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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Next to Normal Musical at Booth Theater on BroadwayThe writers wanted it. They began revising the show and it opened in February 2008, at New York’s Second Stage Theatre, an off-Broadway house. “What’s impressive is that Brian and Tom responded as a team,” says Greif. “They took this very seriously.”

Kitt and Yorkey had high expectations for the musical, which was renamed Next to Normal, and they hoped it would transfer quickly to Broadway. But critics zeroed in on the show’s internal confusion. New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley was puzzled: “One minute you’re rolling your eyes; the next, you’re wiping them . . . Though it gives off hot sparks of original wit, the show also sinks into what feels like warmed-over social satire, with detours to the giddy brink of camp.”

There would be no Broadway opening with such reviews. Kitt and Yorkey were ready to call it quits.

“One night after we opened at Second Stage, I gathered everyone together to tell them the show would not move directly to Broadway,” Stone says. “Before the meeting, Brian had asked Michael Greif why we should keep doing this, and Michael said, ‘The choice is letting it go or choosing more life. You always choose life.’” It was a pivotal moment, and the creative team came up with an unusual plan: They would retool the musical and find a new theater outside New York. Getting to Broadway was no longer the goal; they wanted to get the show right.

This wasn’t just a question of tinkering with old material and adding new songs. Kitt and Yorkey finally figured out what they wanted to say in Next to Normal. For starters, they axed the big Costco number; Diana’s nervous breakdown now took place at home, giving the scene a more emotional punch. They eliminated the rock song “Feeling Electric,” which had begun to seem like a flamboyant distraction. “Sometimes you have to cut good things,” says Greif. “You cut them for the sake of the show.” The musical was moving further from its original concept: It was now about pain, grief, and loss, with little standing between the audience and these emotions.

The writers’ own perspectives had also changed. Yorkey had been devastated by the collapse of a long-term relationship. Kitt had tasted bitter failure on Broadway (High Fidelity closed after 14 performances), and would soon become a father. He was living in a new world of adult worry, and his musical, which focuses on parents’ anxieties about their children’s mortality, began to reflect it. A show that once confused audiences with its intentions now spoke compassionately about fraying human relationships and the need to confront bitter truths. Although there was no Hollywood ending, it concluded on a note of hope.

The revamped production moved in December 2008 to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., earning praise from critics. Stone got funding from backers who had previously supported him, and by March 2009 the show had reached Broadway. “Once in a while in the theater you get to say to investors, ‘I need you to do this,’” Stone says. “We simply knew this show was special and had to be seen by a wider audience.”

Driven by surging rock music, Next to Normal tells the dark and unsettling story of Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife whose outwardly normal family struggles to deal with her debilitating illness. Audiences connect emotionally with the characters, including the beleaguered husband, the alienated daughter, and the son who haunts his family. This isn’t exactly The Sound of Music. With scenes of electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, drug overdoses, and marital discord, Next to Normal is closer to the turmoil-ridden dramas of Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee than to the feel-good American musical.

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