely musical became an unexpected hit.
Kitt says of the writing process: “It was like a jigsaw puzzle: ‘Well, this could work here…’ We had some beats that were married to each other, and moments that we thought would be in the story, but we didn’t go in any strict order.” Yorkey adds: “Which, for the record, we don’t recommend.” The two have spoken of their writing process as very fluid. In a song that is more narrative or expository, Yorkey will often write the lyrics first, after discussing a general style with Kitt. In more emotional numbers, Kitt tends to write the music first. But there is a great deal of collaboration through every step of the way, each artist inspiring and supporting the other.
In 2008, Kitt and Yorkey received the I.A.L Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts, which is given by the Varsity Show to Columbia or Barnard alum who has demonstrated continued commitment to and has found success in the arts. At the gala, they credited much of their success to their time at Columbia, specifically to their experiences at the Varsity Show. As Yorkey explains, “It’s such a great feeling to put that show in front of all your peers, selling out the theatre. I’m really proud of what we did.” Kitt adds that it was while working on the Varsity Show that he first became addicted to “getting that first jolt of excitement, writing a score, working with actors, inspiring people.”
For a look at the Puitzer Prize-winning show, check out Next to Normal‘s performance at the 2009 Tony Awards:
Click here for Columbia College Today’s article on Tom Kitt in December 2006.
Next to Normal is currently running at the Booth Theatre. Student tickets are available for just $30 through Collegetix.
Darcy Zacharias, CC ’10