Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Abominable Showman: Tom Kitt and American Idiot

Photo Courtesy Type A Marketing

Ain’t nothing like a Pulitzer
Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt sits down for a frank tete-a-tete about the landmark Broadway musical American Idiot – which headlines Quebec City, Montreal, Kitchener, Hamilton and Toronto in early 2014 – and what it feels like to see one’s name up in lights on the Great White Way …
by Richard Burnett 

John Cameron Mitchell famously debuted his drag-punk rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the gloriously rundown Jane Street Theatre in NYC’s West Village back in 1998, the very same venue where Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and conductor Tom Kitt kicked off his sensational Broadway career with a bang back in 2002, working on the raunchy Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, which was adapted from the 1978 porn film that starred Bambi Woods. 

“That was one of my first big shows,” says Kitt who has since gone on to score such musicals as the landmark Next to Normal (for which he won the Pulitzer with his old friend Brian Yorkey, with whom he attended the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop as a team when they were both students at Columbia University) and, of course, the Tony and Grammy-winning rock musical American Idiot, for which Kitt arranged the music of Green Day for the Broadway stage.

The North American national tour of American Idiot – which tells the story of three lifelong friends forced to choose between their dreams and the safety of suburbia in a post 9/11 world – will headline in Quebec City (Jan 2-3, 2014) and Montreal (Jan 4-5) before headlining several cities across Ontario in March 2014.

American Idiot is a wonderful musical and I am so proud to be a part of such a visceral show,” Kitt told me this week.

Olivia Puckett and Jared Nepute (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Kitt also agreed his road to Broadway was not paved with gold.

“It’s tough when you’re young because you die every day knowing how close you are, but you still have to take on jobs just to make money,” says Kitt, now aged 39 and a married father of three. “It’s a very precarious and unsettled time in your life. I often say to people about my 20s [that] I certainly miss being young but that time is a very scary time, doing all the things you have to do to get where you are. Do you want to do all of that again?”

One of Kitt’s many paying-your-dues gigs over the years was playing cocktail piano. “I loved doing that at the Stella del Mare piano bar in Manhattan. This was a special place because there were no set rules on what I had to play,” Kitt recalls. “One night there wasn’t a lot of people in the bar and I felt like playing The White Album [by The Beatles]!”

Then – no pun intended – came Debbie Does Dallas. “That was really validating and energizing!” Kitt says. “The more you can see how [other shows] are run and developed, the better-educated you are when you go into your own show.”

That all paid off when Kitt and Brian Yorkey won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their rock musical Next to Normal, which also won Kitt two Tony Awards, for Best Score (with Yorkey) and Best Orchestrations (with Michael Starobin). 

The first time you see your name in lights, it’s something we romanticize over the years. And for good reason. Because it really is special.

“I remember the moment I heard I was nominated like it was yesterday!” Kitt says. “I’m sitting in my livingroom with my wife and we start screaming, and the phone rang and it’s my agent, and she starts screaming! Then for the Pulitzer, I was actually at rehearsals for American Idiot when [director] Michael Mayer announced to the cast and crew on the God mic that Brian and I had received the Pulitzer for Next to Normal.

So is it just nice to be nominated, or is it better to win?

“Both are wonderful,” Kitt says diplomatically. “Really! Winning is a dream come true, of course, but just to be in that world, [nominated] with other people who are deserving – that’s also a statement about the kind of work that you’re doing.”

Kitt’s degree from Columbia University is actually in economics. “My passion and my dream was always to be a musician: I am a classically-trained pianist since the age of four. By the time I was a teenager I aspired to be a singer-songwriter like Billy Joel and Elton John. Then when I got to college I discovered I wanted to be a composer for the theatre like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. But there are many challenges in pursuing such a life and so I decided to major in something else in case things didn’t work out.”

Kitt adds, “What I tell young people today is to always be prepared for a challenging road, make sure they’re always open and educating themselves, developing the skills that will allow them to do a variety of different things. You just want to keep making progress until someone opens a door and you are ready.”

When that day comes on the Great White Way, Kitt – whose new musical If/Then co-written with Brian Yorkey and starring Tony winner Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked) will open at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Broadway in March 2014 – says there is nothing else like it in the world.

“The first time you see your name in lights, it’s something we romanticize over the years,” Kitt says. “And for good reason. Because it really is special. Thing is, not everything you work on is going to get to Broadway – or necessarily belongs on Broadway. I mean, Debbie Does Dallas was at the Jane Street Theatre, and that was the perfect place for it! But to write a Broadway show and have it play on Broadway? There’s no other feeling like it. Certainly every composer who writes for the musical theatre aspires to that.”

Evenko presents American Idiot at the Grand Theatre de Quebec on Jan 2-3 (click here for tickets), and at Montreal’s Salle Wilfred-Pelletier on Jan 4-5 (click here for tickets). 

The musical then tours several American cities before returning to Canada to headline in Kitchener (March 8), Hamilton (March 9) and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre (March 11-16). Click here for tickets to those shows.

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Read also:  Review of the original Broadway cast album of Mr. Kitt's Next to Normal

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