If/Then Interview with Tom Kitt

Luckily for Tom Kitt, he was in his dorm room when opportunity knocked.

If/Then Interview with Tom Kitt
Photo: Concord Publishing

Luckily for Tom Kitt, he was in his dorm room when opportunity knocked. A lovely young woman made him a desperate offer to work on the music for the annual campus show premiering just days later. Though he was an economics major, he said “yes.” The experience generated a new dream for his life which, over the past 20 years, has been realized. Still, Kitt has often wondered about the other life he might have led, the other Tom he might have become, if he hadn’t been inside that dorm room—thoughts that would inspire If/Then, his latest collaboration with lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey.

Their musical about a supremely cautious woman, Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), audaciously leaps over traditional story structures. In the opening number, the character considers the probable outcomes of a simple choice: to help a friend (Anthony Rapp) gather signatures to protest a housing development or listen to music with her new neighbor (LaChanze). The show then magically lets her give each option a shot by splitting her in two, as Liz and Beth, and the proceeding parallel narrative shows how big and small choices like Liz’s agreeing to take the phone number of a handsome war vet (James Snyder), or Beth’s taking a phone call from an old friend (Jerry Dixon), significantly alter the life and personality of each.

Liz and Beth may share an initial resistance to risk, but Kitt and Yorkey embrace it. Like their previous collaboration, Next to Normal, which earned the pair the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, If/Then is a wholly original musical in an era of movie adaptations, revues, and bio-sicals. I sat down with Kitt in early June, when If/Then’s cast album was released, to discuss the choices and serendipities that have shaped his life and work.

If/Then is built on the seemingly random events in someone’s life where everything changes. Can you share the details of your big turning point?

I was at Columbia University. The annual Varsity Show, which is all about campus life, was set to perform on Alumni Weekend. The composer had gone. By the way, he was Eric Garcetti, the new mayor of Los Angeles. So there was no music and this young woman, Rita, knocked on my door and asked if I could help. I was staying around to perform with my a cappella group and someone thought of me. I said if she had a tape of the show, I’d try. And that’s how it all happened for me. Rita became my wife, the mother of my three children, and she introduced me to Brian, who was the lyricist for the Varsity Show.

Had you been involved in theater before that?

Senior year in high school, I acted in Into the Woods, which blew my mind. Sondheim’s score is so gargantuan and beautiful and dramatic. And it’s all about going out into the world and starting to make it on your own, which struck home. So it was a very emotional thing to pour myself into. That, along with the experience of Cabaret when I was 16 at Interlocken, where I was studying classical piano. I had to gather myself after. I’m Jewish so the story struck a chord. To see musical theater do this exciting and moving thing was very visceral.

But what I really wanted to be was a singer-songwriter. That was a major reason to go to college in New York. That dream we all have of performing and an A&R guy just happens to be there. Like when Jon Landau [a music critic at the time] wrote, “I saw rock ‘n’ roll’s future and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau was in the same room as Springsteen and the rest is history. That’s an if/then moment which I wanted for myself. After graduating from Columbia, I put together the Tom Kitt Band and we got signed to a demo deal. We went to L.A. to record at Sony Studios with Thom Panunzio, who, coincidentally, worked on Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town and Born to Run. But after a while, it became obvious to me: It just wasn’t happening.

But the theater part of my life was starting to take off. The two Varsity Shows with Brian had given me a new dream of writing for the theater. I liked creating songs with Brian for people other than myself. I liked affecting people the way I’d been affected.

What did you carry over from one field to the other? What did you have to do differently?

They each have their own forms. A pop song usually comes back to the same lyrics in the final chorus. In theater, the songs have to keep moving. On Next to Normal, Brian and I took two of the songs from my band, “I’m Alive” and “I’ve Been.” We reworked them to make sure whatever build the song had to have dramatically was there. And that’s not just about the lyrics. It can be orchestration. Arrangements. Performance. And there are songs where pop and theater meet. Look at Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” “Jungleland,” “Thunder Road.” The way they change, the way all the different sections come together—that’s theatrical. They get inside you so that you have an almost physical response. Paul Simon is another one. Billy Joel. Their songs are melodic and they build. They have real characters you can empathize with.

And then you orchestrated and arranged the adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot, which was all about creating a piece where rock and theater meet.

The original album was conceived theatrically. It leaps out at you. Every chorus is rousing. Each song tells an individual story, but the entire album has a larger one. It’s dramatic and sweeping. And the emotional content is always there, no matter what form the songs take. Even when the chorus repeats in “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the character needs to keep saying that.

You went back to the music world to do some arrangements on Green Day’s studio album 21st Century Breakdown. It seems that while Elizabeth in If/Then sees things as either/or, you lean toward and/also.

I think it’s important to get outside yourself whatever way you can. And it’s a real compliment when someone thinks I can bring a new element to their music. I just got to work with Billie Joe Armstrong again on These Paper Bullets at Yale Rep. And getting out of my comfort zone can be a wonderful way to come up with new ideas. The more open you can be to different styles or genres, the more you can be true to a character or a moment in the story. Next to Normal is known as a rock musical, but there are also waltzes, classical piano. A rule I try to live by is, “Don’t force the music on the musical.”

How did you figure out what style of music was right for If/Then?

I started with Elizabeth. She’s back in New York looking for her life to begin again, looking to make decisions that are going to put her on the right road, but constantly searching, as we all are. And I wanted the music to evoke that. I also wanted it to feel melodic and romantic and to feel like the city was rising up to meet her. And the other characters as well, expressing themselves in their own unique ways. When we first tried out in D.C., I wasn’t doing enough musically to differentiate between Liz and Beth. People were getting confused, so I created a theme for each. I didn’t want to say Liz is “classical” and Beth is “jazz.” They’re still basically the same person, especially when it begins, so the themes move in similar ways but have different tonalities.

I guess this is why there were just two Broadway musicals this season with original stories. You and Brian Yorkey don’t make it easy for yourselves.

We definitely set out to do something ambitious. We live in New York, where day-by-day random collisions and encounters and near-misses happen. It can be exhausting to think about, and then you don’t live your life. But how interesting to show theatrically how little tiny things don’t just affect you, but a whole group of people around you. We knew to tell that kind of story was going to take a lot of work, for the audience as well. What I hope is that the experience of it, even if you get lost along the way, you pick it back up.

It also helps that the show never feels like an intellectual exercise. There’s so much warmth, not just in the production, but from the audience. Many of them have seen these actors before working together or in pieces of yours.

The show was created to be written about the New York experience we’ve had, for our friends and with our friends. It’s like the Varsity Show at school, where we’d cast people we knew and create it for them. Our cast, every one of them has and will continue to headline their own shows, and I can’t tell you what it means that they’ve all taken on this ensemble piece. They make a room that’s astounding to be in. We’re just trying to write our voice and our passions and ideas. And hope that it translates.

As with Next to Normal, I get lots of emails from people who aren’t only supportive of the work, but share information about their lives and how the show makes them think. That’s why I do this. If I’d had Sondheim’s email or Kander and Ebb’s when I was seeing their shows, I’d have let them know what their work had lit inside of me.

Next to Normal famously changed a tremendous amount en route to Broadway, cutting the mental breakdown at Costco and the electro-shock act-one finale. What was the development process like with this one?

I brought the idea to Brian in 2007. In ’08, we gave the treatment to [producer] David Stone as his Next to Normal opening-night present. Brian says it was because we were broke. David asked, “What do you think about Idina?” He was looking for another project to do with her after Wicked. So we said, “Yes, that would be unbelievable; please make that happen.” And he did.

From the beginning, David had—it’s what makes him such a brilliant producer—the trajectory of the show, in terms of going out of town and coming to Broadway. And that was great because it gave us two deadlines to meet. But it was also nerve-wracking because there was a lot to try to get right with this kind of show. Brian and I are never afraid to throw things out and start again. Twenty-seven songs were dropped from this show. Twenty-seven. There are only 22 in the show. We threw out more than we’ve got.

What gave you the most trouble?

The launch was the biggest thing. Getting the device to work. That took us all the way through previews on Broadway. One of the first things we were taught at the BMI Musical Theatre workshop is to use the Four Questions from Jewish tradition. For this character, why is this night different from all the others? With a story that you’re not adapting, you can easily fall through a rabbit hole and get stuck. Sometimes you’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t want to be solved, so you have to try something else. But “You Learn to Live Without” was in the very first reading, as was “Here I Go,” as was “What the Fuck.”

With every show I work on I hope to get to that point where, when the pencil has to be put down, I don’t feel like picking it up again. Still, every show is a living, breathing thing and I’m open to going back. Last year, we did a concert version of High Fidelity at 54 Below and I did a lot of different things with the director, Leigh Silverman, that seemed to work really well. With Next to Normal, it’s out in the world and people are doing it their own way. It’ll be particularly interesting to see what people will do with If/Then. There are any number of ways you can tell this story.

You seem drawn to stories built around major turning points. American Idiot is to a large extent about turning 20 in the ’90s; High Fidelity, turning 30; and now If/Then, turning 40 and realizing you’re a product of a lot of choices you’ve made, whether you even knew you were making them.

And the choices are getting bigger and bigger and there are more and more of them. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook because I don’t know how I’d manage it all. I have so many things that are pulling my energy, never mind trying to raise three kids and have a career in New York City. You can so easily feel drowned out. With If/Then, we wanted to show how you can so over-think everything today, it can paralyze you. You can make bad decisions and it’s a long road to get back, but if you look at it in a positive way, each day has the possibility for something beautiful. That’s a great thing to sing about.

At the end of the show, Beth sings, “You learn how to love the not-knowing, so here I go.” She chooses to take a chance. I love how Brian did that, because in the first act it’s Liz who sings “Here I Go.” She gets that much earlier. Look, we don’t know how anything’s going to turn out. But maybe if you go to the party, you’ll meet that person. If/then stories are part of this campaign we’re doing. On our website, people are volunteering their own if/then stories. There are so many: “I just happened to spill a drink on someone and now I’m married to them.”

So much of the show deals with issues of choice versus chance. With your family responsibilities and career ops, how do you balance planning where you want your life to go versus being open to taking things as they come?

It’s a combination of material I feel passionate about and things I feel I can lend my voice to. And people that I can’t turn down being in the room with. I feel very, very lucky. Looking ahead, it’s the same thing. Brian and I are working on an adaptation of Freaky Friday. Everyone our age lived that story from the child’s perspective. Now suddenly I have the parent’s POV. We’re also doing Magic Mike, which should be a blast, with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum. We’re doing a movie musical of Sweet Valley High with Diablo Cody. And I’m working with Alanis Morissette on an adaptation of Jagged Little Pill. Those songs are so emotional and visceral. Listening to it at midnight when it all got going, I could barely get off the couch.

Okay, finally, if you hadn’t been around when Rita knocked, how different might you be now? Who’s the Beth to your Elizabeth, the…

Tommy to my Tom? I was an economics major. My father had suggested, in addition to the music studies I was doing and the solo gigs and everything, I should have a major I could fall back on, just in case. He was signed to the Yankees in high school, but he had arm issues. He went back to business school and worked on anti-trust issues. So he knew from experience. I loved economics. It’s a people science. And it relates to a lot of what we do in If/Then. Elizabeth was an economist in an early draft before becoming an urban planner.

As I was getting ready to graduate, all my friends were applying for investment banking jobs. I thought, “I should do that too,” and I got an offer from Morgan Stanley to do public finance. In the Varsity Show Brian and I wrote that year, God and the Devil have a bet over whether your time at Columbia makes you sell out or follow your dreams. And I was living that. I thought, “If I go to Morgan Stanley, I’ll be giving up something very personal. But there’ll be tangible rewards and an exciting lifestyle. But then if I follow this other thing, maybe I’ll be broke or it won’t happen and then maybe it’ll be hard to get back into the financial world.” So I had my Thomas and Tommy moment: I called Morgan Stanley from spring break and said, “I have to turn down your generous offer.”

I want to lead with my heart. I want to do what I’ll never look back on with regret. I’d never look back at following my dream as a foolish decision. But if I’d chosen that road to Morgan Stanley, I’d probably have spent my life wondering, “What if…?”

Jon Magaril

Jon Shear directed, co-wrote, and produced Urbania, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. He teaches at New York University and Columbia University.

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