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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Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley, and J. Robert Spencer in the original cast of Next to Normal.It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon, and Kitt and Yorkey are relaxing at a back table in Angus McIndoe, a brick-lined bar and bistro in the heart of Broadway’s hubbub. It’s next to the St. James Theatre, down the street from Sardi’s, and a 30-second walk from the Booth, where a matinee performance of Next to Normal is under way. Kitt, 37, lean and dark-haired, and Yorkey, 39, husky with a bushy graying beard, both nurse tall glasses of iced tea.

“There’s a big difference between being 27 and 37,” says Yorkey, explaining the evolution of the show. “When we were in our 20s, irony was a big thing. Being snarky comes easily when you’re that age and think you’re smarter than everyone else. It’s much more of a risk to open up your heart to something that’s painful.”

Kitt and Yorkey met at Columbia in the spring of 1994. Yorkey, an aspiring dramatist, was determined to get a liberal arts education, and chose Columbia because it didn’t offer the distraction of a theater major. Kitt picked Columbia mainly because it was in New York, where he hoped to get a record deal as a singer-songwriter. Both were involved in campus performance. Yorkey wrote lyrics for the Varsity Show and worked at Miller Theatre for several years after his graduation. Kitt joined the Kingsmen, a popular a cappella group.

One of the Varsity Show’s organizers, Rita Pietropinto-Kitt ’93CC, ’96SOA, who was president of her class, decided that Kitt and Yorkey might work well as a team. Just as a young Richard Rodgers ’23CC and Lorenz Hart ’16JRN had collaborated for the first time on songs for the 1920 Varsity Show Fly With Me, Kitt and Yorkey wrote material for the 100th edition of Columbia’s undergraduate production, which parodied the University’s history. Their first joint effort was a rockabilly song, “The Great Columbia Riot” of 1968:

Gather round, my flowered friends,
As I play my cool guitar.
The oppressive imperialistic racist militaristic school we attend
has gone one step too far.

I’ll tell a tale, my cheerful chums
to make your faces dark —
of plans for an evil gymnasium . . .
in beautiful Morningside Park.

But we won’t just mourn Morningside
and cower down in fear.
Put that gym in Princeton!
We like our small one here.

“They had a chemistry that was unmistakable,” says Pietropinto-Kitt, who married Kitt several years later and is now an actress and chair of the drama department at the Marymount School. “This was the birth of their collaboration.”

Their working style was fluid and flexible. Sometimes the lyrics came first, dictating a musical moment; sometimes music defined a scene, and Yorkey wrote words to match it. On occasion both men sat down at a piano together and wrote songs spontaneously.

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