“It’s about older young people from New York City,” Yorkey says an hour later, sitting in the emptied theater with Kitt. “Facing those turning points in life, knowing sometimes those turning points are right there in front of you — and not knowing sometimes.”
If musicals are beginning to be a little bit cool, then Kitt and Yorkey deserve real credit. The popular “Next to Normal,” one of those rare shows to tour nationally with its Broadway star (Alice Ripley), was a searing blend of rock music and recognizable issues as it chronicled a woman’s mental illness and her family’s struggle to cope. First conceived by Kitt and Yorkey in the late 1990s, it flopped off-Broadway in 2008, was reworked at Arena Stage later that year and returned to Manhattan in 2009 for a Broadway triumph. It wasn’t a “feel-good musical,” noted the New York Times. “It’s a feel-everything musical.”
“The composer Tom Kitt,” wrote a different Times critic, “did more than anyone since Jonathan Larson in ‘Rent’ to advance the inevitable integration of rock sound, rhythm and attitude into the Broadway musical.” “Next to Normal” became the first musical since “Rent” to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, earning only the fourth Pulitzer for a musical in the last 50 years.
No wonder Michael Greif, director of “Next to Normal” and now “If/Then,” uses the word “adult” several times as he describes the Kitt-Yorkey stamp.
“Extremely melodic; thoughtful, considered, smart,” says Greif. He adds “fearless,” noting that the writing partnership of Kitt, 39, and Yorkey, 43, goes back to their college days at Columbia University.
“I think they always go back to that well together,” Greif suggests. (He also says that the longtime friends nurture a serious silly streak.)
“I don’t know people who write for the theater who have bigger hearts, and are so willing to write for emotion,” says David Stone, producer of “Next to Normal,” “If/Then,” and something not by Kitt and Yorkey (but starring Menzel) called “Wicked.” “It doesn’t sound like what you’ve heard before.”
That’s part of what made “Next to Normal” a phenomenon. The age of the characters — parents with kids born not 20 years ago — and the roller-coaster passions of the story made rock the dominant idiom. So did Kitt’s affinity for Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, and Yorkey’s undisguised rock star dreams.