The Ballad of Kitt & Yorkey

How an unlikely duo made a far-from-normal Broadway splash.

by Josh Getlin Published Fall 2010
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Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey / Photographs by Jörg MeyerApplause breaks out as the lights dim and a piano plays the first haunting bars. Cheers fill the Booth Theatre, a small Broadway house on Shubert Alley. The actors are ready to perform Next to Normal, a critically acclaimed musical, but the audience — more than 800 people — won’t let them begin: They shout, stomp, and clap, delaying the start of the show for nearly three minutes. The players freeze. Should they try to speak over the tumultuous crowd, or just wait it out?

One day in 1998, Brian Yorkey ’93CC, a 27-year-old writer and lyricist, saw a television news story about a woman undergoing electroshock therapy. He was amazed that such a treatment still existed, and found it curious that it was prescribed mostly by male doctors for female patients.

At the time, Yorkey and his collaborator, the 24-year-old composer and singer Tom Kitt ’96CC, were looking for a story idea. The pair had just won admission to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a program in which Broadway veterans mentor younger artists. As part of the curriculum, each team was required to write a 10-minute musical. Yorkey told Kitt about the electroshock story, and a lightbulb went off: Why not write a show about a manic-depressive woman going through this experience, and its impact on her family?

It seemed just the sort of bold attention-grabber that might help two ambitious 20-somethings distinguish themselves in a workshop that had boosted the creators of Ragtime, Avenue Q, and A Chorus Line. Kitt, a Long Islander with an affinity for Billy Joel, composed a rock score, and Yorkey, who grew up under the clouds of Seattle, wrote lyrics that blended a poignant story with sarcastic comments about American life and medical science. Feeling Electric debuted at BMI in 1998.

After their foray at the BMI Workshop, Kitt and Yorkey — the names had an auspicious ring that already sounded like Broadway — spent the next 10 years pursuing other projects independently. Yorkey wrote Making Tracks, an off-Broadway musical, penned the adaptation of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, and turned out several screenplays. Kitt wrote the music to the Broadway show High Fidelity, based on the film, and also was an orchestrator, arranger, musical director, and conductor on American Idiot, Debbie Does Dallas, Urban Cowboy, and 13.

Yet throughout all of that activity, the two men kept returning to Feeling Electric. What began as a 10-minute snippet about a woman on the edge expanded, at one point, to four hours. The rock-musical score bore traces of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, jazz, and folk. In a big production number, the woman, Diana, had a nervous breakdown while shopping at Costco. Later, in the searing “You Don’t Know,” she tells her husband Dan that he couldn’t possibly understand the terror of her bipolar disorder — and who she is:

Do you wake up in the morning
And need help to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries
And feel jealous of the dead?
It’s like living on a cliffside
Not knowing when you’ll dive
Do you know, do you know
What it’s like to die alive?

The revamped Feeling Electric had its first reading in 2002 at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, Washington, where Yorkey had worked as a teenager. From there it traveled to New York clubs for individual performances, returned to Issaquah, and then bounced back to Manhattan, where it was performed in 2005 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a sampler of new productions. Sitting in the audience was David Stone, producer of Wicked, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and The Vagina Monologues.

Stone was impressed with Feeling Electric, but he felt the musical needed work. “I asked Tom and Brian if this was about ideas and science, or about people,” Stone recalls. “It wasn’t fully formed. It had a lot of commentary in it, a lot of clever observations, but I thought this show really wanted to be about an entire family in crisis.”

By now, Tony-nominated, Obie-winning director Michael Greif had joined the team, and Broadway veteran Alice Ripley was in the leading role. Greif, whose credits include Rent and Grey Gardens, shared Stone’s concern: “There was a drive to focus more on the family’s pain and less on a critique about the medical establishment,” he says. “But the writers had to want this.”

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